February 19, 2014  |  Second Reading

Drugs, Poisons and Controlled Substances (Poppy Cultivation and Processing) Amendment Bill 2013

Mr HOWARD (Ballarat  East)— I too am pleased to  speak  on this bill and am very  supportive of the  proposal before the house.  The possibility of  growing opium poppies,  which  are in  fact  alkaloid  poppies, was  considered  in this country some years ago.  In 1971  Tasmania took  up that  opportunity and put in place the appropriate controls to enable poppies to be successfully grown.

Tasmania is  the only state that has gone through this process,  which means  it has  had the  jump on  other  Australian  states.  People  such  as me  who have travelled to Tasmania in summer  will have seen the beautiful poppy crops coming into flower and looking quite spectacular. This adds to the touristic experience in Tasmania as well as providing  an  important  product for the therapeutic and health industries, which is in high demand. Poppies are  a  high-value crop that has been grown  successfully in  Tasmania for over 40 years. In recent times the growers  of those crops, or the people in the industry, have realised that there is both an opportunity and a need to consider in which other states in Australia the poppies can be grown successfully.

They are a cool weather crop and an annual crop that has been grown successfully in  Tasmania.  People  had initial  concerns  about  the growing  of  poppies in Tasmania. People asked, ‘How could you grow these crops? It is a drug.

What  is going  to stop  people piling over  fences where  the crops  are grown, harvesting the crops or pinching the  drugs  and using them for personal illicit purposes?’.  However,  that has not occurred in Tasmania.  It  has  not  been  a serious threat,  and the industry has  been developed in a  sensible, controlled manner. The concerns raised in the 1970s have not come to fruition.

The other interesting thing about the  growing  of  alkaloid poppies is that the product derived from them has  been processed in in the Portland area of Victoria for many years. This has required the crop to be harvested in Tasmania and then  transported to Portland, where it has been processed.  It is sensible to  consider growing the crop in  a state other  than  Tasmania  because  growing  it  in  one  state  means that if something  happens to the industry there — for example, a bad year for the crop —  the entire  Australian crop  will be  affected. Having  the crop  grown in a different state with a different  environment and weather  conditions is clearly going to  be a benefit to those relying on the crop. Victoria, where the crop is processed, is obviously a sensible place to grow it.

Victoria’s environmental conditions are considered to  be  quite appropriate for growing poppies, so I am pleased that the minister was receptive when approached by the  companies involved in using these crops in  production. In  fact it  has been proposed that the poppies be grown in areas near where I live.

The  Ascot area is one potential site, and there are other potential  sites down towards   the   Western   District.   That   provides  significant   alternative opportunities for farmers in my region as well as other parts of Victoria.

In my region, in the area where they are  considering  growing  poppies, farmers have been growing  potatoes extensively over recent  years and are  beholden  to just one or two companies — in particular McCain — to purchase those potatoes. As McCain has cut back  on its  requirements, our  farmers have been looking for other  crops that  can be grown successfully in the area to provide good returns and use the facilities they already have — for example,  for irrigation  and so on. I  have noticed  that pyrethrum  has been  grown  in my  area in  increasing quantities in  recent  years. The  alkaloid  poppy crop will  clearly  provide a significant  opportunity  for  farmers  in  my region and in other areas of  the state. I am pleased that with the passing of this legislation we will be able to give that opportunity to our farmers in Victoria.

It is  not just the farmers  who benefit when successful new  crops are grown; a number of other people involved in the industry can also benefit — for example, people  in the transport sector. I was pleased to have a briefing on this matter from  the  company  involved with growing poppies last year and  that  when  the minister was approached he was supportive.

With legislation  such  as  this  we  must  ensure that  there  are  appropriate safeguards  because  these poppies will  be  used to  produce  a  narcotic drug; therefore we need to ensure that the learnings  from  Tasmania  are  heeded. The secretary  of  the department will  have  the opportunity  to  look  at growers’ licence applications as they come forward. If  it  is thought to be appropriate, applications can be refused, suspended, cancelled or renewed. This bill will put in place an appropriate licensing system under which the crops can be grown.

Farmers  who  wish  to  grow  the  crops  will  need  to  look  closely  at  the requirements,  but they will be clearly explained to them when they go to access the seed. The growing of poppies is closely controlled by those who  control the seeds, and the poppies are  generally  grown  under contract to the company that will process the plants.

In talking with the proponents of this project I was interested to learn that it is not the seeds of the poppy that are processed to  produce the product but the straw of  the poppy, particularly the section just below the head, and the  head of  the poppy,  rather  than  the  seeds.  I  expect  many  people  will  have a misapprehension about  that and will believe it is the seeds that are the source of codeine, the alkaloid that is used in the drugs produced from the poppies.

As a former  student of agricultural science, it has certainly  been interesting for me to learn a little bit more about this crop, to gain a bit more background on the matter  and  to  understand  the issues associated with growing the poppy crops as it has been practised in Tasmania for some time.

I  am  pleased to see  that  with this legislation  Victorian farmers, including those in the region  where  I live, will in  the  future have an opportunity  to consider growing this crop. I  am  confident  this  will  be  a  very successful industry  in Victoria  that  will  provide  great  opportunities  for our  rural communities. I am always pleased to see such  options  coming  forward for rural communities. We know some of the options  that have been put forward in the past in  terms  of growing alternative crops or raising different animals — such  as ostriches — to expand the sector have failed miserably. A range  of things have been tried over the years, but I  think this one can be a winner, and I am fully supportive of it.