Major pharmaceutical drug crops are a strange sight amongst the family farms and peanut crops of Queensland's South Burnett region.
Key points:Pharmaceutical companies have used the Duboisia plant for its drug content for decadesFarmers say they sign "controlling" and exclusive contracts to enter the secretive industryQld's South Burnett region is a major global supplier of the crop
The winding rows of native Duboisia shrubs snake through red volcanic soils on a massive scale.
Global pharmaceutical companies have quietly built a lucrative supply chain from the town of Kingaroy for decades.
"For a long time there were a lot of secrets kept about Duboisia, for whatever reason I don't know, because I saw there was no value in keeping things quiet," former grower Russell Exelby said.
Duboisia leaves contain the drug hyoscine, which is highly sought after for use in over-the-counter motion sickness and stomach pain medications.
A local Duboisia grower, speaking to the ABC on the condition of anonymity because of financial risk, said not even farmers knew much about the opaque supply chain of the drug companies.
"Once it leaves the farm gate, you don't have any idea of what's going on, so yeah, [it is a] very secretive industry and very controlling," the farmer said.
"There's no price we can see as growers, we can't see supply and demand, we have no idea of how much is being produced, how much is used in manufacturing each year, so there's no visibility from the farm gate."
Locals half jokingly call the Duboisia industry the "Kingaroy Mafia".
Not too far from Kingaroy, barbed wire fences and countless cameras encircle Alkaloids of Australia's processing facility, typifying an industry of trade secrets and fierce competition.
The alleged drug cartel
The Australian-owned company and its former export manager, Christopher Joyce, face 33 criminal cartel charges following an Australian Competition and Consumer Commission investigation.
The ACCC alleges Alkaloids of Australia and other overseas suppliers of scopolamine fixed prices and restricted the chemical supply to international manufacturers from 2009 when criminal cartel laws came into force in Australia.
Mr Joyce has pleaded guilty to some charges and will be sentenced in the Australian Federal Court. Alkaloids of Australia is yet to enter a plea.
"The specific purpose of most cartels is to increase the profits of the cartel members by agreeing to act together instead of competing with each other," ACCC chair Rod Sims said in a statement.
“This is the first guilty plea by an individual to criminal cartel conduct under the criminal cartel laws."
The maximum corporate penalty for each criminal offence is $10 million, and an individual may be sentenced to up to 10 years' imprisonment or fined $420,000.
The ACCC declined to make further comments while the matter was before the court.
Hidden in plain sight
The modern industry began during the World War II when the allied forces needed a source of hyoscine to treat air and seasickness in soldiers.
It began as a foraging industry in which enterprising Kingaroy locals would collect wild Duboisia from the bush.
Mr Exelby has childhood memories of his father stomping into the scrub armed with a cane knife.
"The farmers used to, just as supplementary income, cut the Duboisia trees, obviously harvesting them for the drug content in the leaves, and that was the way the industry started," he said.
As the industry matured, pharmaceutical companies established breeding programs and varieties with much a higher drug content than their wild predecessors.
The industry is now tightly controlled by overseas interests, most of which are India-based pharmaceutical companies.
At the peak of his farming, Mr Exelby exported hundreds of tonnes of leaf to pharmaceutical companies in India.
"The crop gets grown here, goes overseas and then all the market is in India," Mr Exelby said.
"At one stage, I'd be taking two or three calls a week from India from companies wanting to get into the Duboisia industry."
For many years, Mr Exelby said the South Burnett had been a key production area for the world's hyoscine supply thanks to the native crop thriving in the region's red volcanic soils and climate.
The devil's breath
Hyoscine, the drug produced in Duboisia leaves, is an alkaloid substance related to morphine, cocaine and nicotine.
University of Queensland School of Pharmacy associate professor Kathryn Steadman said the drug had a potent and dissociative effect on the human body.
"You get initially very dry mouthed, you get very sleepy, and if you take even more than that, it will give you hallucinations, and it has amnesic properties, so you'll forget the whole experience," she said.
Duboisia has a long history in Indigenous culture and was observed as being used in shamanistic rituals.
Hyoscine is found in other plants abroad and has the nickname "devil's breath".
The narcotic has become the subject of many urban myths including about it being used as a date rape drug and as truth serum for interrogations.
Dr Steadman said small doses had the beneficial effect of easing gastronomical discomfort or motion sickness.
"It's very, very powerful, and you need tiny quantities of it to get an effect," she said.
Very high doses cause respiratory failure and death.
In the past, South Burnett farmworkers have unwittingly overdosed by handling Duboisia leaves with bare hands.
Locals call it "getting corked", a throwback to the plant's old name of "corkwood".
Mr Exelby said there were plenty of strange stories over the years, including naked men scaling the flagpole at the post office.
"This particular day, my dad and his friend got well and truly 'corked', and Dad finished up in the Wondai Hospital, and all he could say is 'Mumma' and 'Dadda'," he said.
"It is potent and it's not to be messed with. In the pure form, it's deadly."
A culture of secrecy
The ABC contacted several Duboisia companies and growers to discuss the industry, and all declined to comment, did not respond or were not available.
Ian Crosthwaite, a retired agronomist with 20 years of experience in the Duboisia industry, said it had always been opaque and was becoming even more so.
Farmers are separated into "buyer groups" contracted to supply certain Duboisia companies.
They grow specific varieties, use shared harvesting equipment and do not associate with other buyer groups.
They are not easy to join.
"If a grower decides to grow Duboisia, he goes to the company that is going to buy the product and says, 'Do you need more leaf?' and if they say, 'Yes,' they'll be incorporated into that group and it will supply that grower with the cuttings they need to plant the crop," Mr Crosthwaite said.
"If someone is growing wheat, they can just go and buy some wheat seed, plant it and harvest a crop and look round for a market. The Duboisia industry does not work like that."
To join a buyer group, the anonymous grower said, farmers had to sign "controlling" and exclusive supply contracts.
"You're forced to really sell it to a handful of companies, and that's probably the biggest issue — is just the lack of markets to sell it to. There are no other options, so you basically have to accept their terms and conditions and supply them. And if you don't like it, you get out of the industry," the grower said.
"It's not very fair, but I guess when you sign up to grow it, you're aware that's the way the industry has always been."
Mr Crosthwaite said each company was protective of their competitive edge, and much of that came from expensive breeding programs and varieties.
"They'll register the DNA of those plants, so if they think it's grown somewhere else it shouldn't be, they can get those varieties tested to see what they are," he said.
"They're in a very, very competitive world and so any marketing edge or any edge they can get, they will keep that."
A newer trend to emerge in the Duboisia industry is "vertical integration".
Pharmaceutical companies are increasingly buying farmland in the South Burnett to grow their own crops and do away with contracted growers.
The anonymous grower said the trend did not bode well for the future of local growers.
"The actual local Australian growers are getting pushed out and the companies are all vertically integrating and buying their own farms and getting control of the whole supply chain from the farm gate to the finished product," the grower said.
Mr Exelby is comfortably retired and enjoys a view of the weaving Duboisia crops and farmlands from his back veranda.
"The Duboisia industry has been good to us," he said.
The sentiment is shared by others that have quietly profited from the deep pockets of big pharma for many years.
Watch this story on ABC TV's Landline at 12:30pm on Sunday, or on iview.
Posted 12 Nov 202112 Nov 2021Fri 12 Nov 2021 at 5:49pm, updated 12 Nov 202112 Nov 2021Fri 12 Nov 2021 at 11:54pmShareCopy linkFacebookTwitterArticle share optionsShare this onFacebookTwitterLinkedInSend this byEmailMessengerCopy linkWhatsApp