Johnson & Johnson, as American as apple pie and Coca Cola. The American corporation that was founded in 1886 has provided generations of American homes with consumer staples such as baby care products, toiletries, and wound care products….and opioids. Most people associate Purdue Pharma with the opioid crisis that has ravaged parts of this country for years, but Johnson & Johnson also played a huge role in the crisis.

In the mid-1990’s, while the opioid crisis was already taking wing, Johnson & Johnson embarked upon a new business: the cultivation of poppies in Tasmania. Johnson & Johnson scientists genetically modified poppy plants, engineering “super poppies” that produced abundant opiates. Rewarding farmers in Tasmania, where the super poppies were grown, with handsome prices and incentives, such as luxury cars, Johnson & Johnson cultivated a new business through its subsidiaries. The poppies became a boom crop for the tiny island state of Tasmania. And the scientist who discovered the way to genetically modify the poppies was celebrated by Johnson & Johnson. The company gave that scientist the highest science award offered by Johnson & Johnson in the year 2000, “for the Invention of the Thebaine Alkaloid ‘Norman’ Poppy.”

The poppies—grown on thousands of Tasmanian acers– were exported to the U.S. under Drug Enforcement Administration approval. The poppies were then refined by the subsidiaries into oxycodone and hydrocodone powders that were shipped to U.S. pill makers…. such as Purdue Pharma, which become one of the first major customers for the Johnson & Johnson product.

Farming poppies for the drug trade – legal and illegal – is nothing new.  What was new was the genetically modified super poppy. The super poppy, having a much higher concentration of thebaine, the opiate from which oxycodone and hydrocodone is made, set the super poppy apart. The super poppy was also engineered to make the purification process easier. The result was that the manufacture of the opiate was made faster, simpler, and cheaper, with the end result of a market that was flooded with cheap prescription opiates.

Johnson & Johnson’s development and cultivation of the super poppy transformed the production of oxycodone and hydrocodone, two of the most abused opiates in the United States. Court documents in an Oklahoma opioid trial revealed that the Johnson & Johnson product dominated the opioid business. Experts contend that were it not for the development of the super poppy, the opioid crisis would not have become the crisis it became. The super poppy created a cheap and plentiful supply of the crystalline powder, the refined poppy product produced by Johnson & Johnson subsidiaries and sold to pill makers.

Johnson & Johnson pushed regulators to relax rules and bent rules where it could, lobbied governments to change regulations and quotas, incentivized Tasmanian farmers with money and luxury items, and engaged in deceptive marketing (e.g., maintaining that opioids are “rarely addictive”). In effect, Johnson & Johnson created a demand for the drugs by making them cheap and readily available and then pushing their prescription.

There is yet another side of this story that may be interest to those who want to dig deeper: The DEA and other government authorities bowed to Johnson & Johnson requests, allowing the production quota for these drugs to increase many times over between 1994 and 2015.

Sometimes the drug dealers are trusted institutions. For everyone else, Orange County criminal defense attorney William Weinberg offers his 25+ years of expertise in defending those accused of a criminal offense. If you have been charged with a crime, Mr. Weinberg is available for a free consultation to discuss your matter. You may contact him at 949-474-8008 or by email at bill@williamweinberg.com