Opium Poppy

Opium Poppy

Once in the dream of a night I stood
Lone in the light of a magical wood,
Soul-deep in visions that poppy-like sprang;
And spirits of Truth were the birds that sang,
And spirits of Love were the stars that glowed,
And spirits of Peace were the streams that flowed
In that magical wood in the land of sleep.

-Sarojini Naidu

Opium Poppy Down our alley, on a stepped hillside of stacked concrete with just a little soil between each "stair," a veritable forest of tall bright red opium poppies have naturalized, self-seeding every year.

When in full flower in June, it's amazingly beautiful down that alley, & even the pods afterward (shown below well-dried in September) are gorgeous. As for getting any opium from them, fat chance, the environment isn't right for it. Opium poppies grown in American gardens are worthless for purposes of drug use or abuse, & so really no reason to have laws against them.

And yet technically Papaver somniferum does apepar to be illegal in the United States, since it is the species from which opium is manufactured, & the Controlled Substance Act fails to make any clear distinction between ornamental opium poppies & poppies grown for illegal uses.

The Controlled Substance Act is unnecessarily complicated, however, & interpretting it would take a batter of lawyers, then a judge to toss a coin. In the Act's 1996 text, Schedule I does not actually list opium poppies specifically as illegal, so they should be legally sold & gardened.

But Schedule II lists them among plants having a "potential for abuse," thus justifying legal actions, even though Schedule II is not the prosecutable part of the Act.

The Act further includes legal specific milligram measurements for the alkaloids (90 milligrams per dosage unit, with an equal or greater quantity of an isoquinoline alkaloid of opium). These have to be reached or exceeded for opium to become illegal to possess, & our garden plants don't reach that level no way no how. Therefore legal. But...

Opium PoppySome of the Act applies to import & export but not home gardening, so that in England at the DEA's request, most seed vendors have voluntarily stopped sending the seeds to the US, though it is not clear that the law really prohibits it.

The Act also has a section of definitions, which again are not the prosecutable part of the Act, but comes off condemnatory without acknowledging that opium poppy cultivars for the garden cannot be a source of opiates. Opium poppies or opium straw are defined in the Act as any part of the poppy "except the seeds" leading to the widespread belief that growing the poppies is illegal but having the seeds (generally for use in cooking breads & pastries) is legal.

Like too many laws on the books, the authors' poor writing ability leave too much open to interpretation, but it remains that in Schedule I the law fails to distinguish culinary or ornamental use from use as an opiate. And it means if some moronic police officer wanted to rip out poppies in your garden & arrest you, he'd probably never get in trouble for it.

Practically speaking, when grown in climates like the Pacific Northwest, this species will never have alkaloids in sufficient quantities or concentrations to be useful as opium, & no effective illegal drug use is even possible. So the law as generally applied does not restrict ornamental use. Still, if any prosecutor lost his mind & started having little old ladies arrested for growing P. somniferum, said crazy prosecutor would be entirely within the letter of the law.

In Seattle a police officer saw a Hmong woman working in her garden & was appalled to see pop py seed-heads. In Southeast Asia Hmong were in the Golden Triangle of drug transport, so the officer assumed this woman was up to no good. He tramped into her garden, ripped out her poppies, & arrested the old lady. When the plants turned out to be not poppies at all, but ocra, the Seattle Police Department was forced to issue an apologyi to the entire Hmong community. But the insane thing is, this police behavior was lunacy even if they had been opium poppies since no opium could be obtained from them when grown in the Northwest.

Still, opium poppies & numerous fancy cultivars are available in nurseries, seed catalogs, & widely grown right out in the open as though it were perfectly legal (see for example the peony poppy Papaver somniferum 'Black Cloud'). When one finds that some countries have in fact banned opium poppies outright, it turns out to be because they can become noxious weeds in some climates.

So there they are, self-seeding year after year in the alley hillside. I harvested some of the seeds & sewed them in our roadside xeric garden, but they never took, as seedlings easily fail in our heavy winter rains. But there on the harsh hillside they just keep on keepin' on with no one tending to them at all.

A couple years ago someone took offense & sprayed them heavily with herbicide, which killed the grass & everything growing on that steep hill, but the next year there were more opium poppies than ever. And I love 'em.


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