We Have Seen the Enemy, and the Enemy is a Plant


… They had harvested good crops, then watched them rot because a promised bridge they needed to get their tomatoes to market hadn’t been built. Remarkably, the Nangahar farmers still gave "alternative livelihoods" one more try, but they made too little money to feed their children. This year they announced they’re planting poppies again. …

The farmers, ever resourceful, got together and agreed upon a plan that would allow them to cultivate a profitable crop without incurring the wrath of the ever-vengeful United States or their own fledging government.

Afghan farmers officially proposed to British anti-narcotics officials that they be licensed to grow poppy and produce opium for state-owned refineries to be built with foreign aid donations. The refineries, in turn, would produce medicinal morphine and codeine for worldwide legal sale, thereby filling a global need for inexpensive, natural painkillers…The farmers got nowhere with this proposal.

Yeah, well, we probably coulda told ya that.

So what about those opium poppies?  Michael Pollan wrote a long piece about Papaver somniferum in Harper’s ten years ago.  What exactly is illegal?  Not the seeds; we eat those in lemon-poppyseed muffins all the time.  But read the DEA’s Schedule of Narcotics yourself; you’ll see not only poppy heads and poppy straw, but also the plant itself, P. somniferum.

How is it, then, that any number of fine and interesting nurseries manage to sell the illicit plant every day?  Because there is a little ambiguity in the law that has to do with intent.  There is, as Pollan suggests, perhaps an "innocent gardener’s defense."  Who would prosecute a middle-aged woman with a few pretty flowers in her garden, who not only didn’t intend, but wouldn’t even know how, to score the ripe pods, extract the sap, and manufacture heroin?

I called my local police just as Michael Pollan did and asked whether they would arrest or prosecute a gardener growing a few opium poppies in her garden.  (Mind you, I live in Humboldt County, where local law enforcement have a few other illegal plants to contend with, which they do in a sort of mild-mannered, good-natured way until the Feds show up around harvest time, at which time they straighten themselves up and act all cop-like for a few weeks.) 

"Ma’am, I don’t think our officers would know a poppy from a petunia," the officer said.

And as long as horticultural ignorance and a general lack of respect for our nation’s failed drug policies prevail at my local police department, I’ll keep growing opium poppies in my garden.  And I wish the Afghan farmers well, regardless of their crop.


  1. Great post, Amy. You had me angry as hell at our guvment, then laughing with your local police. The link to the newspaper article, however, didn’t send me there and I DO want to read it. (I suppose I could look for it myself? Yeah, but it’s not gonna happen.)

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