“The legality of growing opium poppies […] took me the better part of the summer to sort out.”
Last season was a strange one in my garden, notable not only for the unseasonably cool and wet weather—the talk of gardeners all over New England—but also for its climate of paranoia. One flower was the cause: a tall, breathtaking poppy, with silky scarlet petals and a black heart, the growing of which, I discovered rather too late, is a felony under state and federal law. Actually, it’s not quite as simple as that. My poppies were, or became, felonious; another gardener’s might or might not be. The legality of growing opium poppies (whose seeds are sold under many names, including the breadseed poppy, Papaver paeoniflorum, and, most significantly, Papaver somniferum) is a tangled issue, turning on questions of nomenclature and epistemology that it took me the better part of the summer to sort out. But before I try to explain, let me offer a friendly warning to any gardeners who might wish to continue growing this spectacular annual: the less you know about it, the better off you are, in legal if not horticultural terms. Because whether or not the opium poppies in your garden are illicit depends not on what you do, or even intend to do, with them but very simply on what you know about them. Hence my warning: if you have any desire to grow opium poppies, you would be wise to stop reading right now.
As for me, I’m afraid that, at least in the eyes of the law, I’m already lost, having now tasted of the forbidden fruit of poppy knowledge. Indeed, the more I learned about poppies, the guiltier my poppies became—and the more fearful grew my days and to some extent also my nights. Until the day last fall, that is, when I finally pulled out my poppies’ withered stalks and, with a tremendous feeling of relief, threw them on the compost, thereby (I hope) rejoining the ranks of gardeners who don’t worry about visits from the police.
It started out if not quite innocently, then legally enough. Or at least that’s what I thought back in February, when I added a couple of poppy varieties (P. somniferum as well as P. paeoniflorum and P. rhoeas) to my annual order of flowers and vegetables from the seed catalogues. But the state of popular (and even expert) knowledge about poppies is confused, to say the least; mis- and even disinformation is rife. I’d read in Martha Stewart Living that “contrary to general belief, there is no federal law against growing P. somniferum.” Before planting, I consulted my Taylor’s Guide to Annuals, a generally reliable reference that did allude to the fact that “the juice of the unripe pod yields opium, the production of which is illegal in the United States.” But Taylor’s said nothing worrisome about the plants themselves. I figured that if the seeds could be sold legally (and I found somniferum on offer in a half-dozen well-known catalogues, though it was not always sold under that name), how could the obvious next step—i.e., planting the seeds according to the directions on the packet—possibly be a federal offense? Were this the case, you would think there’d at least be a disclaimer in the catalogues.
So it seemed to me that I could remain safely on the sunny side of the law just as long as I didn’t attempt to extract any opium from my poppies. Yet I have to confess that this was a temptation I grappled with all last summer. You see, I’d become curious as to whether it was in fact possible, as I’d recently read, for a gardener of average skills to obtain a narcotic from a plant grown in this country from legally available seeds. To another gardener this will not seem odd, for we gardeners are like that: eager to try the improbable, to see if we can’t successfully grow an artichoke in Zone 5 or make echinacea tea from the roots of our purple coneflowers. Deep down I suspect that many gardeners regard themselves as minor-league alchemists, transforming the dross of compost (and water and sunlight) into substances of rare value and beauty and power. Also, one of the greatest satisfactions of gardening is the independence it can confer—from the greengrocer, the florist, the pharmacist, and, for some, the drug dealer. One does not have to go all the way “back to the land” to experience the satisfaction of providing for yourself off the grid of the national economy. So, yes, I was curious to know if I could make opium at home, especially if I could do so without making a single illicit purchase. It seemed to me that this would indeed represent a particularly impressive sort of alchemy.
I wasn’t at all sure, however, whether I was prepared to go quite that far. I mean, opium! I’m not eighteen anymore, or in any position to undertake such a serious risk. I am in fact forty two, a family man (as they say) and homeowner whose drug-taking days are behind him. Not that they aren’t sometimes fondly recalled, the prevailing cant about drug abuse notwithstanding. But now I have a kid and a mortgage and a Keogh. There is simply no place in my grownup, middle-class lifestyle for an arrest on federal narcotics charges, much less for the forfeiture of my family’s house and land, which often accompanies such an arrest. It was one thing, I reasoned, to grow poppies; quite another to manufacture narcotics from them. I figured I knew where the line between these two deeds fell, and felt confident that I could safely toe it.
But in these days of the American drug war, as it turns out, the border between the sunny country of the law-abiding—my country!—and a shadowy realm of SWAT teams, mandatory minimum sentences, asset forfeitures, and ruined lives is not necessarily where one thinks it is. One may even cross it unawares. As I delved into the horticulture and jurisprudence of the opium poppy last summer, I made the acquaintance of one man, a contemporary and a fellow journalist, who had had his life pretty well wrecked after stepping across that very border. In his case, though, there is reason to believe it was the border that did the moving; he was arrested on charges of possessing the same flowers that countless thousands of Americans are right now growing in their gardens and keeping in vases in their living rooms. What appears to have set him apart was the fact that he had published a book about this flower in which he described a simple method for converting its seedpod into a narcotic—knowledge that the government has shown it will go to great lengths to keep quiet. Just where this leaves me, and this article, is, well, the subject of this article.