Pubdate: Thu, 19 Nov 1998
Source: San Luis Obispo County NewTimes (CA)
Section: Cover Story
Author: Steven T. Jones


Beware: Reading This Article Could Make You Into A Felon, But Not Reading
It Could Get You Arrested

They are grayish-black flecks, such weightless objects for their
potential. Poppy seeds grow into beautiful flowers, taste good in
muffins, and produce opium. It is this latter trait that got Tom
Dunbar and Jo-D Harrison into so much trouble.

Take the smallest pinch of poppy seeds, the exact same kind that top
your bagel, and plant them. In a few days, they will sprout tiny white
stems, then slender green leaves, and will keep growing into hardy
annuals with vibrant flowers.

A couple of months into the spring growing season, the flowers will
fall away, leaving in their place round seedpods filled with thousands
of seeds and a milky sap that will ooze out through any slits made in
the pod walls. That dried sap is opium, an illegal narcotic even in
its most natural form, possession of which can send you to prison.

Opium is a highly addictive drug that can be smoked or eaten, inducing
a dreamy high that can last a few hours, or it can be processed into
morphine (an alkaloid found in opium that is its main psychoactive
component), heroin, codeine, or other drugs.

Yet the opium poppy, Papaver somniferum, is widely grown in San Luis
Obispo County and across the country as an ornamental flower, and the
seeds used to grow the opium poppy are available in any grocery store.

"We bought our poppy seeds at Vons," said Dunbar, who goes on trial
next month for the 203 poppy plants that grew in his Arroyo Grande
garden until they were seized by police in May. "They were right
between the paprika and the parsley."

Alphabetically, Dunbar may not be right. But he is correct that the
poppy seeds available in the spice section are usually Papaver
somniferum and can be easily grown into opium poppy plants.

McCormick, the world's largest spice company, even identifies its
poppy seeds as Papaver somniferum on its website, noting, "The tiny
poppy seed actually comes from the plant that produces opium."
Conversely, such seeds grow the opium poppy.

The spice company claims it has developed varieties with "low narcotic
potential"96a claim disputed as not possible by some poppy
experts96yet classic opium poppy varieties can still be legally
purchased from garden and seed companies, often advertising them with
no warning that they produce opium or are illegal.

That connection between the commonly available poppy seed and the
illegal opium plant is one that many of those charged with meting out
justice don't understand, such as San Luis Obispo County District
Attorney Gerry Shea, who was surprised by most of the above

"That's news to me - that it is available commercially," Shea

Nonetheless, our country's drug laws put possession of the opium
poppy - just the plant, regardless of whether the drug has been
extracted - in the same felony category of such Schedule II narcotics
as cocaine, morphine, and methamphetamine.

Sowing Information

Opium poppies have a rich and storied history nearly 5,000 years long,
one that has swung from almost universal acceptance of opium use, in
which wars were fought to preserve its trade, to its condemnation on
moral grounds at the dawn of the 20th century.

But it is only in the last couple of years that popular knowledge of
the opium poppy's narcotic potential has truly blossomed among those
Americans inclined to experiment with recreational drugs.

That change began largely with Seattle author Jim Hogshire, who wrote
a book called "Opium for the Masses," which in turn formed the basis
for an April 1997 cover article in Harper's magazine called "Opium,
Made Easy."

"Jim Hogshire and his book punctured a set of myths that served the
government well for decades," Michael Pollan wrote in the Harper's
article, in which he chronicled his own experience growing opium
poppies while examining their legality.

That "set of myths" was the portrayal of opium poppies as an exotic
plant grown only in the Far East, from which opium was mysteriously
extracted, not a common flower easily grown anywhere in the United
States, from which a child could extract opium with his or her fingernail.

"After reading the article in Harper's, I was curious," said Dunbar,
whose case is by many accounts one of the first opium poppy
prosecutions ever brought in San Luis Obispo County.

While several of the poppies in Dunbar's yard had the slit seedpods
that indicate opium had been extracted, Dunbar and Harrison deny using
the drug, saying they used the substance in the incense they make and
grew the poppies for their beautiful flowers and for the seeds to feed
to their many pet birds.

While that intent may not be enough to beat the rap, Hogshire notes
that prosecution for possession of opium or opium poppies is not a
simple matter. Hogshire himself got raided two years ago by Seattle
police, who found poppy seedpods in his house, but the charges were
eventually dropped.

"The prosecutors were forced to back down from their opium poppy
charges because they could not prove they were Papaver somniferum,"
Hogshire said in a telephone interview with New Times.

It is difficult to prove a particular seedpod is a banned opium poppy,
even tougher to show someone knew what kind of poppy seed they were
planting. Testing a sample of the sap from a pod - the main opium
possession evidence against Dunbar and Harrison - can only show it
contains alkaloids found in opium, alkaloids also naturally produced
by other plants.

"If anybody brought that charge against me and pretended that that was
evidence, I would challenge that. I would hold them to their burden of
proof, which is the state's, not mine," Hogshire said. "There is no
scientific or legal definition that even comes close to precisely
describing what opium is exactly."

Criminal statutes vaguely define an opiate as "any substance having an
addiction-forming or addiction-sustaining liability similar to
morphine" and opium as being the sap from the seedpod of an opium
poppy, which is "the plant of the species Papaver somniferum L.,
except its seeds."

Yet rather than highlighting the difficulties the government faces in
prosecuting poppy growers, Hogshire sees his successful legal battle

"It highlights what an uphill battle a defendant has when the
government pretends to codify nature and tries to enforce laws that
have no basis in reason," he said. "But the penalties are high and the
government's got a lot of money, and a lot of guns, and they have some
serious threats they can use."

The San Luis Obispo County Narcotics Task Force may not have known
they would even end up with a poppy case when they raided the home of
Dunbar and Harrison, mostly because they were high-profile advocates
and growers of medical marijuana.

The Raids

Just before 10 o'clock in the morning on May 14, police gathered near
Dunbar's Arroyo Grande home and the Los Osos home of John and Violet
McLean, armed with guns and search warrants signed by Superior Court
Judge Roger Picquet (the affidavits for which were immediately sealed
by the judge, concealing from public scrutiny the reason for the
simultaneous drug raids).

Dunbar saw the pack of police approaching his Maple Street home, ran
into his backyard, and started pulling the heads off his poppy plants.
The police also saw him and pursued into the backyard.

"I saw Dunbar kneeling in the garden pulling off the tops of the row
of plants that he was kneeling in front of," Detective Brad Melson
wrote in the police report. "As I was securing Dunbar, I looked at the
row of plants that he was pulling the tops off of. The tops of the
plants appeared to be poppy pods and the plant itself appeared to be a
poppy plant."

Police counted 203 plants in all, 53 with pods, 24 of which had been
lanced. Inside the garage, they found an indoor marijuana growing
operation with 72 plants, along with a note indicating they belonged
to Dunbar and were for legal medical use. Police also found a few
large bags of marijuana and more than $2,000 in cash and seized all
manner of pro-marijuana literature and paraphernalia.

Meanwhile, a similar scene was taking place at the McLean residence,
as police found an indoor marijuana growing operation and a backyard
poppy garden with 446 plants, as well as poppy heads in the kitchen.

"I scored one of the opium bulbs seized from the garden. I tested the
fluid and it tested positive for opiates," wrote Detective Nicholas

The raids themselves came as no surprise to anyone. Both couples were
extremely vocal marijuana advocates, telling anyone who would listen
of their pot growing operation. A photo of Dunbar's plants ran on the
front page of the Telegram-Tribune last spring.

"Being as high profile as we are, we figured sooner or later, they
were going to raid us," Dunbar said. "We definitely wanted to make a
statement against this goddamn drug war."

Both Dunbar and the McLeans have doctor's prescriptions for using
marijuana, making for an interesting showdown with the authorities.
The McLean case was settled with a plea bargain that got all of the
felonies, including the poppy charge, dropped.

John McLean pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor marijuana possession
charge and got a $200 fine and two years probation, with conditions
modified to allow him to continue smoking and possessing marijuana.
The McLeans have since moved to Fresno.

Asked why the poppy charge was dropped, Dennis Schloss, the deputy
district attorney prosecuting Dunbar and Harrison, said, "I was not
satisfied that we had adequate proof of knowing possession of opium in
that case."

His statement is surprising considering the McLeans had twice as many
poppy plants as Dunbar, and police discovered opium poppy pods in the
kitchen being processed in a way consistent with making opium tea,
while there was no evidence in the police report indicating Dunbar was
using opium as a drug.

Dunbar says he doesn't want a plea bargain, but wants to put the issue
of growing poppies and marijuana on trial. As a convicted felon9620
years ago, he was sent to prison for armed robbery96Dunbar could be
facing a long prison term for his stand.

"I'm just a sacrificial lamb in all this," Dunbar said. "I'm not the
epitome of the all-American boy to stand up for our rights, but I'm
doing it. They can't threaten me with prison because I've been there.
I'm not scared of this."

While more cautious than Dunbar about what she would say about her
alleged crimes, Harrison did outline her views on drugs derived from

"I don't think any human being has the right to say what natural items
on our planet are good or bad," she said. "Not if it grows out of the

Gardener's Perspective

"Poppies are among the easiest of all flowers to grow. Their
brilliantly colored flowers look like crinkled sheer silk and are
often delightfully fragrant," emoted "Annuals," a book from the
Time-Life Encyclopedia of Gardening found in local libraries.

The prized "Taylor's Guide to Annuals" offers detailed directions for
growing all the Papaver varieties, but notes under somniferum, "The
juice of the unripe pod yields opium, the production of which is
illegal in the U.S."

"Rodale's Annual Garden" contains the same simple warning, but goes on
to rave, "The flower is, however, of great beauty and available in a
number of different cultivars. Plants will often grow 4 feet tall and
bear blossoms up to 5 inches wide. A large bed of these flowers is a
breathtaking sight."

Unfortunately, a large bed of these flowers is a felony, even for the
gardener who never intends to extract the opium and who bought the
seeds from a company that didn't even identify the Papaver somniferum
as the opium poppy.

"It sounds to me like they're sending out kits to commit a felony, yet
nobody goes after them," Hogshire said. "You rely on a company that
sells seeds not to trick you into committing a crime, and certainly
not one where you could end up in a cage for a few years. But they do.
And I think the reason is clear. It's a political thing who gets
charged with a crime."

Eighty-year-old grandmothers simply aren't going to face police drug
raids because they have poppy gardens. And even if that did happen,
ignorance of their flowers' narcotic alter-egos would probably result
in no charge being filed.

"The law does require `knowing possession,'" said Schloss.

What of the gardener reading this article, or otherwise learning the
opium poppy's secrets? With that knowledge, the gardener goes from
growing flowers to committing felonies without any change in her actions.

Mary (not her real name) from Los Osos made that change in

It was three seasons ago that Mary's friend gave her some poppy seeds,
with a wink and a nudge she wouldn't understand until this year. She
scattered her garden with them in early spring, unaware of the
potential within the seeds she sowed.

They grew large and bushy, almost weedlike, rising into stems topped
with large, drooping buds that would unfold into brilliant red flowers
with slightly ruffled petals and a black heart cradling a yellow puff.

"They are just so huge and beautiful, such gorgeous flowers," Mary

She paid little attention to the green seedpod that formed after the
flower fell away, almost perfectly round, but topped by a lighter
green crown. The plants themselves would wither away with the coming
of winter, but in the spring, the poppies would almost magically
regenerate themselves.

Another poppy season came and went as gloriously as the one before.
And again they returned, in the spring of this year, although Mary's
poppy patch wouldn't make it through a third season.

Poppies became big news locally in May, both with the raid of the
McLean's home and the discovery of several acres of opium poppies
growing wild in Montana de Oro, which were removed by Narcotics Task
Force agents.

Mary became suspicious of her flowers and brought pictures to her
gardening club, asking if they could be opium poppies. One woman told
her, "Oh, no, they're just Oriental poppies." But another woman,
seeing the picture, identified them as opium poppies with no prompt.
More research confirmed Mary's new status.

She felt a mix of excitement and dread. Curious and open-minded, Mary
tried to extract some opium, but got very little, too little to even
use. Slowly, such thoughts were overcome by fear.

"It's the first time I owned a house, and I didn't want to lose my
house. I just started to panic, so I pulled them out," Mary said,
pausing a moment, "Oh, I kept a couple, I must admit."

Question of Intent

Given how easy it is to grow opium poppies, and how widely they are
grown with no intent other than to enjoy the beauty and fragrance of
the flower, those who enforce our laws are presented with difficult
choices, over which they have wide discretion.

"It really is a question of the content of the circumstances
surrounding the proof of knowledge about the character and substance
of the narcotic," Shea said.

To establish that knowledge, police can seize whatever materials they
believe indicate knowledge. For example, finding a copy of this very
article in a home with poppies in the garden would likely be enough to
establish knowledge.

Faced with detailed questions about Papaver somniferum, how it is
tested, whether opium samples can be definitively identified as being
from this plant, and the legality of closely related
cultivars - questions that would seem essential to a successful
prosecution.  Schloss, who is prosecuting the Dunbar/Harrison case,
was perplexed.

"I couldn't even spell that word you're saying," Schloss said of
Papaver somniferum. "I'm not a plant guy."

Schloss is more certain about answers to questions that many innocent
gardeners wouldn't even know to ask.

"Is it possible to possess opium while it's still in the poppy? Of
course," Schloss said.

If such questions seem strange, and their answers troubling, that's
largely because our society is still struggling with how to deal with
new fears of an old plant.

Poppies were cultivated for their opium as early as 3400 B.C. in lower
Mesopotamia. They called it hul gil, or "joy plant." Later, it would
take on the scientific name somniferum, which means "sleep inducing,"
after doctors found it to be perhaps the best natural pain reliever
ever discovered.

References to the opium poppy are found throughout classical
literature, from references in many Shakespeare works to Thomas
DeQuincey's autobiographic "Confessions of an English Opium Eater" to
the scene when Dorothy and friends fell asleep in the poppy field on
their way to see the Wizard of Oz.

Many of our country's founding fathers used opium, including Benjamin
Franklin, an opium addict most of his life, according to historians.
In the 1800s, opium was the main ingredient in many of the most widely
used elixirs and patent medicines.

But by 1890, William Randolph Hearst's sensational tabloids began
writing stories about white women being seduced by Chinese men and
their opium, tying the drug to our growing nationalist fears of the
East. In 1905, Congress made opium possession illegal.

Most opium at that time was imported from potent strains, but opium
poppy varietals grew throughout the United States.

"There is no part of the United States where poppies, even opium
poppies - maybe especially opium poppies - won't grow. They can adapt
to a lot of conditions. They are very common. It's hard to stop them
from growing," Hogshire said.

The flowers can be red, pink, white, purple, or bicolored, and the
petals can be either flat or fringed, yet the plant's aesthetics have
little impact on its narcotic potential.

Dunbar and Harrison have a list of several dozen addresses around the
county where they have discovered opium poppies growing, most in
people's front yards, some in flower gardens maintained by businesses,
even a few on government property.

"Poppies are everywhere," Hogshire said.

As winter approaches, opium poppy plants have gone dormant. Most
gardening books advise sowing poppy seeds in the late fall and letting
them "winter over."

All this winter, the seeds will sit below the surface of the soil,
waiting for the warmth of spring to sprout forth and grow. It is then
that we will find out whether the prosecution of Dunbar and Harrison
is an isolated incident, or whether they are the first of many San
Luis Obispo County residents to face prison terms for the flowers they
choose to grow.

Staff writer Steven T. Jones is currently planning his spring garden,
which will include poppies, but not opium poppies. Send gardening tips
to  ---
Checked-by: Patrick Henry