Opium Made Easy  AUG 16 2010

From a 1997 issue of Harper's, a Michael Pollan piece called Opium Made Easy. Written before even The Botany of Desire (and his later well-known books on food), the article explores the seeming illegality of growing poppies in one's personal garden coupled with the relative ease of procuring poppies for growing and making them into a sort of opium tea once grown. A long but interesting read.

The language of the statute was distressingly clear. Not only opium but "opium poppy and poppy straw" are defined as Schedule II controlled substances, right alongside PCP and cocaine. The prohibited poppy is defined as a "plant of the species Papaver somniferum L., except the seed thereof," and poppy straw is defined as "all parts, except the seeds, of the opium poppy, after mowing." In other words, dried poppies.

Section 841 of the act reads, "[I]t shall be unlawful for any person knowingly or intentionally ... to manufacture, distribute, or dispense, or possess with intent to manufacture, distribute, or dispense" opium poppies. The definition of "manufacturing" includes propagating -- i.e., growing. Three things struck me as noteworthy about the language of the statute. The first was that it goes out of its way to state that opium poppy seeds are, in fact, legal, presumably because of their legitimate culinary uses. There seems to be a chicken-and-egg paradox here, however, in which illegal poppy plants produce legal poppy seeds from which grow illegal poppy plants.

The second thing that struck me about the statute's language was the fact that, in order for growing opium poppies to be a crime, it must be done "knowingly or intentionally." Opium poppies are commonly sold under more than one botanical name, only one of which -- Papaver somniferum -- is specifically mentioned in the law, so it is entirely possible that a gardener could be growing opium poppies without knowing it. There would therefore appear to be an "innocent gardener" defense. Not that it would do me any good: at least some of the poppies I'd planted had been clearly labeled Papaver somniferum, a fact that I have -- perhaps foolishly -- confessed in these very pages to knowing. The third thing that struck me was the most stunning of all: the penalty for knowingly growing Papaver somniferum is a prison term of five to twenty years and a maximum fine of $1 million.

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