Imagine an ocean of scarlet opium poppies dancing in the summer wind.
Sounds like something you’d encounter on the rugged hillsides of Afghanistan. But investigators were surprised this summer to discover cultivated poppy fields growing in Oregon’s wilderness.
Several scenarios may explain these illegal backcountry gardens, but law enforcement isn’t thrilled with any of them. April Baer reports.
Jake McKnight has seen the little orange California poppies that often grow along roadsides in Western Oregon. What he found in June wasn’t that kind of poppy.
Jake McKnight “When I first seen ‘em, that was my first thought, I thought, wow, that’d make a great bouquet for my fiancée! And then I got to looking at 'em and I thought something was strange. “
McKnight is a Forest Patrol Officer for the Confederated Tribes of Grande Ronde. He was here -- on a remote, 40-acre clear-cut on tribal forestland, training some helpers for fire season, when he stumbled across a field of some 12,000 specimens of Papaver somniferum, the opium poppy -- gorgeous, and illicit.
Jake McKnight: “Well they really stuck out. I can tell you that. They were purple and red -- about 3 to 4 feet tall. It was thick enough that it wouldn’t allow another plant to grow in that area.”
McKnight took pictures, and carried them back to tribal officials, who contacted the Yamhill County Interagency Narcotics Team. The plantation was one of three discovered in the Willamette Valley this summer in Yamhill and Linn Counties.
Sgt. Dwayne Willis works on the interagency team that’s investigating two of the three finds.
Dwayne Willis “Poppies in Oregon, very new.”
Usually his team works to find and destroy marijuana, tucked into Oregon’s woods and fields. Willis says the sight of opium poppies growing so thick in the middle of nowhere is suspect.
Dwayne Willis “Based on the way they were planted, the size of the gardens they were planted in, and some of the evidence gathered, these appear to be grown for illegal activity.”
Here’s another dead giveaway – the poppy’s large, showy flowers fall away to reveal big seed pods that ooze a dark-colored gum when you score them with a knife.
When opium poppies are harvested for drug production, that residue is scraped off, collected, and then refined. In both Yamhill County poppy plots, a number of the seed pods had been scored for harvest.
And that would be illegal in Oregon. The law's a little hazy around poppies, though.
Opium poppy seeds are perfectly legal to buy, and it's OK to have them in your kitchen – they're exactly the kind you’ve eaten on bagels or pastries.
And Oregon police aren't interested in busting backyard gardeners who grow one or two poppy plants. But occasionally over the years police have seized poppies that were clearly being grown for small-scale heroin production.
Botanists say Oregon's a reasonably good place to grow poppies, because of its climate and terrain. But it would be highly unusual for a non-native species like Papaver somniferum to just spring up and propagate like mad in the middle of a clear cut - even with its prolific seed production.
Someone had to have spent the time and energy to plant and cultivate the three poppy stands found this summer. So who was it?
There’s a long and rich history of drug trafficking organizations, large and small, tending marijuana gardens in the Oregon's backcountry. These days, the operations are run by large and dangerous Mexican drug cartels.
Their pot gardens may be Oregon’s biggest cash crop. If the drug traffickers are experimenting with opium poppies, it would represent an entirely new front in Oregon’s drug war.
Peter Reuter: “I have never heard of domestic production of opium or heroin in the United States. In recent years it’s mostly been from Mexico and Colombia, some of its coming from SE Asia.”
Peter Reuter teaches Policy and Criminology at the University of Maryland, and has co-written a book on world heroin markets. He says, to this point, no one’s been able to make the economics of poppy growth work in the United States.
Marijuana delivers more money per acre, plus poppies’ brilliant flowers are hard to hide, and their resin is a huge chore to process. Reuter says the Oregon plots might be the work of a local drug dealer.
Reuter would be very surprised if the plants were the first wave of a co-ordinated effort by Mexican drug cartels to produce heroin from Oregon’s fertile hills. But he says it’s not hard to imagine this as a sort of small-scale demonstration project.
Peter Reuter “If someone sort of was really being strategic, perhaps, They planted this and stood back and waited to see what would happen. If there are 50 of these fields out there and only 3 were found, maybe that trafficker will decide it works.”
Whether the poppy plots were homegrown, or the work of foreign gangsters, law enforcement is taking them very seriously. Police can’t talk about the leads they’re exploring -- no arrests have been made yet. Officers destroyed all the poppies in early July.