Photo by Shane Harms
Corn poppies growing in Ballard. Though they do not contain morphine, they do have other opiate alkaloids.

Still chasing the dragon: Seattle remains a ‘Xanadu’ for opiate fiends

Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem, “Kubla Khan,” is considered by many as an ode to the opiate. The alluring substance has plagued and inspired humans for most of recorded history, and maintains an enthralling grip on people today, especially in Seattle.

Summer has finally come. The air is warm and vegetation riots from the earth throughout the region in primal, dynamistic fruiting: a party for plants. Among them are poppies. The plant is a fairly tall, both annual/perennial (depending on variety) flower with large seedpods and beautiful vibrantly colored, plumbing petals.

Among some circles -- those in the know -- admiration for the poppy is not limited to its beauty, but also for its alkaloids veining inside that make up opium, the “milk of paradise.” In fact a sect of green thumbed North Seattle residents report cultivating or foraging opium to treat pain and for recreational use. Moreover, some resourceful individuals have also made heroin from poppies found in Seattle.

The opium poppy (Papavera sominfurum) is mostly grown and harvested for opium in temperate and sub-tropical regions of the Northern Hemisphere. Worldwide leading producers of opium are Afghanistan, Tasmania and India. However, the poppy is hardy and can grow in almost any climate as long as there is a period of long days and short nights, much like the Pacific Northwest summers. Indeed, the opium poppy and a wild variety, Papaver setigerum, which contains opium though lower than the latter, grow throughout the region.

A Fremont resident, who asked to be named, Margo Hemingway, told the Ballard News-Tribune that she forages for her “fix” every summer and she procures the “milk of the poppy” for recreational use, as well as medicinal applications. Hemingway said she harvests the pods in July and that since some species containing opium are perennial, they grow in the same place every year.

Hemingway uses the traditional method for collecting opium, which is to lance the pod with a sharp knife after the pedals have fallen. A slimy milk-substance bleeds from the incision. The white latex-like substance oxidizes and turns black and sticky. That substance is straight, ready to use opium.

Corn Poppies
Corn poppies rioting in Ballard. Photo by Shane Harms.

Hemingway said that she collects the pods and hangs them before she lances the heads. She sets cigarette papers below the plants to collect the opium that drops off the pods. Later she smokes the opium in rolled joints or cigarettes. Furthermore, reports online depict “self-medicators” or “SWIM” – an acronym for “someone who isn’t me” - report freebasing the opium or dissolving it on alcohol to make the poet’s tincture, laudanum.

Taught by her mother, Hemingway knows how to find the right variety based on the phenotype of the flower. Hemingway said that the tradition is a way to reconnect with naturopathic remedies and also to limit participating in what she declared as “corrupt medical and pharmaceutical practices” Americans have come to depend on.

“I like to eat things from a plant, not things made at a plant,” said Hemingway. “It’s a lot like cooking your own food. Instead of relying on prescribed medications you routinely get from a doctor, why not find it naturally. What is Valium? It’s just a like poppy tea that housewives take to calm their socially constructed worries. … harvesting poppies is more personal and a natural form of self-medication,” said Hemingway.

According to Seattle author, Jim Hogshire, opium is abundant in the Pacific Northwest, it’s just that people don’t know where to look. The Ballard News-Tribune found his book “Opium for the Masses: Harvesting Nature’s Best Pain Medication,” at the public library. Hogshire details how he manufactured poppy tea, opium, morphine and heroin using the store bought dried poppies and wild poppies he picked in the region. Moreover, he said that the poppy seeds found in super markets are more than 90 percent viable for cultivation and also contain morphine. He also reported that the U.S. government has grown opium poppies in Arizona, Montana, Maryland and Washington.

From Hemingway and Hogshires reports, it’s apparent some individuals are privy to the production of opium from wild poppies, however, Seattle Police Department, Capt. Jim Dermondy, Narcotics Section Commander, said it’s not that prevalent. The Ballard News-Tribune asked Dermondy if there have been incidents of people foraging for different varieties to make opium.

“That type of substance is one we do not come across very often. If we do, we would enforce the law under Title 69,” said Dermondy.

The guiding statute for narcotics enforcement in the state of Washington is Title 69, the Revised Code of Washington (RCW).

In the statute, opium poppy and poppy straw (“means all parts, except the seeds, of the opium poppy, after mowing”) are both classified as Schedule II controlled substances. Moreover, any “opiate” derived from the P. Somniferum L. is illegal. However, there is some ambiguity in the law because there is no mention of opiates derived from other species like the P. Setigerum, and other varieties that contain alkaloids like codeine and thebaine, which can be converted to other types of opiates.

If not foraging, citizens are still finding their opiates. In April of 2014, the Associated Press reported that in Washington State, “Overdose deaths specifically attributable to heroin have risen in the past two decades, from 16 in 1995 to 182 in 2012.” They also reported the trend is seen widespread throughout the country.

In addition, according to a 2013 report produced by University of Washington Alcohol & Drug Abuse Institute, deaths from opiates (30 and under age group) in King County increased from 49 in 2009 to 84 last year.

Indeed the region has had a long history with dope, and spikes in opiate use are more of an oscillating wave through time than a new trend. In fact, this Xanadu City (Seattle) was named the “main gateway to the United States,” for opium in the early 1900’s because the watch in San Francisco was “too sharp.” According to the June 29, 1911 issue of the Seattle Star, there was a flux of opium in the Seattle market and prices for opium had been slashed in half, going from $42 a tin to $20, similar to what's occurring with heroin today. Moreover, the Star reported that much of the opium was being smuggled from Shanghai by sailors bringing 1000 tins per shipment and estimated four out of five shipments were getting through the port.

Today, Shanghai is no longer the mecca for midnight oil exportation. Poppies are being grown abundantly in Afghanistan. Last week, Vice News reported Afghanistan’s economy is based on opium production, and that the U.S. has already spent 7.5 million in incentives to mitigate it. Still Afghanistan managed to produce an estimated 6,062 tons in 2013, which accounted for 75 percent of the world’s heroin supply. This year they are expected to produce almost 90 percent, according to the Vice article.

With a flux of heroin production in Afghanistan, a widespread increase of use across the U.S. and savvy opium foragers right here in Seattle, the race for the dragon remains as unfettered as in the “Kubla Kahn” and “a sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice.”

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