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 a problem 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.
The war on drugs is in truth a war on some drugs, their enemy status the result of historical accident, cultural prejudice, and institutional imperative. The taxonomy on behalf of which this war is being fought would be difficult to explain to an extraterrestrial, or even a farmer. Is it the quality of addictiveness that renders a substance illicit? Not in the case of tobacco, which I am free to grow in this garden. Curiously, the current campaign against tobacco dwells less on cigarettes’ addictiveness than on their threat to our health. So is it toxicity that renders a substance a public menace? Well, my garden is full of plants — datura and euphorbia, castor beans, and even the stems of my rhubarb — that would sicken and possibly kill me if I ingested them, but the government trusts me to be careful. Is it, then, the prospect of pleasure — of “recreational use” — that puts a substance beyond the pale? Not in the case of alcohol: I can legally produce wine or hard cider or beer from my garden for my personal use (though there are regulations governing its distribution to others). So could it be a drug’s “mind-altering” properties that make it evil? Certainly not in the case of Prozac, a drug that, much like opium, mimics chemical compounds manufactured in the brain.
Arbitrary though the war on drugs may be, the battle against the poppy is surely its most eccentric front. The exact same chemical compounds in other hands are treated as the boon to mankind they most surely are. Yet although the medical value of my poppies is widely recognized, my failure to heed what amounts to a set of regulations (that only a pharmaceutical company may handle these flowers; that only a doctor may dispense their extracts) and prejudices (that refined alkaloids are superior to crude ones) governing their production and use makes me not just a scofflaw but a felon.
Someday we may marvel at the power we’ve invested in these categories, which seems out of all proportion to their artifice. Perhaps one day the government won’t care if I want to make a cup of poppy tea for a migraine, no more than it presently cares if I make a cup of valerian tea (a tranquilizer made from the roots of Valeriana officinalis) to help me sleep, or even if I want to make a quart of hard apple cider for the express purpose of getting drunk. After all, it wasn’t such a long time ago that the fortunes of the apple and the poppy in this country were reversed.
From “Opium, Made Easy,” which appeared in the April 1997 issue of Harper’s Magazine. The complete essay — along with the magazine’s entire 167-year archive — is available online at harpers.org/fromthearchive. Pollan’s book How to Change Your Mind will be published next month by Penguin Press.