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Unanswered Questions Remain In Opium Poppy Bust

Why were thousands of opium poppies growing in Monterey County? And where were they headed? That’s what the Monterey County Sheriff’s Office is trying to figure out. Deputies discovered eight fields full of the illegal flower in and around Moss Landing.

In an unmarked Monterey County Sheriff’s car, Commander John Thornburg drives to the first opium poppy field deputies discovered last month. It’s located off Dolan Road in Moss Landing.

This part of the county is rural. Between a few scattered homes, it’s mostly farmland. So he has a hard time finding it.

“All of them seemed to have been planted in areas with high growth. And maybe that's why some people have described it as ‘hiding in plain sight,’ which people are not wrong," Thornburg says.

Down a dirt road that’s just big enough for the car, he pulls up to a barren field. A few dead opium poppy plants stand upright in the corner.

“And this is where we discovered it,” he says.

Thornburg pulls one of the dried plants out of the soil.

“Now, this is obviously a dead version of the plant that we had, that we found. The ones that we found were very much alive and very much growing and very much being taken of,” says Thornburg.

In bloom, opium poppies are a vibrant purple, pink or red color.  He holds a dry, brown bulb in his hand.

“The bulb here is the meat, the main part of the plant, and is the main part of the issue. Because what’ll they do, this... it won’t work on a dried one, obviously, but they would take a razor blade or a very sharp knife and make slits in here. And they actually have cups that they put on the bottom to catch the liquid that oozes out so they can capture it,” says Thornburg.

The liquid can be processed into heroin. Thornburg says this roughly one acre field could produce over a pound of heroin, valued at around $45,000.

“That's a lot of heroin. That's a lot of heroin,” Thornburg says.  

But this field was the tip of the iceberg. After news of it broke, tips about other opium poppy fields flooded in. At this point, the Monterey County Sheriff’s Office has discovered eight fields. In total, that’s 5.6 acres of opium poppy plants.

The Sheriff’s Office got search warrants to tear out the fields.  There were so many plants to destroy they called in for help from the National Guard.  It has a drug unit.

“And over about a week's span, we took down the other seven fields, 160,000 plants almost, which is a huge number of plants,” Thornburg says.

The Sheriff’s Office knows who planted them. They’re investigating 10 farmers who lease the land. The farmers all work in the cut flower industry.

I reached Monterey County Sheriff Detective Mike Smith by phone.  He’s the lead investigator on this case.

“When I interviewed them, most seemed to be oblivious to the fact that the opium poppy plant was illegal,” Smith says.

He says there’s no question a crime was committed. Growing opium poppy plants is against state and federal law and has been for decades. 

According to Smith, the farmers say they were planning to sell the poppies as ornamental flowers.  So investigators are trying to figure out who planned to buy these poppies. And what the buyers intended to do with them.  

“I mean the reality is we got 5.6 acres. So there is a question on everybody's mind as to how many flower bouquets you can make out of 5.6 acres of opium poppies. So where's that actually going,” says Smith.

For now, no arrests have been made.

Erika joined KAZU in 2016. Her roots in radio began at an early age working for the independent community radio station in her hometown of Boulder, Colorado. After graduating from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University in 2012, Erika spent four years working as a television reporter. She’s very happy to be back in public radio and loves living in the Monterey Bay Area.