By Jonathan Kaminsky
OLYMPIA, Washington (Reuters) - Federal agents raided a large opium poppy-growing operation in Washington state that was cultivating the plants across 40 acres, authorities said on Thursday.
The poppy plants were grown out in the open and the seed pods, which contain codeine and morphine and can be used to make heroin, had been sold in large quantities throughout the country, Franklin County Sheriff Richard Lathim said.
Large-scale growing operations of opium poppies in the United States are "very rare," said Drug Enforcement Administration spokeswoman Dawn Dearden, who could not recall a similar case in her four years with the agency.
Because of the plant's narcotic nature, growers in the United States must get permission from the DEA to cultivate it. Gardeners raising the plant in small quantities for ornamental purposes typically fall below authorities' radar.
"Once we saw them harvesting the crop and attempting to drive it away, we had to step in and stop them," Lathim said of the farm.
An operation to destroy the plants on the farm was carried out by the DEA, Lathim said, a day after his deputies intercepted a truck loaded with seed pods leaving the farm.
"It wasn't like what we typically see with marijuana, where it's hidden in other crops or under trees," Lathim said. "They were growing it right out in the open."
Washington and Colorado were the first two states to legalize recreational-use marijuana at the ballot box in November - a change that does not undo federal restrictions on that drug and that has no impact on the legality of opiates.
FARM OWNED BY COUPLE
Jodie Underwood, spokeswoman for the Seattle DEA field office, acknowledged an operation had been carried out but declined to comment further, citing an ongoing investigation.
The farm, located 15 miles north of Pasco in southeastern Washington state, is owned by Kenneth and Shanna French, who purchased it in 2011 for just under $600,000, property records show.
Lathim said the couple wasn't present when a search warrant was served and that their whereabouts are unknown.
This is not the couple's first brush with the law. Last October, they were arrested and released without charge after a 10-month investigation into their poppy growing business carried out by a joint federal and local drug task force.
According to a complaint filed in November by U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Washington Michael Ormsby, an undercover agent recorded Kenneth French as saying last year he was selling about 500 pounds of dried poppies per month.
French reportedly said that consuming them in tea led to "feeling good" and "pain control," but also told the undercover agent that he was selling the product for ornamental purposes.
James E. Egan, the couple's attorney, declined to comment on the case.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Stacey Joyce)