North Carolina isn’t becoming a center of heroin production despite this week’s bust of a Catawba County opium poppy field, a state investigator says.
Sheriff’s deputies pulled up more than 2,000 opium poppy plants, initially valued at $500 million, from a yard near Claremont on Tuesday. They charged Cody Xiong with manufacture and trafficking by possession of the substance.
Investigators returned the next day to confiscate 358 chickens, dogs and cats from the residence. Officials found 40 dead animals in cages and pens.
Heroin, which is derived from opium poppies, is part of what authorities call an epidemic of opioid abuse in North Carolina and elsewhere. But a State Bureau of Investigation official said the Catawba County bust, while significant, was apparently unique in North Carolina.
“We have not noticed a trend,” said Kelly Page, assistant special agent in charge of the SBI’s clandestine lab response unit, which typically investigates methamphetamine labs. “As a matter of fact, outside this seizure, in my 12 years here we’ve been aware of only one other time when we’ve found a couple of (opium poppy) seeds.”
Growers of the opium poppy Papaver somniferum – not to be confused with colorful ornamental varieties – have been reported in Oregon, Alabama and Washington state in recent years. Growing instructions from the 1990s can still be found online.
Raw opium can be extracted simply by slitting open poppy seed pods, yielding a form that is usually smoked. But the chemical process to extract heroin is complicated and usually done on a large scale, Page said. North Carolina’s climate isn’t conducive to growing the plants, she added.
Heroin flows into the state from other countries, including Mexico.
“An acre is an awful lot for North Carolina, but compared to large-scale distribution it’s not as much,” Page said. “Still, it’s a very significant find.”
The state Department of Revenue estimated the value of the harvested plants in Catawba County at $559.5 million, Hickory Daily Record reported, upping investigators’ original estimate of $500 million.
“If the plant is being used to produce opium, this will make a dent on distribution somewhere,” sheriff’s Capt. Jason Reid told the Hickory newspaper. “It’s obvious that not a lot of people know how to grow the plant, or have attempted to grow the plant. If they are, they just have not been caught yet.”
Opium does have a history in Catawba County, however, the Washington Post reported.
A woman and her three children were found shot and stabbed to death inside their Catawba County home in 2009, the Post reported, citing the Associated Press.
Investigators said the woman’s husband was involved in an interstate opium trafficking ring. The killers came looking for him, drugs and cash, but found his family instead.