Pasco poppy farmers accused of growing and selling "opium poppies" have yet to be charged with a crime, but federal prosecutors are trying to seize their land by claiming it's being used for an "ongoing drug enterprise."
Kenneth James French and his wife, Shanna Rene French, were arrested in October by Tri-City Metro Drug Task Force detectives for allegedly selling poppy seed pods that were found to contain codeine, morphine and noscapine -- "naturally occurring compounds found in opium poppies," court documents said.
The Frenches have a 40-acre poppy farm at 5100 Elm Road in Pasco, and sell poppy seeds through their business, Poppydog Farms, and online at Dried Poppies Direct.
The couple made initial appearances in Franklin County Superior Court after their arrest, but state prosecutors filed a notice Nov. 19 that the Frenches would not be charged.
Kennewick defense attorney Jim Egan said he's been talking to assistant U.S. attorneys about the case and expected that if drug charges were filed against his clients, it likely would be in federal court.
"I told them that I think such a filing would be ill-advised because there's a plethora of evidence that Mr. Ken French has no idea this was an illegal activity," Egan told the Herald.
Last summer, when the farm was featured in the Herald, the couple said they sold the seedpods for craft and decorative purposes. They said they had 2,400 customers nationwide.
"If he thought it was illegal, he probably would not have advertised on the Internet. ... He incorporated the business, got a business license and did all the things he was supposed to do in order to set up the business," Egan said. "He also talked to the Tri-City Herald ... and said what a wonderful business it was. That's something that people who are trying to hide their criminal activities don't usually do."
Federal prosecutors, however, contend that Ken French told undercover detectives that the "opium poppies" could be used to make tea, and described the effect he gets from the tea as "feeling good" or for the purpose of "pain control," documents said.
He also allegedly said he sold the opium poppies internationally and for "ornamental purposes."
Detectives recorded him saying, "That is my story and I'm sticking to it," documents said.
Ken French and his wife own the business, but Shanna French said she had nothing to do with the business, documents said.
Undercover detectives with Metro unit and the Law Enforcement Against Drugs Task Force in the Yakima Valley bought papaver somniferum poppies, or opium poppies, from French four times during their 10-month investigation.
Two purchases were made online through Dried Poppies Direct and two were made in a detached garage at the Pasco farm, court documents said. The opium poppies and poppy straw received in each purchase were sent to the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab for testing.
Ken French initially told detectives that he never sold any poppy pods for any purpose other than ornamental and that he did not know the specific variety of poppy pods that he sells, documents said.
He also said the pods can be misused and dried pods can be ingested, but that he had never done that.
After detectives told him that they had recordings of him discussing using the poppy pods to make opium tea, French reportedly admitted he had done it once or twice to help relieve his arthritis pain.
French said that he thought if the poppies were dried, the amount of controlled substances in the poppies would be reduced to trace amounts and have no effect, documents said.
The forfeiture complaint against the poppy farm and its equipment was filed in U.S. District Court in Eastern Washington. A scheduling conference is set for next month, but Egan said he expects the case will be continued until the criminal case is resolved. He also said he expects his client will not be convicted and will not lose his property.
"He did not know that this poppy business was illegal," Egan said.
The lawyer said one specific variety of poppy is listed as being illegal and "it might be easy to be confused."
Court documents said that when detectives told French that papaver somniferum is illegal in Washington, French reportedly said he knew the poppy was the opium poppy.