Yuma Farmers Sally Nakasawa and Robert Nickerson Sue Over $12 Million Worth of Poppies Destroyed by the DEA

Yuma farmers Sally Nakasawa and Robert Nickerson have been major growers of poppies for years, selling them for use in floral decorations.

Their flowers could be seen by the public off U.S. Highway 95, and in 2008 a photo of them were featured in a Yuma Daily Sun article that pegged poppies as the "crop of the week."

Then, in the summer of 2010, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency showed up and wiped out the entire crop, claiming they were an illegal variety known as Papaver somniferum, a.k.a., the opium poppy.

No allegation has ever been made that the farmers sold their poppies to drug dealers or for any purpose besides to look pretty in a vase. No criminal charges were ever filed.

More than $12 million in products were chopped down, seized and burned -- a major blow to the farmers.

"It's a terrible thing that happened," says the farmers' Yuma lawyer, Jim Clark. "It was a big deal, and a big loss."

With Clark's help, the farmers filed a federal complaint yesterday against the DEA, asking for compensation for the lost crop and an additional $1 million in punitive damages.

Clark says a botanical expert hired by the farmers concluded that not enough evidence existed to prove with any certainty that the crop was the illegal species. But the farmers don't know exactly what variety they were growing, Clark admits.

"For 25 years, nobody said 'boo' about it," he says.

In any case, you would think it would be up to government experts to prove they knew what they were doing when they destroyed millions of dollars worth of plants intended for use in floral arrangements.

The DEA denied a claim made by the farmers that preceded the lawsuit. But the agency has, so far, refused to provide any evidence that they had targeted the right species, Clark says.

We find that suspicious. The DEA did not return a call for this article.

At this point, these Yuma farmers appear to be more innocent victims in the failed War on Drugs.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.
Contact: Ray Stern