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Charges in opium case hinge on GBI findings

WINDER -- At first blush, it seemed like a major drug bust: Roughly 900 plants that appeared to be opium, standing 3 and feet high, sprouting in the back yard of a Winder home.

Five people were taken into custody Saturday afternoon in connection with the plants, but whether or not any of them will be criminally charged remains to be seen. The case could boil down to a clash of cultural norms.

Winder police spokesman Officer Chris Cooper said an Asian family of five adults living at the Northcrest Drive home was held for questioning, including a 70-something elderly person who suffers from an unknown medical condition. None have been identified.

The younger adults told police the ill person lacks trust in American doctors and was more comfortable with self-medicating by way of the plants, Cooper said.

"This may very well have been a type of home remedy they were experimenting with, but obviously we have no laws in Georgia allowing for medicinal use of this substance," Cooper said.

All residents were released from police custody by Saturday evening. Charges are pending chemical testing of the plants at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation's crime lab in Decatur.

Cooper said his department's experience with the drug is limited. The testing is being used "to verify things like the quantity necessary to meet certain elements of our controlled substance laws ... as well as to learn more about the growth and uses of the raw plant, in case we begin to see more of this."

GBI spokesman John Bankhead said his agency had yet to receive the plants Tuesday.

The GBI lab will "look for what naturally occurs in the plants," Bankhead said, "which, if it is truly opium, would be several different opiate compounds."

Cooper said his department is considering "several charges" and is conferring with the Barrow County District's Attorney's Office and the Barrow County Crime Task Force.

Police were led to the home in question after a hit-and-run accident at a Winder hardware store Saturday.

Witnesses gave police a tag number and physical description of a vehicle that had left the scene. Officers responded to the Northcrest Drive residence, and the homeowner pointed them to the rear of the property where a vehicle was parked that matched the witnesses' description.