Poppy seeds: delicious bagel topping or dangerous narcotic?
On July 12, the Food and Drug Administration sent a warning letter to the owner of a website selling a product known as PoppySeed Wash. In the letter, the FDA warned that the product was being marketed not as a food but as a drug.
Among the claims on the website: The product can be used as a sleep aid, a pain reliever, and a remedy to ease opioid withdrawals. (However, these claims appear to have been taken down.) The site goes on to say that the product can even replace prescription opioids, including oxycodone and fentanyl.
“Your PoppySeed Wash product is not generally recognized as safe and effective for the above referenced use and, therefore, the product is a ‘new drug,’” states the letter. “New drugs may not be legally introduced or delivered for introduction into interstate commerce without prior approval from FDA.”
PoppySeed Wash is just one of many similar products sold to make poppy seed tea — which is done by taking the supplied poppy seeds, steeping them in water, and drinking the resulting “tea,” minus the seeds.
While this may seem harmless, poppy seed tea is in fact a growing concern among health experts and legislators because it can contain the opiates morphine and codeine.
“It’s sort of a gray area right now because it is a food product, so you would think that it would fall under the FDA, but it also contains a Schedule II drug, so you think it might fall under the jurisdiction of the DEA,” said Madeleine Swortwood, PhD, assistant professor and director of graduate programs for the department of forensic science at Sam Houston State University.
“They are marketing this for pain relief as a food product but they contain potentially lethal levels of a Schedule II drug,” she said.
Swortwood is part of a small group of researchers who have investigated the drug potency of poppy seed teas available on the market in the United States.
Poppy seeds are harvested from the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum), the same plant used to create opiates such as heroin and morphine. Poppy seeds don’t inherently contain morphine or codeine, but can become contaminated during the harvesting process.
During harvest, the “latex” — the white, milky material contained in the pods of opium poppies that is used to make heroin — can be transferred onto the poppy seeds.
However, there is one important distinction between your average poppy seed for baking and those used for teas.
Poppy seeds used for baking and food preparation have been “washed” or cleaned before use, which removes their narcotic component. Some residue can still remain, which is why poppy seeds can actually cause a positive drug test result.
“Unwashed” poppy seeds, like those marketed for PoppySeed Wash, are left this way intentionally in order to leave the narcotic opiate components intact.
The danger, say experts, is that the unwashed poppy seed market isn’t regulated, and the amount of morphine and codeine contained in the seeds can vary from one batch to the next.
“The purity of the ‘active’ ingredient can vary batch to batch, and there may be dangerous contaminates. If there is enough morphine for a drug effect, then you have the same concerns for overdose that you would for any other strong opioid,” said Edward Bilsky, PhD, provost and chief academic officer at Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences in Washington and an expert in opioid pharmacology.
The use of poppy seed tea has already resulted in fatalities.
A 2017 study co-authored by Swortwood in the Journal of Forensic Sciences reviewed case reports of two young men, one 24 years old and the other 21 years old, who both died from overdosing on poppy seed tea.
The death of Stephen Hacala, the 24-year-old mentioned in the journal article, has since led Leslie Rutledge, Arkansas attorney general, to request that the FDA limit the sale of unwashed poppy seeds. Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton also praised the FDA’s recent action against PoppySeed Wash in a separate statement.
Unwashed poppy seeds continue to be available through a variety of online retailers, including Amazon and eBay.
“We’re really focusing on public awareness at this point,” said Swortwood.
“I’ve actually been in contact with a few physicians, especially addiction medicine physicians, who are treating patients with morphine addiction from consuming poppy seed tea. They are not heroin users, but they actually become addicted to the morphine from the tea,” she said.