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Poppy Seeds and Opiate Addiction

Barbara Poncelet, CRNP, is a certified pediatric nurse practitioner specializing in teen health.

Steven Gans, MD is board-certified in psychiatry and is an active supervisor, teacher, and mentor at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Poppy seeds may seem harmless, but poppy seed tea can be a recipe for disaster. Parents of teenagers must be aware of the potentially dangerous use of the poppy plant and seeds used to brew a tea that causes a high.  

The poppy plant, more specifically the opium poppy or Papaver somniferum, is used to produce opiates. Opiates have been used successfully to control pain, but they are also abused because of their mind-altering effects.

The opiates that come from the poppy plant include morphine, opium, heroin, and codeine.

After they enter the body, opiates stimulate receptors in the brain. When the opiate receptors are activated, it causes a rush of pleasure and then hours of feeling content, relaxed, or high. Some of these receptors are in the reward center of the brain. The brain starts to want to repeat the positive stimulation and this can lead to addiction. Aside from pain relief and a sense of euphoria, opiates can cause:

  • Drowsiness
  • Constipation
  • Depression of the respiratory system, meaning that the drive to breathe lessens
  • Respiratory arrest and death

How Potent Are Poppy Seeds?

Poppy seeds used in food preparation are washed, which removes up to 90% of the opioids. The seeds, stems, and pods sold to make poppy seed tea are unwashed.   Poppy seeds are not created equal, and everyone processes them differently. Poppy seeds can vary in their concentrations of codeine and morphine, meaning that the strength of the tea made by one crop of seed can be quite different from another.

Additionally, people metabolize the poppy seed differently. One study gave poppy seeds to volunteers and there was a big variation in how much codeine and morphine were excreted in their urine.

The Dangers of Poppy Seed Tea

Poppy pods, straw (the pods and stems), and/or seeds are used to create poppy seed tea, which gives an opioid high. The dried pods or straw are ground into a powder and steeped in water. This is a popular way to extract opioids from the poppy.

Opioids are dangerous. They are highly addictive. Additionally, they suppress the respiratory system, which can lead to death by respiratory arrest after an overdose of the drug.

Research has shown it is possible to create a lethal dose of morphine in poppy seed tea brewed at home.   Because it is almost impossible to tell what the concentration of the active drugs might be in any one crop of poppy pods or poppy seeds, it is impossible to control the drug enough to avoid overdose.

Poppy tea can be addictive and deadly. There have been a number of documented cases of death from the use of poppy tea.

Poppy Seeds and Drug Tests

Eating poppy seeds have, in fact, caused individuals to fail urine drug screenings. In the past, even modest amounts of poppy seeds have caused people to test positive for morphine, one of the opioids contained in the poppy.  

The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), which sets the cutoff values for drug testing, has addressed this issue. DHHS increased the threshold for detecting opiate metabolites in urine to help prevent these false positives, so you or your teen can safely enjoy a poppy seed bagel.

A Word From Verywell

If your teen is brewing tea with poppy seeds, it is not a fad, but a dangerous practice that could kill. Seek help from your pediatrician, a counselor, or your local drug and alcohol treatment center if you suspect your teen is using this or any other drug. Teen drug use is difficult for parents to address on their own, so don’t hesitate to get help from those who have experience with the issue.

Poppy seed tea is popular with teens as a way to get high on opiates. Learn about poppy seeds and opiate addiction.