Poppy Seed Tea: Beware This Beverage

Gayle N. Scott, PharmD

Disclosures

March 27, 2017

Question

For centuries, poppy seed tea has been used for its narcotic, analgesic, antidiarrheal, or euphoric effects, or as a substitute for opiates. What are the risks associated with this herbal beverage?

Response from Gayle N. Scott, PharmD
Assistant Professor, Department of Physiological Sciences, Eastern Virginia Medical School, Norfolk, Virginia

The opium poppy plant (Papaver somniferum) has been cultivated for centuries as a source of opium. The poppy plant produces seed pods. The pods produce a latex (milky sap that coagulates on exposure to air) that contains opiates; opiates also are found on the surface of the seeds inside the pods. Opium is harvested by slitting the unripe pod and allowing the latex to ooze through the slits onto the surface of the pod where the dried latex is collected.[1,2]

The latex, seeds, stems, and leaves contain opiate alkaloids, including morphine and codeine, and lower amounts of thebaine, noscapine, and papaverine.[3] The highest concentrations of opiates are found in the latex. The opiate content is highly variable, depending on, among other factors, the growing location, harvesting, and processing. The amount of morphine in the seeds is substantially reduced after grinding (34%), baking (90%), or washing with hot water (70%). The seeds usually contain more morphine than codeine, but some seed varieties may contain significant amounts of codeine.[1,4,5]

While poppy seeds are used in food, the amount of opiates found in food is highly variable, depending on the relative number of poppy seeds in or on the food and the exposure of the seeds to heat. Morphine loss during processing can be up to 90%.[1]

Eating poppy seeds can lead to positive opiate tests in urine drug screening; opiates can be detected in blood, saliva, and hair as well.[3] Opiates may be detected in the urine for 48 hours after poppy seed ingestion.[6,7] Detection of unique metabolites are used to distinguish poppy seeds from heroin.[8] The "poppy seed defense" has been used in cases of failed urine screening tests for employment and for sports drug testing, including the Olympics.

Poppy tea or poppy seed tea (also called opium tea) is made from the seed pods or the seeds of the opium poppy plant. Poppy teas are herbal beverages and are not true teas in that they do not contain the leaves of the tea plant (Camellia sinensis).

Instructions for preparing poppy teas are available on the Internet. The recipes call for soaking large quantities of seeds or seed pods for various amounts of time to remove the opiates from the surface. Some recipes suggest additives, such as lemon juice or alcoholic beverages, to mask the bitter taste. The resulting liquid is consumed as a beverage or, rarely, is injected.[9,10,11,12] Effects of the tea begin within 15-30 minutes of ingestion and may last for up to 8-24 hours, depending on the amount of tea consumed.[9,10,15]

Teas made from the opium poppy have been used for centuries for their narcotic, analgesic, antidiarrheal, and/or euphoric effects—or as a substitute for opiates.[10,13,14,15] As with other opioids, poppy teas can cause addiction, and deaths have been reported in the medical literature,[9,14] government documents,[15] and the news.[16,17] Poppy seed addiction has even been called an occupational risk for bakers.[18]

Poppy seeds for culinary use are a legal source of opiates and can be purchased in bulk over the Internet and from specialty stores. All other parts of the poppy plant, including poppy pods and poppy straw, are Schedule II controlled substances.[15] Although illegal, poppy pods are available for purchase over the Internet.

The high variability of the morphine and codeine content of teas prepared from the poppy plant may lead to accidental overdose. The more restrictive use of prescription opioids for chronic pain may increase the use of these homemade remedies.[19] Education of at-risk patients that poppy teas are not harmless herbal beverages could prevent morbidity or mortality.

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