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Poppy seed wash is really a drug, FDA says

A product called Poppy Seed Wash is advertised as a natural alternative to opioids for relaxation and pain relief, but it’s really just an unlicensed drug, the Food and Drug Administration said Tuesday.

The FDA posted a warning letter to the makers of the product, telling them to stop making medical claims and to stop selling it online.

“Your Poppy Seed Wash product is not generally recognized as safe and effective for the above referenced use and, therefore, the product is a ‘new drug,’” the FDA says in its letter.

The internet is awash in sites offering “natural” alternatives to opioids, and the FDA has been trying to shut down those that are offering potentially dangerous products, such as the kratom plant.

Poppy seeds can be a source of opiates. They don’t contain opiates themselves, but the pod of the plant they develop in does. Most of the seeds used in food are washed for this reason — washing removes any residue of the opiate-containing poppy fluid.

People who eat poppy seed bagels or muffins can fail drug tests.

But do-it-yourselfers trade tips on how to get unwashed seeds and use them to make tea or, in this case, a wash that they hope will contain enough opiate to have an effect. Poppy seeds themselves are legal for sale in the U.S.

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The PoppySeed Wash site (it spells the product name both ways) sells a kit that includes poppy seeds and a bottle to mix them with water and wash off any residue. Drinking this “wash” can ease pain, the site claims.

“The opioids relax and sedate the body,” the site promises. “PoppySeed Wash relieves anxiety by slowing down the central nervous system and has a relaxing and calming effect on the mind and body. Because it works quickly, it can be effective during a panic attack or another overwhelming anxiety episode.”

These are medical claims, the FDA said, and must go through a formal approval process.

“The claims on your product label and websites establish the product is a drug” because it is “intended for use in the cure, mitigation, treatment or prevention of disease,’ the warning letter reads.

“FDA approves a new drug on the basis of scientific data and information demonstrating that the drug is safe and effective.”

An hour after the FDA notice became public, the site appeared to have been altered, with references to opioids and to any potential effects of the product removed.

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Testimonials on the site make it clear that buyers believe they are getting a safer, somehow more “natural” product.

“I am kind of a hippie and don’t really trust all the chemicals and pharmaceuticals out there that companies and doctors are always trying to sell,” reads one testimonial.

“I prefer natural substances that god made. The problem is that most ‘natural’ remedies like elm bark, turmeric, passion flower, twigs, leaves and newt eye don’t really work. I love Poppy Seed Wash because it is all natural, organic and it actually works!”

But the FDA said there is no way to direct the safe use of Poppy Seed Wash.

“Your PoppySeed Wash product is intended for treatment of one or more diseases that are not amenable to self-diagnosis or treatment without the supervision of a licensed practitioner,” it said.

“Therefore, it is impossible to write adequate directions for use for a layperson to use your product safely for its intended purposes.”

The FDA letter addresses the legal basis of the claims, but any product containing opiates can be dangerous.

Earlier this year, Betty and Steve Hacala of Rogers, Arkansas, met with members of Congress and the FDA after their son, Stephen, died. He had morphine in his blood and a bag of poppy seeds, as well as a water bottle filled with seeds, was found near his body, according to numerous media reports.

“Stephen’s death resulted in part because of a dangerous gap in our nation’s drug laws. It’s been well known for ages that poppies are dangerous, both addictive and toxic,” Senator Tom Cotton, R-Ark., said in April.

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“That’s why it’s illegal to grow or own almost any part of the poppy — the straw, the pod, the latex. But there’s an exception, of course, for poppy seeds, which many people enjoy on bagels, muffins, cakes and other pastries.”

Tests of poppy seed washes and teas have shown that they can deliver both morphine and codeine.

Cotton said Walmart and Amazon had agreed to stop selling unwashed poppy seeds online.

The Poppy Seed Wash company, which doesn’t provide a physical address, did not respond to requests for comment from NBC News.

Poppy Seed Wash is being sold as a natural alternative to opioids. The FDA warned the makers of PoppySeed Wash to stop selling it online.

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.

  • Drug Use
    • Cocaine
    • Heroin
    • Marijuana
    • Meth
    • Ecstasy/MDMA
    • Hallucinogens
    • Opioids
    • Prescription Medications
  • Alcohol Use
  • Addictive Behaviors
  • Nicotine Use
  • Coping and Recovery

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.