06-12-18 Can consumption of home-brewed poppy tea be lethal?

Toxicology Question of the Week

June 12, 2018

Can consumption of home-brewed poppy tea be lethal?

This question was prompted by the death of Stephen Hacala and recent comments from Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton to Congress about the regulation of unwashed poppy seeds. Hacala, a 24 year-old Arkansas man, was found dead in his apartment on April 3rd 2016 with no obvious cause. The only thing out of place detectives discovered was a 5-pound bag of unwashed poppy seeds (see Figure 1) along with a 33-ounce bottle filled with poppy seeds and water. The medical examiner later confirmed high amounts of morphine and codeine with a trace amount of thebaine in Hacala’s blood on autopsy.

The opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) is grown as large-scale agricultural crop for one of two primary reasons. The first is to produce opium alkaloids (morphine, codeine, thebaine, oripavine, etc.) for use by the pharmaceutical industry. The other reason is to produce seeds for human consumption.

Opium alkaloids are found in the latex which functions to protect the plant from herbivores. This latex is harvested by making shallow incisions into the immature seed pods (see Figure 2). The latex seeps out of these cuts and is collected as sticky resin after it dries. This crude opium is later refined into morphine base with a simple acid-base extraction process then pressed into bricks and dried out in the sun. The morphine bricks can be smoked, prepared into other forms, or further processed into heroin.

On the other hand, poppy seeds are harvested much later in the plant’s life cycle after the seed pods have matured then dried. The seeds themselves do not contain any opium alkaloids. Instead they are contaminated as dry latex is transferred onto the seeds during the harvesting process. Poppy variety, geographic origin, harvest method, and time of harvest can affect the alkaloid content on the seeds. Thankfully, most poppy seeds destined for human consumption are washed with hot water which removes approximately 73% of the deposited morphine from the seeds. Further food preparation (i.e. grinding and baking) reduces the alkaloid content even further. However, trace amounts do remain and are significant enough to provoke a positive result on a standard urine opiate screen.

Because of their higher alkaloid content, unwashed poppy seeds are desirable for drug users seeking to extract morphine and codeine from the seed coats. Unwashed poppy seeds can be purchased in bulk online from domestic and international sources with no current legal regulations. Subsequently, a “tea” can be made by simply soaking or boiling the seeds in water (among various other methods found on the internet) – the same practice used to wash the seeds prior to food preparation.

In response to Hacala’s death, researchers at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas conducted a study to assess the alkaloid content of various poppy seed samples and the efficacy of four different home-brewing methods. They found morphine (1 to 2788 mg/kg), codeine (1 to 247.6 mg/kg), and thebaine (1 to 124 mg/kg) concentrations varied greatly between the poppy seed samples, but regardless of extraction methods, lethal amounts of morphine can be rinsed by home-brewing methods.

References

  1. Lachenmeier DW, Sproll C, Musshoff F. Poppy seed foods and opiate drug testing – where are we today? Ther Drug Monit. 2010 Feb; 32(1):11-8.
  2. Meadway C, George S, Braithwaite R. Opiate concentrations following the ingestion of poppy seed products – evidence for ‘the poppy seed defense’. Forensic Sci Int. 1998 Aug 31; 96(1):29-38.
  3. Powers D. Erickson S, Swortwood MJ. Quantification of morphine, codeine, and thebaine in home-brewed poppy seed tea by LC-MS/MS. J Forensic Sci. 2017 Oct 3. [Epub ahead of print]
  4. Samano KL, Clouette RE, Rowland BJ, et al. Concentrations of morphine and codeine in paired oral fluid and urine specimens following ingestion of a poppy seed roll and raw poppy seeds. J Anal Toxicol. 2015 Oct; 39(8):655-61.

This Question was prepared by: Justin Loden, PharmD, CSPI (Certified Specialist in Poison Information)

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Medical Director

Tennessee Poison Center

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