Poppy seed tea can kill you

A little over a week ago, we posted on the very sad story of the accidental death of a University of Colorado sophomore from ingesting poppy seed tea. The poppy, Papaver somniferum, is the commercial source for prescription narcotic painkillers such as morphine and codeine. The seeds can be had online and in retail stores. The plants can often be grown if these seeds are not roasted or otherwise sterilized.

I had originally suspected that the CU-Boulder student had not used poppy seed tea but rather some other decoction of the plant itself. I had always contended that the seeds did not contain appreciable amounts of morphine, codeine, or other opiate-related molecules. However, it appears that I am wrong.

Commenter Tom
just shared with me the absolutely heartbreaking story of the death of his 17-year-old son from poppy seed tea:


Just a note regarding your statement: "A previous report has been that the student and friends were boiling up poppy seeds, but I was suspicious as those lack significant amounts of opiates.".

Our son died 6 years ago from exactly the same causes as the man in this case. Except that my did in fact use only poppy seeds, in large amounts. Even though there is no Morphine in the seeds, they contain traces from the rest of the plant from the processing/harvesting. We have put up a Web site that includes the coroner's report stating that cause of death was indeed Morphine overdose from poppy seed tea. You can find our Web site at: http://www.poppyseedtea.com/

I spent some time on Tom's site, Poppy Seed Tea Can Kill You, and I just have to say that I am in awe of the effort and courage this gentleman has undertaken to keep other kids and other parents from experiencing the same tragedy.

Related specifically to Tom's comment, he has courageously posted a redacted version of the medical examiner's report from 13 Sept 2003. Therein, the toxicology analysis of tissues, blood, and the tea his son ingested are detailed. On the third page, the content of the tea was quantified as having a "high level of morphine," 259 micrograms/mL.

Calculating a lethal dose for morphine is difficult because previous use of morphine can causes significant tolerance, or resistance, to both the therapeutic and lethal effects of the drug. For example, a dose of 100-150 mg may be lethal to a person who has never taken morphine orally, but it is not unusual for cancer patients with chronic pain to take as much as 4,000 mg/day.

Therefore, Tom's son could've received a lethal dose by drinking as little as a pint of the poppy tea he had prepared.

The medical examiner himself concluded the opinion section of the report by saying:

Poppy seeds are the natural source of opioid analgesics. Although they contain extremely low levels of the drug, concentration of these compounds by brewing can result in potentially lethal levels. [emphasis mine]

Frankly, I don't know if I would have what it takes to set up such a website in my son's memory. But as Tom writes there:

Why do we have this site?
When, as parents, we realized that our son was taking poppy seed tea, we saw it as a "natural herbal tea", prepared with an ingredient sold openly in supermarkets without any restrictions, and thought that it was acceptable for him to do this. When we looked on the Internet for additional information on it, we did find several sites that talked about it, but none stated clearly that this tea contained morphine and that these levels could potentially be lethal. Even after our son's overdose accident, we were surprised to find out that even within the medical community, the fact that the morphine content in poppy seed tea can be very high is not widely known.

The purpose of this Web site is to hopefully have it show up in Internet search results for people researching the subject. Mostly for curious users experimenting with it, like our son was, but also for concerned parents looking to understand the risks that their children may be undertaking. We can only wish that we had seen the information provided on this Web site when we did our Internet search trying to understand what the risks were. Please share with others...

Yes, we will share with others.

I am deeply appreciative of Tom stopping by and raising my awareness of the dangers of poppy seed tea. Again, I am in awe of his selflessness in providing this information and establishing his website.

My hope is that our post here popularizing his message increases the dissemination of the message on the danger of using poppy seed tea.

More like this

I never heard about infusion from poppy seeds - it has to be greasy and icky, I think.
In my whole life, I must've eaten kilos of poppy seeds in cakes, pastries and similar products, so have many other people... I'm from an area where poppy seeds are, like, normally eaten. Now, I wonder, is there some difference between poppy seeds thrown in hot water and poppy seeds boiled in milk with sugar, thus changed into cake filling? Or is that different poppy?
I only remember reading that one may test positive for opiates after having eaten lots of poppy seeds but still, it's not overdosing oneself.

I think your underestimating the sheer amount of poppy seeds he probably used to brew the tea.

I read about a guy who failed an employment drug test due to having eaten poppy-seed cake. Apocryphal, but...

It's true that people used to fail drug tests because of eating poppy seed containing foods. But they have recently (in the past few years) increased the amount of the chemical needed to fail a drug test.

But thanks for the warning. I will not ever drink poppy seed tea.

Your reader is really a selfless man, and he has my great respect!
This sad story, though, explains the dubious reasoning of my friend's grandmother who'd, in her own words "make the kids some poppy tea when they are unruly and wild, and it instantly calms them". I did have my doubts about the 'intervention' being passionate about poppy-cakes as I am, but I got to think it works. Still, I want to know, how come that I never ever had any side effects from poppy seed cakes and cookies?

Lots of plant foods are considered safe and non-toxic when consumed in normal amounts. Lots of substances are safe and nontoxic when consumed in moderation, e.g., ethanol. Nutmeg is quite toxic, but in normal usage totally safe, so your eggnog doesn't have to be bland. Lots of over the counter medicines are safe and nontoxic in normally dosages.
I'm certain that poppy seeds contain alkaloids, poppies are loaded with them, even if no appreciable amounts of morphine are in the seeds. So consumption of lots of plant items in great quantity is not a good idea. Dosage is the key to toxic effects.

I was also puzzled about the dose questions. Poppyseed cakes often contain a very large quantity of seeds - especially some of the Hungarian strudel types. For example, I have a recipe that uses 2 cups in a strudel to serve 12. That's 1/6 cup per serve, and I'm sure eating two or three serves wouldn't kill you.

I wondered if there is something about the boiling and brewing process that alters the chemistry? Mind you, the site says he was making his tea with 3.5 pounds of the stuff! So it could indeed be just dosage.

Without trying to diminish the impact of this incident, frankly, if you're drinking tea with enough opioids to kill you, you are certainly drinking enough to make you high.

If you're deliberately making tea using hundreds of grams of poppy seeds, its not unreasonable to think that getting high was probably the primary goal of the exercise.

Despite the opening of this story, its hardly a secret that you can make a pharmaceutically active tea from poppy seeds. ABC news story on this phenomenon here:


By looking closely (not verified) on 31 Mar 2009 #permalink

sobe wrote:

I read about a guy who failed an employment drug test due to having eaten poppy-seed cake. Apocryphal, but...

Something similar happened to me about 15 years ago. I was very poor and and donating plasma twice a week for food money. They gave regular drug tests and I failed one after living on pretty much nothing but lemon poppyseed cake for about 3 days.

Embarrassing. Nothing so good for the ego as trying to convince skeptical strangers that you are not a heroin addict. I can't imagine how horrible that would have been for an employment test.

Te Salutamus...

According to http://tinyurl.com/cjcdbu there is a 2 order of magnitude difference in residual opiate levels in poppy seeds from different sources, which explains a lot of the differing anecdotal reports.

snoey, indeed, this variation in opiate content is one of the major dangers of poppy seed tea ingestion. In fact, that is a common issue with all herbal medicines: growing conditions and processing methods dramatically affect the concentration of pharmacologically-active compounds.

For morphine and other opioids, this is the very reason that the German chemist, Friedrich Sertürner, first isolated morphine from the poppy so that the compound could be standardized and given in reproducible doses.

Most people who make PST (poppy seed tea) use between 100-300 grams, although some people use pounds at a time. Usually the seeds are "cooked" in hot water. Though inexperienced users may powderize the seeds in a coffee grinder; this is dangerous. The sheer amount of different alkaloids in the seeds is dangerous in its self, some are known toxins. Also if pulverized you get more molrphine extracted as well.

Some people report using pounds of seeds at a time to get high, if he tried to emulate this he could be in trouble.

A much better method is using dried poppy PODS; where does is more regulated and much cleaner. Also, its a better high.

Anyways I would suspect that he had taken some other form of a CNS depressant in concurrence with the tea. Rarely do people die from pure opiate overdose. But simply mixing benadryl with an otherwise non-lethal dose of Opiates, may potentiate the respiratory depression to lethal levels.

By Joe Is Smarter… (not verified) on 23 Apr 2009 #permalink

In response to Joe is smarter the autopsy report did say he had therapeutic levels of Xanax in his system which is a CNS depressant. He also took Buproprian aka Welbutrin and THC. So it seems to me that it is possible that at least the Xanax may have contributed to his death. The coroner did not mention the Xanax as related to the cause of death but I would think it may have increased the possibility..

Ok, let me start off by saying that poppy seeds themselves do not contain Morphine, just a very slight "coat" of the substance surrounds the out side of the seeds from being in contact with the "pods". When you make the seed tea, you are simply washing of this thin layer. Now the reason you test positive on drug test from consuming poppy seed cakes and what not but do not get "high" or experience any of the side affects is because the opiate alkaliods break down at a relatively low temp. So baking the seeds in the cake mix pretty much destroys the opiates.

By daniel2586 (not verified) on 25 Feb 2010 #permalink

I tried the tea back in 1999 by soaking the seeds in lemon juice. I drank one full coffee cup, then sat on a couch and stared at my shoelaces for 4 hours until I nodded out. I would definitely describe the experience as strange.

I also made the tea again in 2005 using the powdered/coffee grinder method. 2 batches using two big Poppy Seed "spice" bottles from a grocery store (not the 3.5 pound method).

I obviously didn't die from ingesting it. There had to be something else going on to cause that kids fatality because the active levels of opiates that are left coating the processed seeds are *nowhere near* the levels you would find in heroin, that would cause an OD.

Poppy seed tea,is a potent addictive substance.The effects are like a rough H high,similar to raw opium.Withdrawals are a nasty and prolonged affair.Some seed,dusty dark blue types,have very high opiate levels.I used 200gm shook up in a plastic bottle,with lemonade,that had me slumped over the stearing wheel, for 2hours with-in 20 minutes of comsumption.Milder seed gives you plenty of energy,the dose required rises rapidly,and becomes a deep addiction.I think there's a lot more PST user's struggling to get off,this legal product,who like me need serious help.I've gone thru H and methadone detox [jumped off at 80 ml after 4years] and PST W/Ds are in my opinion,worse and longer.Time stands still,every cell in your body is screaming,the uncontrollable urge to thrash about is relentless and your hormomes and emotions become a mess.There is no chance of sleep for at least 10 days.Life can get pretty hard if PST grabs a hold on you,BEWARE!

This is BS, while a narcotic tea can be made from the raw seeds/pods it will not kill you. How do i know this for sure??? Well i have used the pods in huge amounts 10+ pods with the main pourpose to erase myself and it did not work it did not even send me to the hospital. These individuals must have been mixing it with other crap or had prexisting medical conditions.

Amber, this is far from BS. If one were to measure the opioid content of your tea, I predict that it would only be modestly potent in comparison with the deadly concentrates made here. The issue here is that you have no way of telling, outside of HPLC analysis, the potency of whatever tea you make.

Amber,arsnic will definately erase you,but as far giving opinions on opiates,no offence but, you ain't been around.
No matter how it comes morphine will kill you,if the dose is more than you can handle.

I am disgusted by how so many people believe a non-scientific website to be gospel.

pharmboy, you need to stop smoking pot before you type anything.

By ednonymous (not verified) on 15 Mar 2010 #permalink

Ain't it obvious Abel? You said a recreational drug may be something other than perfectly safe! Clearly you are high as a kite.

By El Picador (not verified) on 15 Mar 2010 #permalink