Science Questions with Surprising Answers
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Dr. Christopher S. Baird

Do poppy seeds contain narcotics?

Category: Biology      Published: November 12, 2014

By: Christopher S. Baird, author of The Top 50 Science Questions with Surprising Answers and Associate Professor of Physics at West Texas A&M University

poppy seed bagel
Public Domain Image, source: NIH.

Yes, poppy seeds contain narcotics. Poppy seeds are used to add flavor to many baked goods, salads, and pasta dishes; ranging from lemon bread to chicken salad. Poppy seeds are produced by the opium poppy plant, a plant that has been famous since ancient times for containing psychoactive chemicals. All parts of the opium poppy, including the seeds, contain the drugs morphine and codeine. In fact, eating poppy seeds can lead you to test positive on a drug test. Many government agencies know this fact and therefore discourage people from eating poppy seeds who are required to take drug tests. The official inmate furlough application of the US Federal Bureau of Prisons requires the following pledge:

It has been determined that consumption of poppy seeds may cause a positive drug test which may result in disciplinary action. As a condition of my participation in community programs, I will not consume any poppy seeds or items containing poppy seeds.

Morphine acts directly on the central nervous system by binding and activating the μ-opioid receptors, chiefly causing relief of intense pain and sleepiness. In high doses and/or extended use, morphine can also cause euphoria, physical addiction, and suppressed breathing. Although morphine plays an important role in medical settings, it can be abused because of its euphoric and addictive properties.

So why don't poppy seeds give you a drug-induced high if they contain narcotics? The answer is that the concentration of narcotics in poppy seeds is too low. A study performed by M. Thevis, G. Opfermann, and W Schanzer, and published in the Journal of Analytical Toxicology, found that commercially-available poppy seeds contain between 0.5 and 10 micrograms of morphine per gram of seeds. A typical poppy-seed food contains only a few grams of poppy seed, and therefore only a few micrograms of morphine. In contrast, a single initial dose of medically-prescribed morphine contains between 5,000 and 30,000 micrograms. Therefore, a person with no morphine tolerance would need to eat between 500 and 60,000 grams of poppy seeds in one sitting in order to get enough morphine to have a noticeable drug effect. This is equivalent to 1 to 130 pounds. The exact amount depends on the potency of the poppy seeds and the person's sensitivity. While eating several pounds of poppy seeds in one sitting is certainly doable, it is highly unusual. If you had a particularly potent batch of poppy seeds, and if you were particularly sensitive to morphine, and if you really liked poppy-seed cake to the point of eating pounds of it, then unintentionally ingesting medicinal levels of morphine is entirely possible. But for the rest of us, a sprinkling of poppy seeds on our bagels may give us just barely enough morphine to fail a drug test, but not enough to do much else. This does not mean that poppy seeds are completely harmless. If you make a tea using pounds of poppy seeds, you can indeed concetrate the narcotics enough to give you a high and enough to harm you. Sadly, there have been cases of people dying from a narcotics overdose brought about by drinking poppy seed tea.

The bottom line is: if you are worried about drug effects, don't eat poppy seeds by the pound or drink poppy seed tea. If you want to pass a drug test, don't eat or drink any at all.

Topics: drug, drug test, drugs, morphine, narcotic, narcotic, opium, poppy seed