Check, Please!

Can you get high from poppy seeds? A toxicologist reveals the dangerous truth

“You would probably get sick to your stomach before you would get high.”

Madeleine Swortwood, Sam Houston State University

poppy seeds

Getty Images

The mandatory drug test for new jobs is controversial for a number of reasons, including the fact that it can be hijacked by your breakfast.

Let’s say you ate a far-from-offensive lemon poppyseed muffin before the test. You pop the final bite of the muffin into your mouth and as you’re chewing begin to remember stories of poppy seeds triggering a false positive on drug tests. Swallowing hard, you shrug it off as just more digital misinformation.

Then your test comes back positive.

A sprinkling of poppy seeds in a muffin or over a bagel may sound utterly innocent, but the consumption of these seeds is still regularly flagged by urine tests as opium. While most false positives triggered by poppy seeds can be easily overturned, the National Institute of Drug Abuse suggests skipping a poppy seed snack altogether before a drug test, just to be safe.

Why can these seeds trigger a false positive? And is it possible that another culinary rumor is true — that eating poppy seeds can actually get you high?

The answer is more complicated than you likely realize.

Madeleine Swortwood is an assistant professor of forensic toxicology at Sam Houston State University who has researched the intoxicating and potentially deadly effects of poppy seeds. She explains to Inverse the science behind this tiny seed and how it can go from a harmless snack to a dangerous tonic.

Poppy seeds add a pleasant crunch to the outside of a bagel, but these tiny seeds may still be covered in a trace amount of opium.Shutterstock

Are poppy seeds a drug?

The kind of tiny, dark seeds, often sprinkled on bagels or into batters, is the starting point of a plant called Papaver somniferum, commonly known as opium poppy.

This poppy has been cultivated since early history for its medicinal and pain-relieving properties and is a base source from which addictive alkaloids like morphine and codeine can be extracted.

However, it’s not the seed itself that contains opium, Swortwood explains, but rather a sap-like substance that coats them.

Beautiful as they may be, poppy flowers contain a potentially deadly substance called latex that is the basis of addictive narcotics like morphine and codeine. Shutterstock

“When the opium plant is growing it releases this kind of sappy, milky substance called latex,” explains Swortwood. “That latex is what has the morphine and codeine in it. And that can just sort of coat or contaminate the seeds and so when the seeds are harvested, they can have morphine and codeine on them.”

“What came to our attention a few years ago was that there were companies that were intentionally not washing the seeds, not processing the seeds, so that they could sell seeds that were essentially laced with morphine and codeine,” Swortwood says.

Can you fail a drug test after eating poppy seeds?

Typically, food-safe poppy seeds are thoroughly washed and processed to remove latex residue, but even then they can still contain small traces of opium.

It’s this low level of opiates that can flag drug tests, not because they’re dangerous or high-inducing but simply because the tests are very sensitive.

To eliminate any risk of a false positive, it’s recommended you hold off on consuming any poppy seed products for at least 48-hours before your drug test.

Can poppy seeds get you high?

As for whether or not these baked goods can get you high as well, Swortwood never says never — but she does say it’s unlikely.

“If you made the muffin with some of those unwashed or unprocessed seeds, I wouldn't rule it out,” Swortwood says.

“But traditionally if it is food grade poppy seeds that the company processed and washed in the correct way, you would really have to eat a lot of poppy seed muffins to get high. You would probably get sick to your stomach before you would get high.”

While you may be relatively protected from a true high when just eating a poppy seed treat or two, there is another much more potent — and potentially deadly — way that people consume poppy seeds: poppy seed tea.

The poppy seed muffin you buy from a bakery is made using seeds that have been thoroughly washed to remove the intoxicating latex, Swortwood says. However, she references online sellers who have sold unwashed poppy seeds, which have the potential to be much more potent. Users can then mix these laced seeds with water at home.

“They essentially rinse the morphine and codeine off of the seeds themselves and let the seeds settle to the bottom,” Swortwood says. “Then they just drink the rinse of the seeds, so you're essentially drinking morphine and codeine.”

Recipes for poppy seed tea vary, but Swortwood says that some could contain up to one pound of seeds. However, unlike the kind of morphine you might be given at a hospital, the amount of opium in the resulting tea could vary widely based on processing and even individual harvests.

As news reports and Swortwood’s own research has shown, this can lead to accidental overdoses, including the 2016 death of a 21-year-old college student in Virginia.

“I think there are some naive users who [consume poppy] because it’s marketed as something useful for withdrawals,” Swortwood says. “I don't think that all of those users necessarily understand that they're just swapping one drug habit with another.”

How to safely buy and eat poppy seeds

In recent years, the sale of unwashed poppy seeds has gone down thanks to stricter regulations and public pressure. However, while it’s unlikely that you’ll accidentally purchase unwashed poppy seeds, Swortwood says there are a few things to keep in mind when shopping.

  • Try to avoid poppy seeds advertised as medicinal or for pain relief
  • Purchase poppy seeds from well-known brands or grocery stores instead of online vendors
  • When in doubt, rely on the bakery instead

“The FDA and DEA have done a really good job of shutting down some of those companies that might be selling the unwashed poppy seeds,” Swortwood says. “As long as you’re buying them at grocery stores and major retailers they should be fairly safe.”

CHECK, PLEASE is an Inverse series that uses biology, chemistry, and physics to debunk the biggest food myths and assumptions.

Now read this: Science debunks a disturbing, pervasive myth about sugar

Related Tags
Share: