The United States Department of Defense issued a memo on February 17, 2023, service personnel warned not to eat poppy seeds as it could result in a positive urine test for the opiate codeine. Specialist in addiction care and pain relief Gary Reisfield explains what affects poppy seed opiate levels and how they may affect drug testing.
What Are Poppy Seeds?
Poppy seed comes from a type of poppy plant called poppy Papaver somniferum. “Somniferum” is Latin for “soporific‘, suggesting it could contain opiates – powerful compounds that depress the central nervous system and can cause drowsiness and sleepiness.
There are two main uses for the poppy. It is a source of the opiates used in painkillers, of which morphine and codeine are the most biologically active. The seeds are also used for cooking and baking.
Poppy seeds themselves do not contain opiates. But during harvesting the seeds can get infected with opiates in the milky latex of the seed pod that covers them.
What affects the opiate content in poppy seeds?
Many factors determine the opiate concentrations and ratios of poppies. As with wine grapes, the opiate profile of the poppy plant – and thus its seeds – is affected by its terroir: climate, soil, amount of sunshine, topography and harvest time.
Another factor is the variety or cultivar of the plant. For example, there are genetically engineered opium poppies that produce no morphine or codeine and others who produce no opium latex not at all.
Can you get high from eating poppy seeds?
In practice, you cannot eat enough poppy seeds to get high. In addition, the processing drastically reduces the opiate content, for example by to wash or cooking or baking the seeds.
Do poppy seeds affect drug tests?
Poppy seeds don’t contain nearly enough opiates to make you intoxicated. But because drug tests are extremely sensitive, consuming certain food products containing poppy seeds can lead to high blood pressure positive urine test results for opiates – specific to morphine, codeine or both.
In most cases, the opiate concentrations in the urine are too low to give a positive test result. But certain food products — and it’s generally impossible to know which ones, because opiate levels aren’t listed on food labels — contain enough opiates to produce positive test results. In addition, due to overlap in opiate concentrations and morphine-to-codeine ratios, this may be uncommon challenging to distinguish test results attributable to the consumption of poppy seeds of those attributable to the use of opiate drugs.
For most this is not a problem drug testing in the workplace. Test results are reviewed by a specially trained physician, a medical review officer. Unless the physician finds evidence of illicit opiate use, such as needle marks or signs of opiate intoxication or withdrawal, even relatively high concentrations of opiates in the urine that yield positive test results are generally considered negative.
However, it turns out that drug testing in the military is different, and poppy seeds pose potential problems. One of those issues, as highlighted in recent news reports, involves service members testing positive for codeine and claiming a “poppy seed defense.” They are still believed to have taken codeine, sometimes with serious consequencessuch as disciplinary action or discharge from service.