Poppy tea is any herbal tea infusion brewed from poppy straw or seeds of several species of poppy. The species most commonly used for this purpose is Papaver somniferum, which produces opium as a natural defense against predators. In the live flower, opium is released when the surface of the bulb, called the seed pod, is scratched. For the purpose of the tea, dried pods are more commonly used than the pods of the live flower. The walls of the dried pods contain opiate alkaloids, primarily consisting of morphine.
The tea is consumed for its narcotic, analgesic, and anti-diarrheal effects. This tea is depicted both in Asian literature and Western literature, such as in opium dens. It can also be used in small amounts as an analgesic, anti-diarrhoeal, and sedative for many mammals and birds.
In the Netherlands, all parts of Papaver somniferum after harvesting (except for the seeds) are illegal by law, as they are List I drugs of the Opium Law. Because of use for decorative purposes, the trade in, and possession of dried Papaver somniferum is not actively prosecuted. Trade in, or possession of dried Papaver somniferum with the intention of drug use can be prosecuted, although this is very unlikely. For this reason, it is an alternative to pharmaceutical opioids, which are highly regulated in most countries, while the dried seed pod of Papaver somniferum is easily obtainable as it is commonly available for decorative use. Many varieties, strains, and cultivars of Papaver somniferum are in existence, and the alkaloid content can vary significantly.
In the United States it is legal to purchase poppy seeds but all other parts of the plant are considered a schedule II controlled substance under the federal Controlled Substance Act of 1970. The Opium Poppy Exclusion Act of 1942 bans growing of the poppy in many cases but is generally not a problem for gardeners as the plant is widely grown for the flowers and for seeds for replanting and cooking, and for much of US history poppies were a significant cash crop, with the government especially pushing for farmers to grow more poppies for medicinal use during wars up to World War I.
The import and sale of opium poppy seeds is legal in Canada. Canadian authorities have noted the presence of dode or doda in the Punjabi-Canadian community, a traditional Punjabi form of poppy tea. Crackdowns on this traditional preparation in the late 2000s led to a number of arrests in Canada.
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Poppy tea contains two groups of alkaloids: phenanthrenes (including morphine and codeine) and benzylisoquinolines (including papaverine). Of these, morphine is the most prevalent comprising 8%-14% of the total. Its effects derive from the fact that it binds to and activates mu opioid receptors in the brain, spinal cord, stomach and intestine.
Dried Papaver somniferum capsules and stems will, if harvested and dried by the usual protocol, contain significantly lower quantities of thebaine than opium made from latex as well as somewhat more codeine. When ingested, thebaine causes nausea, vomiting, and myoclonus. Thebaine is an important precursor for manufacture of pharmaceuticals, and is more concentrated in the roots of Papaver somniferum than elsewhere. Other species of poppies, numbering in the hundreds, do not contain morphine or codeine in useful amounts, but may contain non-narcotic alkaloids like protopine, sanguinarine or berberine.
Preparation and consumption
There are many different preparations of poppy tea. Most methods call for the "poppy straw" material (the seedpod and sometimes the stem) only to be used. Most methods call for the straw to be ground into a fine powder. A fine powder is needed because most of the opium latex is located within the cell walls of the pod. The seeds are discarded most of the time because they do not contain a high enough alkaloid content. However, there are dozens of poppy seed tea recipes. A quick and efficient method is to use a stovetop espresso maker. This results in a fairly concentrated beverage and does not appear to destroy the alkaloids despite involving steam passing through the poppy straw.
There is much debate on the best preparations of poppy tea. Many claim that boiling rapidly is the best,[why?] others insist on strictly cold water, and even more[who?] stand behind steeping in hot water. Some methods call for citric acid or acetic acid (vinegar) to be used during extraction. The purpose of the addition of citric and/or acetic acid is to lower the pH level of the neutral water (pH7) down to a slightly acidic pH of 6-6.5, which is optimal for morphine extraction, although it is disputed between varying studies.
When the tea is drunk, its effects begin after about 30 minutes, lasting up to 12 hours. It is intensely bitter and some users add other flavorings to the tea to mask the bitterness. It is wise for the user to be careful with the amount they consume if the tea comes out to be very bitter and very dark. Grapefruit juice and/or cimetidine or hydroxyzine may also inhibit liver enzyme activation, thus increasing the strength and duration of the opiate effects.
Seeds may also be used in large quantities to produce a decoction by agitating them in a solution of slightly acidified water. There are also reports of using plain tap water in the process of making poppy tea with seeds. This consists of washing the seeds of opium residue that has coated the outer part of the seeds during processing from the pod. Processing includes crushing the fresh pod, to release the seeds thus causing some opium from the pod to come into contact with the seeds. Untreated poppy seeds may contain upwards of 330–515 mg of morphine and 75–200 mg of codeine per kilo of seeds, whereas most seeds available commercially have been washed which cuts the alkaloid content by 50 per cent or more; this adds even more to the batch-to-batch variability in content, as noted below with respect to the California overdose case.
Side effects and tolerance
Side effects increase with dosage and include drowsiness, mild stomach ache, lethargy, urinary retention, bradypnea, constipation, and nausea. Nausea can be attributed to the presence of noscapine and is more common in first-time or inexperienced users. At high doses, the side effects are dangerous and can cause death through respiratory arrest or inhalation of vomit. Constipation often results from use (as with any opiate).
Additionally, frequent use results in high tolerance and dependence. Chemical dependency builds in relation to the frequency of use, dose used, age, gender, weight, and medical condition. Once chemical dependency has developed, abrupt cessation of use will cause withdrawal; symptoms include leg and abdominal cramps, mydriasis, vomiting, diarrhea, headache, insomnia, cravings, lethargy, and anxiety. Symptoms of withdrawal usually fade after 4–10 days but cravings and psychological dependence may continue for longer, in some cases up to a year. Treatment methods for addiction are generally the same for any opioid.
In 2004, a fatal overdose of poppy seed tea was reported on a website written by the victim's parents, who wrote that a sample of poppy seed tea was sent for laboratory analysis. This victim is reported to have used 3.5 pounds (1.6 kg)of poppy seeds in his tea preparation as on several previous occasions. The concentration of morphine in the tea was shown to be around 250 μg/ml and the amount of morphine which had been consumed by the individual was around 500 mg. This is about five times the lethal oral dose (without tolerance to opioids). The coroner's report of the victim, also listed on the website, found that he had also consumed diphenhydramine, marijuana, and the benzodiazepine alprazolam (Xanax) around the same time that he consumed the tea. ABC News reported on the incident in January 2008.
On May 19, 2012, a 19-year-old from Nova Scotia died after drinking the tea from a poppy seed pod he purchased on the Internet. In November 2012, A Tasmanian youth died after drinking tea brewed from seed heads, and a 50-year-old Tasmanian man died in similar circumstances in February 2011.
A 2013 inquest found that a 27-year-old British man died from the effects of drinking a pint of poppy tea.
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- Case report of a death due to a documented overdose of poppy seed tea in a 17 year old male
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- Poppy Tea FAQ
- Poppy seed contents include oleamide, a hypnotic amide agent
- Poppy Seed Tea Can Kill
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