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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 effect, and in small amounts for analgesic, anti-diarrheal, and sedative effects. Use of such preparations originated in parts of Central and Eastern Europe, the Levant and Near East, and Central and South Central Asia millennia ago. Small amounts can be used for pain and diarrhoea in animals and kennel cough; most birds are small enough to simply feed them poppy seeds for digestive problems.
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. 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 South Asian community, a traditional 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.
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, dosage, age, sex, 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 2003 a 17 year old who, according to his parents, was self-treating his anxiety with home-brewed poppy seed tea, died of pulmonary edema caused by acute morphine and codeine intoxication.
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. The concentration is not specified.
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