- Poppy seeds have been linked to at least a dozen deaths across the United States in recent years, as some people have made a concentrated tea from unwashed seeds that can contain fatal levels of opiates.
- In one case, a 24-year-old was found dead after buying a five-pound bag of poppy seeds on Amazon. A toxicologist analysis of a similar bag from the same brand found that it contained 6,000 mg of morphine – more than 30 times a fatal dose.
- On Wednesday, companion bills were introduced to Congress to prohibit the sale of unsafe poppy seeds.
Backlash and a drive for regulation of poppy seeds are building across the United States.
On Wednesday, companion bills were introduced to Congress to prohibit the sale of unsafe poppy seeds in the wake of growing concerns and a rising death toll related to the seemingly harmless baking ingredient.
Since 2010, at least 12 people have died in the US after consuming unwashed poppy seeds, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). The deaths have been linked to the consumption of contaminated, unwashed poppy seeds and seed pods that contained fatal levels of opiates.
Purchasing poppy seeds that have not been washed is currently a nebulous legal category. Buying poppy seeds for cooking or baking is completely legal. However, other parts of opium poppies – from which poppy seeds are made – are considered Schedule II controlled substances, meaning they are illegal to grow or buy for non-medical purposes in the US.
Unwashed poppy seeds can be contaminated with other parts of the opium poppy plant, called poppy straw. Many shoppers seek out “unwashed” seeds for supposed health benefits, culinary reasons, or in an attempt to get high from the product. When brewed in a poppy tea, the seeds’ opiate content becomes concentrated, putting drinkers at risk of overdose and addiction, according to CSPI.
Discovering the dangers of ‘unwashed’ poppy seeds
In one high-profile case from 2016, 24-year-old Stephen Hacala died after drinking tea made with contaminated, unwashed poppy seeds that he bought on Amazon.
A five-pound bag of unwashed poppy seeds from the brand Sincerely Nuts, purchased via the e-commerce giant, was found in Hacala’s apartment. A toxicologist analysis of Sincerely Nuts’ five-pound bags of poppy seeds, which was readily available on Amazon at the time, contained 6,000 mg of morphine – more than 30 times a fatal dose.
“Very few clinicians are aware of poppy seed tea and it is likely that patients may think this is a benign ‘natural’ beverage,” Irving Haber, Joseph Pergolizzi Jr., and Jo Ann LeQuang wrote in a recent case report published in the medical journal “Pain and Therapy.”
“With no legal restrictions and apparent endorsement from reliable brands and trusted websites, patients may have little reason to think this tea is actually a version of morphine,” the case study continues.
Amazon did not respond to Business Insider’s request for comment.
Since Hacala’s death in 2016, his parents have led the charge to push for tighter regulation of contaminated poppy seeds and to convince companies to stop selling unwashed seeds that could contain dangerous levels of opiates. Walmart pulled the products in 2018.
On Wednesday, Sen. Tom Cotton, Sen. John Boozman, and Rep. Steve Womack introduced the Stephen Hacala Poppy Seed Safety Act, which would prohibit the direct sale of poppy seeds that contain harmful level of opiates to consumers.
“Stephen Hacala Jr. died from an opioid overdose because of a dangerous gap in our nation’s drug laws,” Sen. Cotton said in a statement. “Despite government warnings, unwashed poppy seeds, which can contain lethal doses of morphine, are still available for sale online.”
Sincerely Nuts no longer sells its unwashed poppy seeds on Amazon, though the product is still available for purchase on the retailer’s website.
However, there remains a clear demand for unwashed poppy seeds on Amazon. When entering “poppy seeds” in the search bar, one of the suggestions that quickly pops up for users is “unwashed.” Reviews of large bags of poppy seeds are filled with discussion as to whether the seeds have been washed or not.
“These are unwashed seeds, I can tell you that right now,” reads one such review. “There are bits of plant matter in bag, and anyone who understands the washing process knows that doesnt happen with washed seeds. They are sufficient, but not especially high quality. Overall a viable option, would recommend for fellow deviants.”
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