Jan. 16, 2008 -- A staple in the spice aisles of grocery stores has apparently become a new target for adolescents and others in search of an unconventional high.
According to reports last week from the ABC affiliate KCRG-TV9 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, managers at several local grocery stores have noticed that shoplifters are snatching bottles of poppy seeds from the shelves. And it's unlikely that the seeds are finding their way onto muffins or bagels.
Rather, the thieves could be using large quantities of the seeds to brew poppy seed tea -- a drink that when brewed under certain conditions can offer a narcotic, possibly hallucinogenic, high.
The Cedar Rapids incident isn't the first hint that large amounts of poppy seeds can be somehow converted into a substance that can be used to get high. Accounts of the effects of poppy seed tea are scattered across various Internet sites -- including Wikipedia and the drug use Web site Erowid.com.
Perhaps the most chilling of these sites is a Web page -- poppyseedtea.com -- created by the parents of a 17-year-old who died following an overdose of poppy seed tea he brewed himself.
Tom, who requested that only his first name be used, says he and his wife had full knowledge of their son's brewing and use of poppy seed tea. The seeds, he says, came from a local Whole Foods market.
"He had been doing this for a few months," he says. "He had been suffering in the last few years from a lot of anxiety, and we could see that this tea helped him with that. Back then we saw this as an herbal, natural solution, and if it worked for him, it was great."
Tom says that he and his wife even performed searches on the Internet to learn whether the tea was potentially dangerous, but he says they found nothing at the time that would suggest a threat.
The last time Tom remembers his son drinking the tea was before he went to bed Sept. 12, 2003. The next morning, Tom says he entered his son's bedroom to find him unresponsive, with a yellowish fluid oozing from his mouth.
"I tried to wake him up, but I couldn't wake him," he says.
Tom says that by the time the ambulance arrived, his son had already died from pulmonary edema -- a buildup of fluid in his lungs consistent with an overdose of opiates.
A document described as the Santa Clara County coroner's report, which Tom posted on the poppyseedtea.com site, lists the cause of death of the 17-year-old, whose name has been blacked out, as "acute morphine and codeine intoxication." The Santa Clara County Coroner's Office confirmed the details of the boy's death to ABC News, which is withholding the boy's name at the request of the parents.
Also included in the posted report are the findings of an analysis of the teenager's blood and urine, as well as tests on the poppy seed tea from the batch he drank the night before.
The lab tests indicated in the report revealed a high level of morphine and the presence of codeine in the tea, as well as high morphine levels in both blood and urine.
"The presence of both morphine and codeine and the absence of characteristic heroin metabolites exclude the possibility of pharmaceutical morphine or heroin intoxication," the report concludes. "The analysis of the tea supports its role as the source of the morphine and codeine detected in the blood."
Tom says the findings were a shock. "It is really amazing to me that one of the most controlled substances out there -- morphine -- is in a way readily available to kids in bulk form at the supermarket," he says.
A Rare Concoction?
Tom says that even though he receives a number of e-mails from those who say they have suffered ill effects from the drink, he has not yet heard of any other cases of fatalities from the consumption of poppy seed tea. ABC News was also unable to discover additional cases.
The dearth of confirmed reports on similar cases of abuse seems to quell notions of the widespread abuse of such a drink. As for the most recent reports on the shoplifting of poppy seeds, the Cedar Rapids Police Department says they have not received any reports of poppy seed tea abuse or overdoses.
Drug abuse experts say they are unfamiliar with the practice of brewing and drinking poppy seed tea.
"Nonmedical use/abuse of prescription medications, including opiates -- for example, Oxycontin and Vicodin -- has been increasing among adolescents. I have not heard of a new 'trend' for children /adolescents trying to get high from excessive ingestion of poppy seeds," says Dr. Paula Riggs, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado at Denver.
Paul Doering, co-director of the Drug Information and Pharmacy Resource Center at the University of Florida's Shands Medical Center in Gainesville, says he is skeptical about the purported potency of poppy seed tea.
"There is reason to think that poppy seeds have some morphine content, but there would not be enough in my opinion to create a tea that would cause any real effects such as this," he says.
However, other pharmacology experts say they are well aware of the concoction, and that its effects have been documented in the scientific literature.
"The process does work," says Scott Lukas, director of the Behavioral Psychopharmacology Research Laboratory at McLean Hospital and professor of psychiatry and pharmacology at Harvard Medical School in Boston.
Lukas cites a scientific paper published in March of last year by researchers in New Zealand who studied a group of opiate-dependent people who maintain their dependence mostly by drinking this type of tea.
"There are many other reports of poppy tea use and abuse," he says. "The effects come on in about 15 to 20 minutes, and the effects last about 24 hours."
But he adds that there are several reasons why the abuse of poppy seeds in this manner has not yet become more widespread.
"The stuff has a very bitter and foul taste, and so may not be popular for that reason," he says. "Also, other opiates like prescription painkillers, and even heroin, are cheap these days."
Temptation in a Teacup
Internet accounts about the tea are abundant, however. The reports -- and even recipes -- scattered throughout the Internet seem to bear testament to the fact that at least some people are chasing a high from poppy seed tea.
Doering says that the practice of making poppy seed tea to get high likely arises from the notion that consuming poppy seeds can lead to a positive urine test for heroin. Indeed, some -- but not all -- poppy seeds come from the same type of poppy that yields opium.
And in recent years, lawyers in cases in which a person has recorded a positive heroin test have successfully defended their clients in court by alleging that they unwittingly consumed poppy seeds before the test.
Lukas says a concentrated dose of the trace amount of opiates extracted from the seeds has been shown to result in enough of a hit to result in a high.
"The key here is large quantity of the raw material," he says. "This is because the concentration of opiates is so tiny in the seed that they have to use a few pounds to make enough active opiates to consume."
Regardless of whether all of the various poppy seed tea recipes offered on sites across the Internet actually yield a potent, morphine-laden drink, there has rarely been a class of drugs as used or abused as that derived from opium.
Doering says the term "opiate" refers to the natural drugs that are directly derived from the opium plant -- namely morphine and codeine. Opioids, on the other hand, are a chemically tweaked version of these chemicals. Oxycontin, Vicodin and methadone are all examples of opioids.
But considering that all these potentially useful chemicals come from the same plant that yields opium and heroin, it should come as little surprise that these drugs are as widely known for their addictive potential as they are for their benefits.
According to statistics from the National Institutes of Health, about 9 percent of the general population is believed to misuse opiates or opioids at some point, whether through the use of illegal drugs such as heroin or through the recreational abuse of prescribed pain medications such as Oxycontin.
Prescription painkillers aside, the idea of an improvised source of opiates could be frightening to many parents -- particularly considering the online availability of the recipes.
Even the poppyseed.com Web site carries a recipe for the concoction that Tom says killed his son. Tom says that he posted this recipe to let parents know what to look for if their children are brewing or drinking poppy seed tea. He says it turned out to be a controversial move, and he has received at least one e-mail attacking the site for helping to provide information to those who might follow a similar path.
But he says that he has also received several e-mails from others thanking him for the warnings on the drink.
"If we had seen something like this posted at the time, it would have saved our son's life," Tom says. "Of course, I'd rather not have all of this information out on the Internet, but it's out there and the kids know about it."
And Lukas says it is important for young people to be warned of all of the potential dangers of such experimentation.
"This process is not to be taken lightly, because while the little poppy seed that is in the grocery is perfectly harmless when used in moderation, such as adorning a bagel or in a muffin, once you start to mess with Mother Nature and concentrate the seeds, you increase your exposure to all sorts of other chemicals," he says. "Pesticides, heavy metals as well as a host of other chemicals that are way below harmful levels when consumed as directed, are now being consumed in dangerously high concentrations."
Doering adds that when young people experiment with potentially mind-altering substances, they often take into account only the potential for the desired "high" -- and not the possibility of harmful side effects.
"In cemeteries all over the country there are graves that testify that you can't get one without the other," he says. "To the extent that they're going to achieve the desired outcome -- that is, to get high -- this would not be a safe way to do it. If there is enough of a substance to get high, there's enough to get dead.
Reports from ABC affiliate KCRG-TV9 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, contributed to this story.