Can eating poppy seeds really make you flunk a drug test due to the morphine found in the poppy plant?
TRUE: Poppy-seed-tainted drug tests are quite common
In the 1996 "Seinfeld" episode "The Shower Head," Elaine Benes' business trip to Africa is imperiled when she fails a drug test thanks to the "opium" found in her favorite poppy seed muffins. Hilarity ensues as she attempts to avoid poppy seeds at all costs and prove she's a baked-goods aficionado and not a hopeless heroin addict. As it turns out, numerous real people have lost jobs, and even children, thanks to poppy seeds affecting their drug tests. In fact, according to a career toxicologist who spoke with MSN News, a single dessert can leave someone with more than four times the federal limit for morphine in their system.
The poppy seed comes from the poppy plant, which, in the case of Papaver somniferum or "opium poppies," are illegal to grow in the United States, but legal in places like Turkey and the Netherlands, where the majority of the poppy seeds imported for use in baking come from. The plants naturally contain morphine, and the process for making hard drugs like heroin involves refining the resin from the plants first into raw morphine, and then into heroin.
Expert weighs in
Dr. Ernest Lykissa is a toxicologist at ExperTox testing labs who has been handling drug tests for 32 years. He said that although poppy seeds can and do create positive readings for morphine, any toxicologist worth their salt should be able to tell apart a specimen that reads positive for drug use from one that reads positive for poppy seeds.
"Poppy seed ingestion can be very easily detected if someone is savvy enough to discern what he's dealing with," Lykissa said."There are telltale signs, like looking at footprints in the mud."
Those "footprints in the mud" aren't always spotted by drug-test technicians. According to Snopes, which tackles the subject of poppy seeds affecting drug tests quite thoroughly, one of the first recorded instances of the phenomenon was in 1990 when a veteran St. Louis cop was suspended for four months after failing a drug test, only to be reinstated with back pay after it was determined that it was indeed poppy seeds that had tainted his urine.
More recently, the ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of two parents after their child was taken away when the mother failed a drug test in the hospital because of a poppy seed bagel. The couple were eventually awarded $143,000 because the hospital failed to do any further screening for drugs and simply had Child Protective Services take the child.
Numerous other examples exist and, in fact, the number of instances of poppy seeds skewing drug-test results has become such a problem that the federal government raised the cut-off level for testing for opiates from 300 nanograms to 2,000 nanograms and the Federal Bureau of Prisons requires that furloughed inmates sign a release stating they will not eat any poppy seeds.
Lykissa said he knows of a case in which a man ate a single German poppy seed strudel and later took a drug test that showed 9,000 nanograms of morphine in his system.
"He was definitely experiencing the effects of the morphine," Lykissa said.
The key to avoiding a poppy seed muffin ruining your chance at a job or causing your kids to be taken away is to be aware that the seeds can affect your urine. Opiates from poppy seeds or other sources usually stay in a person's system for up to 48 hours. Lykissa said that if a person finds him or herself taking an unexpected drug test after consuming poppy seeds to be sure and tell the lab that is doing the testing. A good lab tech may spot the difference, but making sure the lab knows is a good idea.
"It doesn't happen as much at it used to," Lykissa said. "But we still see it. Poppy seeds have made a lot of trouble for people over the years."
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