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Can eating foods with poppy seeds (i.e., bagels, muffins, etc) really cause someone to fail a routine corporate drug test? I've heard the answer is yes, but I am a skeptic. Aren't drug tests specialized? Are they really testing for opium, which I understand to be the only drug made from the poppy? And even if the test did search for opium, wouldn't the number of poppy seeds needed to make even a minute amount of opium be far greater than that in the foods we eat poppy seeds in? Help!

--Peter Schilling, Minneapolis

Let's not beat around the bush. The answer to your question is yes--eating a couple of poppy seed rolls, bagels, etc, can cause you to fail a routine drug test. This news will produce one of two reactions, depending on whether you're a law-abiding citizen or a drug fiend:

(1) Panic (if l.-a.c.): "I could lose my job by eating breakfast!"

(2) Elation (if d.f.): "I could keep my job by claiming I ate breakfast!"

So the real corporate drug test is to tell your employees about poppy seeds and watch their reactions. The happy ones get the ax.

Now you figure I'm going to say: Whoa, relax! A drug-testing lab is savvy enough to be able to distinguish between muffin eaters and opium addicts.

Uh-uh. While many drug testers and researchers claim they can separate "false positives" from the real thing, other researchers dispute this. Sure, some guy with dilated pupils and a tendency to walk into walls is going to have a hard time claiming he got that way due to excessive bagel consumption. The fact remains that if you got fired due to a borderline positive and had no follow-up tests or corroborating signs of drug use, a good lawyer would be able to cram that drug test--and your pink slip--down your bosses' throats. Currently, 87 percent of positives are reversed on follow-up.

This murky situation may not last long, though. Largely because of the poppy seed problem, the federal test threshold for morphine and codeine will probably be raised later this year from 300 nanograms per milliliter to 2,000. The feds figure they might miss a few drug abusers but they'll eliminate most of the false positives. No doubt many corporate drug testers will follow suit.

Now let's take some questions from the floor.

Q: You're telling me the poppy seeds in baked goods come from the same type of poppy used to make opium?

A: Maybe not all, but a lot of them do. Of the 90 or so species of poppy, one, Papaver somniferum, is commonly used for two things: drugs and food. In the U.S., possession of opium poppies with intent to grow more is a crime. But possession of opium poppy seed is perfectly legal--in fact, you can (or could) buy opium poppy seeds from gardening catalogs. (But God help you if you try to grow anything with them--see Michael Pollan's scary article on this subject in the April 1997 Harper's.) So-called bread-seed poppies (P. paeoniflorum) are also legal, though botanically they're the same as P. somniferum.

Q: You mean I could get high eating poppy seed rolls?

A: No, goofball, I said they might make you flunk a drug test. The amount of morphine and codeine in poppy seeds varies enormously. One study found that Dutch, Czech, and Turkish poppy seed contained minimal opiates, Australian seed was up there, and Spanish seed sounded like it should be sold by creepy-looking guys on street corners. But, while test volunteers who ate poppy seed products sometimes flunked urine tests, nobody really got what you could call stoned. (Possible exception: one volunteer who ate 23 grams of seeds was accused of "giggling and acting silly.") You're limited by the fact that the poppy seeds are usually contained in food--you get full long before you get high.

Still, if you're desperate enough there are ways to get a buzz from poppies. In parts of England prior to World War II, tea made from boiled poppy heads was recommended as a way to cure what ails you, or at least not care about it. Poppy tea has come back into favor among UK drug users in recent years, and some people have reportedly become addicted to the stuff. One guy boiled 14 poppy heads daily, which he obtained from florists. Another addict was a baker who each day drank two liters of tea made from four kilograms of poppy seed. His secret was discovered when he went into convulsions. Serves him right. Even the Bible warns about bad seed.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Slug Signorino.

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