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Poppy tea is an infusion (not a true tea) 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 trace amounts of opiate alkaloids, primarily morphine.
The tea is consumed for its narcotic, analgesic, and anti-diarrheal effects. This tea is depicted both in Asian literature and Western literature, such as in opium dens. It can also be used in small amounts as an analgesic, anti-diarrhoeal, and sedative for many mammals and birds.
In some places, preparation of tea may be preferred to smoked opium as the latex of the plant (itself the primary component of opium) is illegal.
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, although this is very unlikely. For this reason, it is an alternative to pharmaceutical opioids, which are highly regulated in most countries, while 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.
Canadian authorities have noted the presence of dode or doda in the Punjabi-Canadian community, a traditional Punjabi form of poppy tea. Crackdowns on this traditional preparation in the late 2000s led to a number of arrests in Canada.
Poppy tea preparations are part of a spectrum of decoctions and other extracts of poppy straw which use acid-base reactions and heat to extract soluble alkaloids from the straw, or simply uses water for the extraction; in particular the empty seed capsules are used, while the stems of the plant are similar but have lower percentages of alkaloids by weight. Alcohol can be used as a solvent on poppy straw as discussed below. Green poppies and other parts of the plant can also be used. Other end products ranging from poppy straw in yogurt to variants of Concentrate of Poppy Straw and other intermediates for the processing of near-pharmaceutical grade alkaloid salts can theoretically be made, as explored below.
Poppy tea is sometimes called "opium tea"; this is a misnomer as that would be an aqueous extract of latex-derived opium, leading to a different alkaloid profile and other different properties. Concentrated aqueous opium solution is a medicinal product known as Black Drop. Teas and alcoholic extracts made from the ashes of smoking opium are also called by their own names and have yet another range of alkaloid profiles.
Poppy seed tea relies more on washing trace amounts of alkaloids (4-550 ppm for morphine and 1 to 150 ppm of codeine) from the surface of the seeds and usually relies on slightly acidified water and mechanical agitation to produce an end product which is different from poppy pod tea in taste, appearance, potency, and alkaloid profile. In Eastern Europe poppy seed tea is called koknar and is a common delight in certain social ceremonies and gatherings. Poppy straw tea and koknar addiction is scientifically similar as any other opiate addiction like oxycodone, codeine, hydrocodone, morphine and other forms of opiate addiction. The difference is the cheaper opiate; "poppy alkaloid extracts" like poppy tea are more common in the impoverished Eastern European towns and more readily available than traditional modern forms of opiates. The fact that all of these preparations contain active alkaloids aside from morphine such as codeine, noscapine and papaverine and others which can be bio-activated into still other substances complicates the issue of physical dependence and makes them more like opium than morphine in this respect.
Many people have difficulty in achieving any euphoria with poppy seed tea, other than a very mild relaxation akin to a cup of tea. On online drug forums many people speculate it is a placebo effect or only works for a minority of people who have high sensitivity to opiates. Tea obtained from poppy leaves also contains alkaloids and their salts but is also a much different, and weaker, product.
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. Thebaine is found in much larger quantities in the Iranian Poppy (Papaver bracteatum), which also contains a great deal of codeine. 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.
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There are many different preparations of poppy tea. Most methods call for the "poppy straw" material (the seedpod and sometimes the stem) only to be used. Most methods call for the straw to be ground into a fine powder. A fine powder is needed because most of the opium latex is located within the cell walls of the pod. The seeds are discarded most of the time because they do not contain a high enough alkaloid content. However, there are dozens of poppy seed tea recipes. A quick and efficient method is to use a stovetop espresso maker. This results in a fairly concentrated beverage and does not appear to destroy the alkaloids despite involving steam passing through the poppy straw.
There is much debate on the best preparations of poppy tea. Many claim that boiling rapidly is the best, others insist on strictly cold water, and even more[who?] stand behind steeping in hot water. Some methods call for citric acid or acetic acid (vinegar) to be used during extraction. The purpose of the addition of citric and/or acetic acid is to lower the pH level of the neutral water (pH7) down to a slightly acidic pH of 6.5 which is optimal for morphine extraction.
When the tea is drunk, its effects begin after about 30 minutes, lasting up to 12 hours. It is intensely bitter and some users add other flavorings to the tea to mask the bitterness. The color and bitterness of the tea will give the user an idea of how potent the tea is. The darker and more bitter the tea comes out to be the more potent it will be. It is wise for the user to be careful with the amount they consume if the tea comes out to be very bitter and very dark. Grapefruit juice and/or cimetidine or hydroxyzine may also inhibit liver enzyme activation, thus increasing the strength and duration of the opiate effects.
The tea is also sometimes evaporated over a very low heat to make a thick, concentrated liquid or a dry powder, and some users put this material into gel caps to allow for dosage to be measured more carefully.
Although oral administration is the most common, dried poppy tea can also be snorted or smoked. However, many users report unpleasant side effects from these methods because of the non-active and potentially irritating substances which are present in addition to the alkaloids. Dried poppy tea is not the same as opium, as the former is made from the whole plant while the latter is made from exuded latex alone. Some users bypass the tea stage and simply add poppy straw to a food such as yogurt. This method partially masks the taste but may lead to more gastric discomfort than consuming tea or dried tea. The pods may also be used in the green (undried) state to make tea.
Decoctions of poppy straw using alcohol as the solvent, such as vodka, slivovitz, gin, grain alcohol, or reagent-grade anhydrous ethanol can extract alkaloids over a period of hours without heating; the resulting liquid can be used as is or the liquid evaporated over low heat or in a pan to produce a liquid concentrate with less alcohol (heating to 80 °C to effect fractional distillation by selectively boiling off the alcohol) or a solid which can be processed further into a material similar to Concentrate of Poppy Straw or processed by other methods to be used in a manner similar to opium derived from latex, e.g. processed into smoking opium or used to create medicinal products or extract alkaloids. Quite often home users will produce a product similar to laudanum, paregoric, or Black Drop (non-alcoholic laudanum) from published recipes with the concentrate from poppy straw decoctions, and if the initial liquid is to be completely dried, isopropyl or methyl alcohol can be used, as can other suitable organic solvents. Processing of the dry extract to isolate morphine is also possible, although the amount resulting from low to moderate to reasonably large numbers of heads can be barely visible to the naked eye. While the quantity can vary vastly depending on strain, cultivar, growing conditions, harvesting and drying and many other factors, large poppy heads can contain up to 80 mg of anhydrous morphine base equivalent, with the actual percentage extracted also being over a huge range. The production of black tar heroin starting from poppy straw decoctions is of course also possible.
Seeds may also be used in large quantities to produce a decoction by agitating them in a solution of slightly acidified water. Although, there are also reports of using plain tap water in the process of making poppy tea with seeds. This consists of washing the seeds of opium residue that has coated the outer part of the seeds during processing from the pod. Processing includes crushing the fresh pod, to release the seeds thus causing some opium from the pod to come into contact with the seeds. Untreated poppy seeds may contain upwards of 330–515 mg of morphine and 75–200 mg of codeine per kilo of seeds, whereas most seeds available commercially have been washed which cuts the alkaloid content by 50 per cent or more; this adds even more to the batch-to-batch variability in content, as noted below with respect to the California overdose case.
An urban legend asserts that commercially-available seeds are deliberately sprayed with dilute solutions of pesticides, particularly organophosphates and carbamates, or other powerful laxative agents at quantities which become clinically significant if a large quantity of seeds or the washings thereof are consumed. Diarrhoea which comes in the hour after consumption of tea is more likely the result of the interaction of other alkaloids present such as papaverine, noscapine, narceine or others. In the case of tea made from the straw, even more likely to cause this is the fact that the pods contain significant quantities of dietary fiber.
The ingestion of the seeds themselves in large quantities will have similar effects as well as effects from cannabinoids present in the fats in the seeds. This practice can be very irritating to the upper gastro-intestinal tract and may under some circumstances compound constipation to a dangerous degree. Furthermore, poppy seed is very energy-dense and the quantity needed to produce analgesia could contain upwards of 10 000 calories/41·25 kJ.
Effects vary widely depending on dosage (amount of poppy straw used, alkaloid content of poppies and the quality of extraction), on individual sensitivity and on any opiate tolerance which has built up. In varying degrees, the tea's contents are the base from which all opiates (natural, semi-synthetic & synthetic) are derived. The user can expect a warming sensation of the skin and body during onset. Since many of the opioid receptors are located in the spinal cord (CNS) as well as in the digestive tract, the user describes the ability to feel the intestinal tract with the sensation of lightness, and pleasure. An elevated mood change follows, along with a state of euphoria and well being. Pupils tend to constrict, and the face, neck, and outer extremities flush. Additionally, some users report a sensation of light pressure on the back of the neck. The presence of opioids in the bloodstream will cause the subsequent release of histamine causing the user to become itchy. Benadryl (Diphenhydramine HCl), a histamine antagonist may be used to counteract the histamine reaction to opioids, resulting in decreased itchy feeling and increased drug effect duration. One should be very careful with the amount of Benadryl as it can increase the risk of overdose if the pods are especially strong. A non-drowsy anti-histamine can work just as well to combat itching. Effects also include euphoric feelings, happiness, drowsiness, and loss of concentration.
A small amount of dried poppy or poppy tea at night is an effective remedy for restless leg syndrome (RLS), and is superior to quinine, codeine alone, or clonidine for this purpose because of the presence of papaverine, a non-narcotic smooth-muscle relaxant which impacts vascular systems, but withdrawal from the narcotic constituents of the tea, mainly codeine and morphine, will paradoxically cause RLS ("kicking" the habit).
Side effects increase with dosage and include drowsiness, mild stomach ache, lethargy, urinary retention, bradypnea, 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, dose used, age, gender, weight, and medical condition. Once chemical dependency has developed, abrupt cessation of use will cause withdrawal; symptoms include leg and abdominal cramps, mydriasis, vomiting, diarrhoea, headache, insomnia, cravings, lethargy, and anxiety. Physical symptoms of withdrawal usually fade after 4–10 days but cravings and psychological dependence may continue for longer. Treatment methods for addiction are generally the same for any opioid.
In 2003, a case of fatal overdose of poppy seed tea was reported on a website authored by the victim's parents. The site alleges that a sample of poppy seed tea was sent for laboratory analysis. This victim is reported to have used 3.5 lb (1.6 kg) of poppy seeds in his tea preparation as on several previous occasions. The concentration of morphine in the tea was shown to be around 250 μg/ml and the amount of morphine which had been consumed by the individual was around 500 mg. This is about five times the lethal oral dose (without tolerance to opioids). ABC News reported on the incident in January 2008.