Parents raise awareness about the dangers of drinking poppy seed tea after son’s death

Two years ago, in April 2016, Steve and Betty Hacala of Rogers, Arkansas, lost their 24-year-old son, Stephen Jr., to a morphine overdose. Now, in the wake of their devastation, the Hacalas are speaking out about the dangers of legal opioids, which they say were responsible for their son’s death.

When a five pound-bag of unwashed poppy seeds and a water bottle full of them was found in Stephen Jr.’s apartment following the tragedy, initially, they did not think it could be connected to his death.  However, they soon discovered websites with instructions for making poppy seed or “opium” tea.

When Poppy Seeds Become Deadly

Poppy seeds have opium alkaloids, which are narcotic, and that’s what killed their son. A study conducted Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, and published last year in the Journal of Forensic Sciences, confirmed that home-brewing tea made with unwashed poppy seeds can produce lethal doses of the drug.


“Depending on how well the seed was washed before it hit the market, the Whole Foods or other establishment, there are varying amounts, trace amounts of morphine and codeine,” Lisa Marzilli, a national speaker on addiction told NBC4i. “So if an individual or child took in enough, it certainly could cause respiratory depression and death.”


According to 5 News Online, a lethal dose of morphine is about 200 milligrams and researchers hired by the Hacala family found there were about 6,000 milligrams in that five-pound bag of seeds that Stephen bought.

poppy seeds opium photo
Flickr | HC²

Even Moderate Doses Of Poppy Seed Tea Can Be Lethal

“Although some bulk poppy seeds can be more lethal than others due to the variation in morphine concentrations … it should be noted that regardless of sample, it is possible to obtain lethal doses of morphine from poppy seed tea if moderate volumes of tea are consumed,” Madeleine Swortwood, an assistant professor in the Department of Forensic Science at Sam Houston State University, told Science Daily. Swortwood began researching the potential lethality of poppy seeds after she was contacted by the family of a 21-year-old who died after drinking home-brewed poppy seed tea.

Since the unwashed seeds are not regulated, it’s impossible to determine the amount of morphine and codeine present in them — meaning there is no real way to gauge the risk and that there is no safe amount to consume.

Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton (R) worked on behalf of the Hacala family to encourage retailers like Walmart and Amazon to remove unwashed poppy seeds from their inventories. Here is his speech about the dangers of the unwashed seeds:

In the context of the ongoing opioid epidemic, the poppy seeds used to make tea represent yet another avenue for young people to obtain this potentially lethal substance. Many people, however, don’t even know that poppy seeds contain trace amounts of opiates in the first place.

Opium is produced from the sap or “latex” of the opium poppy seed pod and not from the seeds themselves, which contain lower levels of opiates. Soaking or washing seeds, particularly unwashed seeds, can produce higher concentrations.

Should I Avoid Eating Poppy Seeds?

If you’re worried about suffering an opiate overdose from enjoying a poppy seed muffin or bagel—don’t be. You’d have to consume a massive amount of the average washed and processed poppy seed to get anywhere close to the levels that would put you at risk.

poppy seed muffin photo
Flickr | mealmakeovermoms

One recommendation says to limit poppy seed consumption to one teaspoon for every 7 pounds of body weight. If you think about how many poppy seeds are consumed in a pastry or baked good, it’s far less than this.

Now, you may have heard that eating poppy seeds before a drug test could cause you to fail—and that, it turns out, is true. The trace amount of opiates in an average lemon poppy seed muffin can be detected in a drug test. While the amount detected would be small and can be distinguished from an opioid like heroin, it could still pose a complication if you’re trying to get a job or otherwise. In other words, if you have a drug test coming up, play it safe and skip poppy seeds that day!

Did you know that unwashed poppy seeds were so dangerous?

Family & Parenting, Health, News, Parenting
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About the Author
Kate Streit
Kate Streit lives in Chicago. She enjoys stand-up comedy, mystery novels, memoirs, summer and pumpkin spice anything. Visit Scripps News to see more of Kate's work.

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