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Arkansas, 12 other states urge Congress to ban ‘unwashed’ poppy seeds for potential lethality

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Arkansas, 12 other states urge Congress to ban ‘unwashed’ poppy seeds for potential lethality

Feb 22, 2024 | 6:54 pm ET
By Sonny Albarado
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Arkansas, 12 other states urge Congress to ban ‘unwashed’ poppy seeds for potential lethality
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Attorneys general from 12 U.S. states are urging Congress to ban the sale of unprocessed poppy seeds. Poppy seeds contaminated with opiates have been responsible for at least 20 deaths in the United States since 2015, researchers say. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin and 12 other state attorneys general sent a letter to Congress this week urging lawmakers to prohibit the sale of opiate-contaminated poppy seeds.

The legislation — the Stephen Hacala Poppy Seed Safety Act — would also give the Food and Drug Administration two years to develop standards setting a limit on how much opiate contamination could be found in poppy seeds sold to the public. Congress in 2021 directed the FDA to establish rules and enforcement procedures on unwashed poppy seeds, but it hasn’t yet done so.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest has tracked at least 20 deaths resulting from contaminated poppy seeds since 2015, including that of Stephen Hacala of Fayetteville. Hacala died at the age of 24 of a morphine overdose he experienced after drinking tea made with contaminated poppy seeds.

“Stephen’s death is one of many avoidable tragedies caused by bad actors continuing to exploit weaknesses in federal law to target our States’ citizens with dangerous narcotics,” Griffin’s Feb. 21 letter to Congress says.

Poppy seeds themselves contain negligible amounts of opiates like morphine, codeine and thebaine but can become contaminated from the milky liquid of the poppy seed pod or other plant debris.

Poppy seeds are not classified as Schedule II controlled substances; in fact, washed seeds are used in some foods. But unwashed, or unprocessed, seeds are widely available through online sources.

The Drug Enforcement Administration warned in 2019 about the dangers of unwashed poppy seeds.

“Some users boil the seeds to produce a tea, which is consumed for the purposes of perceived ‘natural’ pain relief,” the DEA said in a written statement. Others use the tea to get high, it added.

The agency said the Controlled Substances Act covers the presence of opiates in contaminated poppy seeds, but that hasn’t ended their distribution. The letter from the attorneys general references a 2023 case in which a Tulsa, Oklahoma, couple were indicted for drug conspiracy that resulted in the death of a Utah woman.

“Lone Goose Bakery (the couple’s business) purchased bulk quantities of unprocessed poppy seeds coated in opium latex and repackaged the seeds for resale across the United States,” and provided online tutorials on brewing the tea or baking the seeds into other consumables, according to federal prosecutors.

The legislation that bears Hacala’s name was introduced last November by Republican Sens. Tom Cotton and John Boozman of Arkansas, Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Republican Rep. Steve Womack of Arkansas.

Other states joining Arkansas in the letter include Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and West Virginia.