Pentagon warns poppy seeds might cause troops to fail drug tests
The Defense Department is advising U.S. military personnel to be mindful of a substance that could derail their careers: poppy seeds.
In a memo published Tuesday, Gilbert R. Cisneros Jr., the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, warned service members that eating poppy seeds could result in a failed drug test.
“The Military Departments are hereby directed to notify Service members to avoid consumption of all poppy seeds,” Cisneros wrote. That includes in bagels, muffins, rolls and other baked goods.
Navy Cmdr. Nicole Schwegman said in an email to The Washington Post that the Defense Department became aware of the poppy seed problem last year. She said the department reviewed studies and worked with a laboratory to analyze codeine and morphine levels in poppy seed brands.
New data shows some poppy seeds varieties “may have higher codeine contamination than previously reported,” Cisneros’s memo states.
“Consumption of poppy seed products could cause a codeine positive urinalysis result and undermine the Department’s ability to identify illicit drug use,” he wrote.
The impact of poppy seeds on drug tests has long been debated, but research has shown the food ingredient, which comes from the plant that produces opium, can have unintended effects. An October study in the Journal of Analytical Toxicology found that consuming poppy seeds can cause a person to test positive for opiates in a urine drug test. A 2003 study in the same journal discovered that morphine and codeine can be detected in urine up to 48 hours after one ingests poppy seeds.
The phenomenon had a moment in pop culture in a 1996 episode of “Seinfeld” in which the character Elaine fails a drug test after eating a poppy seed muffin. But there have also been dozens of real-life instances in which people said they failed a drug test after eating poppy seeds.
In 2020, an Alabama woman lost custody of her newborn after she said poppy seed bread caused her to fail a drug test. Women in Maryland, Illinois, New York and Pennsylvania have endured similar problems.
As a precaution, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency encourages athletes to avoid poppy seeds before and during competitions.
Gary M. Reisfield, a professor with the University of Florida’s college of medicine, told The Post that most poppy seeds won’t affect a drug test. But he said uncontrollable factors to the consumer, such as how the poppy seeds were grown and processed, can affect whether opiates remain in the seeds when they’re served.
Reisfield said that poppy seeds are more likely to contain opium if they haven’t been washed and that opium becomes less prevalent in the seeds after they’re processed.
“If you happen to be unlucky enough to choose the wrong poppy seed product, and if you eat that poppy seed product close enough to the drug test, then you can find yourself with an opiate-positive drug test result,” Reisfield said. “There’s no way of knowing what the poppy seed content or ratio is in any food you happen to encounter in a bakery or a supermarket.”
Service members are required to participate in random urinalysis testing. Cisneros acknowledged in his memo that the concern about poppy seeds affecting those tests isn’t new. The military has tried to distinguish morphine and codeine from poppy seeds, he wrote, but the seeds can be contaminated during harvesting.
Schwegman said the military is considering how to handle cases in which a service member was punished or separated after testing positive for codeine if there was a possibility that poppy seeds affected the results.
“This matter is still evolving,” Schwegman said. “At this time, we have not identified any impacted Service members but the review of cases is ongoing.”
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