A worker at the drug testing clinic marks a sample of urine at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona on May 28, 2014. On Friday, Feb. 17, 2023, the Pentagon issued a warning to all troops that eating poppy seeds could trigger positive results for opiate abuse. US Air Force photo by Senior Airman Jason Colbert.
The Pentagon wants service members to quit eating poppy seeds because they might pop positive on a pee test for heroin and other banned opiates.
Saying he was acting out of an “abundance of caution,” Gilbert R. Cisneros Jr., the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, urged all troops “to avoid poppy seeds,” according to a Pentagon memo circulated to all hands on Friday, Feb. 17.
The Pentagon’s move came in the wake of questions posed last week by Coffee or Die following a Department of Defense Office of Drug Demand Reduction alert issued on Feb. 3. It cautioned the armed forces that several brands of foods off grocery store shelves can trigger positive urinalysis results for codeine, an opiate produced naturally in the sap of the poppy flower that can contaminate opiate-free seeds during harvest.
The Feb. 3 letter to the armed forces penned by Corin Scott, the Pentagon’s principal deputy general counsel, also warned commanders that gulping codeine-laced drugs commonly used to treat coughing, pain, and diarrhea, in combination with ingesting poppy seed products, could lead to even more botched tests.
That meant troops were putting their careers in jeopardy by innocently consuming poppy seeds and medications purchased at stores off base and commissaries inside posts.
Pentagon officials have warned military attorneys across the services that large numbers of troops might’ve popped positive on urinalysis screenings for suspected opioid abuse after unwittingly ingesting poppy seed products purchased in groceries and restaurants. Composite by Coffee or Die.
Commanders screening troops for outlawed opiates often encounter the so-called “poppy seed defense” wielded by suspected drug abusers. The armed forces have known for decades that morphine, codeine, and thebaine naturally produced in the poppy plant can rub off on seeds during harvesting, and those illicit opiates might end up in a wide range of spices and prepared foods.
But military testers thought they got around the problem by screening only for very high concentrations of codeine in a service member’s urine, assuming that a corresponding high ratio of illicit morphine would be there, too.
They assumed high levels of codeine pointed to the misuse of banned opiates and ruled out accidental food ingestion.
But two recent studies revealed that some poppy seeds found on spice racks and in pastries contain relatively high levels of codeine, with only trace amounts of morphine. That suggested some troops are eating baked goods and other products and later popping positive for smack without ever touching heroin or other banned opiates.
“Recently, the DoD Military Drug Testing Laboratories have encountered numerous codeine positive urine samples with little or no morphine, where the service member has claimed poppy seed ingestion,” wrote Shawn P. Vorce, the technical director of Maryland-based Chesapeake Toxicology Resources, in a Pentagon-commissioned study provided to the military on Dec. 13 and later passed on to Coffee or Die.
Culinary Specialist 3rd Class Parker Bailey replenishes groceries in a storeroom on board the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier Carl Vinson on June 27, 2021. US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Tyler Wheaton.
The military has suspended the destruction of what initially seemed to be samples revealing heroin abuse.
The services are now scrambling to determine how many personnel who tested positive for codeine and were sent to court-martial or administratively discharged might’ve been guilty only of eating something they bought in a grocery store.
US Navy Cmdr. Nicole Schwegman, a top Pentagon spokesperson, told Coffee or Die on Friday that the services are probing all drug codeine-only positive tests from Oct. 1, 2019, but as the services “gather more information, we will reassess and update as appropriate.”
The Pentagon-commissioned study and the earlier survey in Florida that was published in October’s Journal of Analytical Toxicology identified potential codeine-contamination in a handful of products: Costco BayState Poppy Seeds, Walmart’s Great Value Poppy Seeds, Thomas’ Everything Bagels, and Publix GreenWise Mini Lemon Poppy Seed Muffins and Everything Bagels.
Members of Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, patrol through a poppy field on their way to Patrol Base Mohmon in the Lui Tal district of Afghanistan’s Helmand province on April 17, 2012. Poppy flowers are used to produce both opiates and seeds, which are free of intoxicating opiates. US Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Ismael E. Ortega.
But Pentagon spokesperson Schwegman discouraged focusing on any specific brands and instead encouraged the troops to “not consume any food products with poppy seeds. We believe this approach is most likely to reduce risks for service members.”
That means no poppy seeds from the spice rack, and no seeds baked into pastries or sprinkled atop bagels, but she stopped short of calling the request a “ban.”
She also announced the Pentagon is “working on several initiatives to help better distinguish poppy seed consumption from illicit codeine use.”
Carl Prine is a former senior editor at Coffee or Die Magazine. He has worked at Navy Times, The San Diego Union-Tribune, and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He served in the Marine Corps and the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. His awards include the Joseph Galloway Award for Distinguished Reporting on the military, a first prize from Investigative Reporters & Editors, and the Combat Infantryman Badge.
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