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.
The breakfast bagels and muffins service members cram in their craws might put their military careers in jeopardy or even land them in the brig.
That’s the warning circulated by the Pentagon to all the services on Feb. 3. The Department of Defense’s Office of Drug Demand Reduction has ruled that ingesting several name brand foods can make you pop positive on a piss test for codeine, an opiate produced naturally in the sap of the poppy flower that can contaminate opiate-free seeds during harvest.
In the wake of a recent study in the Journal of Analytical Toxicology that was replicated by a defense contractor researching other brands, on Jan. 19 the Pentagon halted the reporting of codeine results on all urinalyses processed by Department of Defense Forensic Toxicology Drug Testing Laboratories.
The military also 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.
Army leaders didn’t return messages from Coffee or Die. But both Navy and Pentagon officials said they were studying the issue and hoped to have guidance for troops by the end of the week on key issues, including whether personnel should avoid eating poppy seed baked goods and other foods.
Personnel shop at the commissary on Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia, March 31, 2022. US Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Kayla LaMar.
In the Feb. 3 letter to the armed forces, Corin Scott, the Pentagon’s principal deputy general counsel, 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.
Four days later, the Army and Navy alerted their Judge Advocate General‘s Corps attorneys that the latest findings could prove useful to lawyers representing service members at court-martial or facing administrative discharges.
The warning is known as a Brady notice because it orders prosecutors to disclose potentially exculpatory evidence to defendants.
The so-called “poppy seed defense” by suspected drug abusers is encountered often by military prosecutors. They’ve 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.
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.
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 the 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.
A worker at the drug remand clinic marks a sample of urine at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona on May 28, 2014. US Air Force photo by Senior Airman Jason Colbert.
In Vorce’s experiments, for example, researchers found nearly 3 milligrams of codeine in a random sample of 10 grams of Costco BayState Poppy Seeds, but only 0.05 milligrams of morphine.
In a similarly sized batch of Walmart’s Great Value Poppy Seeds, they counted 2.29 milligrams of codeine but no detectable amount of morphine.
That seemed to jibe with the Journal of Analytical Toxicology report from a trio of researchers at the University of Florida College of Medicine and Illinois-based United States Drug Testing Laboratories Inc.
They tested the pee of 11 study participants who ate three suggested serving sizes of 10 different grocery store foods.
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.
Six of the urine samples tied to three of the products showed very high levels of codeine but low amounts of morphine.
The participants would’ve failed a standard pee test given to contracted medical professionals being screened in Florida for opiate abuse.
Those three products were Thomas’ Everything Bagels and Publix GreenWise Mini Lemon Poppy Seed Muffins and Everything Bagels.
“Had participants consumed these products multiple times per day or over multiple days, we expect that we might have seen more codeine-positive (and, perhaps, morphine-negative) samples,” the authors wrote.
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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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