The Kuala Lumpur Narcotics Criminal Investigation Department inadvertently opened a can of worms recently when its chief, Wan Abdullah Ishak, warned Malaysians against eating cakes containing poppy seeds.
He said those who liked eating poppy seed cake could test positive for drug use and end up being charged under the Dangerous Drugs Act. He alleged that a variety of poppy seed cake sold openly on the market contained high amounts of the stuff and some people were eating them in order to get high.
Poppy seeds are widely used in cooking as well as in Ayurveda medicine, but Wan Abdullah has some justification for his warning.
Indeed, poppy seeds are banned in some parts of the world. In Singapore, they are on the list of “prohibited goods” and their imports are subject to a laboratory analysis. Taiwan prohibits poppy seeds because the authorities are afraid that viable seeds could be used to grow opium poppy plants. China has a similar prohibition on spices that contain poppy seeds.
Poppy seeds are an integral part of middle eastern and South Asian cooking, but people have been arrested in the United Arab Emirates and also Saudi Arabia for carrying or using them.
In 2008, a Swiss man was jailed for four-years after three poppy seeds from a bread roll which he ate at London’s Heathrow airport were found on his clothes as he entered the UAE. In 1996, an Indian commercial artist was jailed for 10 years for possession of poppy seeds. In Saudi Arabia, a couple on the hajj pilgrimage were arrested for possession of poppy seeds when they landed in Jeddah. They had brought with them 250 grammes , which they intended to use for cooking.
Some poppy seeds may contain morphine, codeine and other substances. Poppy seeds from different sources contain different amounts of opiates, depending on the processing methods. Poppy seeds do not normally contain any opium, but sometimes, during harvesting, they may be contaminated.
Opium is produced only if the seed pods of Papaver somniferum are slashed before they are mature. The stuff then oozes from the pods.
A day after Wan Abdullah’s warning, Health Minister S Subramaniam issued a statement to say that poppy seeds were not injurious to health. That was followed up swiftly by a statement from the Inspector-General of Police. He said, “Poppy seeds are a spice long used in our cooking. It is taken only in small quantities and does not show up positive in urine.”
Joining this chorus was Mustafa Ali Mohd, a professor at University Malaya’s Pathology Department. He said, “Many parts of the poppy plant are addictive and can cause euphoria, but not the seeds. The seeds can be eaten. The problem comes when the husks of the pods and the twigs are added into the seeds. These contain much more codeine and other addictive components.”
He urged people to avoid buying poppy seeds that are mixed with other parts of the plant. Unfortunately, the public has no control over the processing of poppy seeds. Therefore, eating them may yield a positive result in a test for drugs in the blood stream.
Athletes, in particular, should be careful. If they eat food containing poppy seeds, they may end up being banned by their sporting federations.
Wan Abdullah was right to give his warning, at least in the context of athletics.
Mariam Mokhtar is an FMT columnist