Channel 2 Investigates

Georgia man among 12 deaths linked to poppy seeds you can buy at the store

DAHLONEGA, Ga. — A Georgia man is dead and his family believes his death is tied to a product you can buy legally online or even at the grocery store.

Scientists say “raw” or “unwashed” poppy seeds can have morphine levels higher than a deadly dose of prescription drugs or even heroin.

So far, 12 deaths, including Linda Golden’s son, Todd Shirley, have been tied to teas made from them.

“I’m in shock, you know. I’m just expecting to be able to pick up the phone and talk to him and that’s not going to happen,” she said. “My son should not be dead.”

Shirley died in his sleep in March of a likely opioid overdose, but no heroin or pills were found in his Dahlonega home.

Instead, investigators found bags of poppy seeds and a water bottle with seeds and liquid.

You can buy so called contaminated poppy seeds easily and legally online or in health food stores. You can also find online recipes for poppy seed tea for sleep help or with aches and pains.


Golden said she’d never heard of this happening before her son’s death.

“The more I learn about it the angrier I become because it shouldn’t have happened,” she said.

Steve Hacala's son Steven died of a poppy seed overdose in 2016.

“If we hadn’t asked the questions about, ‘Where did the morphine come from?’ we never would have known,” Hacala said.

The idea that poppy seeds can be dangerous has typically been played for laughs, even appearing as a joke on TV in the popular show “Seinfeld.”

But safety groups say 12 deaths have been linked to poppy seed tea and the numbers are likely much higher. Scientists say that unless a special test is done, a poppy seed death looks like any other opioid overdose.

“The coroner had never heard of it,” Golden said.

Scientists at Sam Houston State University tested the morphine levels of 22 different easily available brands of poppy seeds in their lab.

“We were shocked to find out that a very small cup of tea could have lethal levels of morphine in it,” professor Madeline Swortswood said.

The lab tests only measured doses with 4 tablespoons of seeds, that's much less than what most of the tea recipes call for.

“We were finding hundreds of milligrams. which is more than you would find at the hospital or if you were terminally ill,” Swortswood said.

That's why Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., told Channel 2’s Justin Gray that Congress needs to get involved

“This needs to be controlled,” he said.

Poppy plants are listed as controlled substances and are illegal, but not the seeds.

A bill Boozman has introduced would outlaw unwashed poppy seeds.

Last year, the Food and Drug Administration sent a letter to makers of a poppy seed product demanding it stop making medicinal claims, but the product itself is still for sale, as are dozens of others.

The same brand found in the room where Shirley died is still for sale.

She says she looks at the website almost every day.

“It makes me sick. They're just pushers,” Golden said.

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