A Poppy Panic on eBay, Courtesy of the DEA

By John Capone 07/01/11

Until recently, hipster hopheads and elderly craftspeople alike could order up all the dried poppy pods they desired on sites like eBay. But a recent DEA crackdown has left both groups in a mad scramble for stray stems.

The Feds Shut Down eBay's Tea Party

The first stages of the current crisis gripped tea drinkers in the summer of 2009.

Long before Silk Road, the underground online marketplace that recently came to the attention of the feds after a flurry of media coverage, there was another site where one could score illicit substances—if that is, they were interested in procuring dried poppy pods. The name of that website? EBay.

While making tea from poppy pods was once a common way to extract opium, it’s a practice that’s fallen off a bit in the past century. A philosophical and statistical history of the inventions and customes of ancient and modern nations in the manufacture and use of inebriating liquors, written in 1832 by Samuel Morewood, describes a "decoction of poppy" common in “Persian coffee-houses.” But for most of the 20th century, you’d more commonly find the pods in the hands of matronly women devoted to flower arranging than being brewed by the “Theriakis” (or opium eaters) of the East described by Morewood.

Poppy consumption isn’t just another urban myth akin to smoking banana peels. “I was surprised at how well it worked,” says one former tea drinker, who brewed his first batch a few years after completing a recovery program for intravenous heroin addiction after his curiosity was sparked by online accounts of the experience. The high is described as a sense of warmth, wellbeing and mild euphoria—“like taking a handful of Percodan."

Another person who had tried the tea casually at the behest of more experienced drinkers—likely with much higher tolerance—told me he spent half the night curled up in a ball on the couch with stomach cramps and nausea afterwards. “I swore I’d never do it again,” he says. But the memory of the high, however brief, had him sipping again after a couple of months.

It’s no wonder as the high, by most accounts, is described as a sense of warmth, wellbeing and mild euphoria—“like taking a handful of Percodan”— the effectiveness depending, of course, on the amount ingested. In online drug forums, the dosage recommended for an experienced tea drinker is between five and 10 pods per usage, brewed in a single teapot. Users crush the dried pods—those tennis-ball size or larger are most prized—into rough flakes or grind them into a powder, then pour boiling water over the result, allowing it to steep for anywhere between 10 and 20 minutes. The libation—more accurately termed an infusion rather than a tea—is, by most reports, quite bitter and unpleasant-tasting. (“Like a combination of dirty socks and ground aspirin,” according to a user.)

Of course, taste isn’t what imbibers are after. Yet just because they aren’t snorting or injecting doesn’t mean that what they’re doing is benign. “With these homemade concoctions, one never is quite sure what one's getting,” warns addiction therapist Dr. Paul Hokemeyer. “The potency of poppy pods varies greatly and this variance prevents even the most sophisticated home brewer from knowing with certainty whether their tea will just get them high or actually shut down their respiratory system.” Hokemeyer adds that there is, of course, the risk—just like with any opioid—of physical dependency. And the process—obtaining and grinding the pods, then brewing the tea with specialized equipment (from simple strainers to coffee presses to silk fabric to elaborate set ups that some tea drinkers half seriously referred to as “tea labs”)—appeals, says Hokemeyer, to the junkie’s sense of ritual. “There is always a ritual present in drug abuse,” he explains. “It’s part of the addictive cycle.” Overdosing on the tea is possible, with the ill effects ranging from nausea to death (only one or two deaths a year have been reported over the past few years and many point out that those who OD'd were people who were using a variety of substances). Those who OD tend to be young, and the parents often become active in spreading awareness of the dangers of the tea afterward. 

One recovering tea user I spoke to reported brewing multiple times a day for the better part of a year (often re-brewing the pulp, or what he called “the mash,” from the previous batch and keeping the pungent homebrew in a jar in the fridge for later) and downing a pot first thing in the morning because he would suffer withdrawal symptoms such as headaches and nausea if he did not. He quit long before the pods became scarce—not because he simply decided to put down the cup but because his tea habit led him back to the needle and a second stint in rehab. (He’s now been sober more than three years.) 

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John Capone is a writer and editor from New York currently based in Los Angeles. As a freelancer he's written for NYMag.com’s Grub Street, BlackBook, Radar, The Daily, Hemispheres, NBCNewYork.com, [wherever]: an out of place journal and many others. You can see samples of John's writing here. You can also find him on Linkedin and Twitter.