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.

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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.) 

The book Opium for the Masses by Jim Hogshire, a kind of opium and poppy how-to guide released in the mid-1990s, is credited in many circles with reviving this entire practice. The publication’s timing was right, as the book’s popularity coincided with the rise of the Internet and thus the methods and means for making opium spread through online posting boards, forums and chat groups; users compared and traded tips for grinding the pods and debated ways of brewing the tea as tea drinkers clung to the belief that they had found a cheap and legal high (alas, they were mistaken: Hogshire himself was busted for poppy possession and his personal tea lab ransacked by authorities in 1996; charges were later dropped).

Once they found the EBay supply had run dry, frantic tea heads went to independent sites where they were price gouged or burned and ripped off altogether. 

To be fair, there has long been confusion over the legality of the sale, distribution and use of poppy pods, with many believing that the sale of papaver somniferum poppy pods (those used to produce opium, morphine and heroin) is legal so long as the pods were intended for ornamental purposes, such as floral arranging. In fact, the DEA lists poppy pods as a Schedule II narcotic, and can arrest people who so much as have a plant growing in their gardens. The confusion was so great that Martha Stewart Living once famously printed, "Contrary to general belief, there is no federal law against growing P. somniferum”—a quote that, not incidentally, was widely circulated and promulgated on numerous poppy pod sites and drug forums.

Sellers and buyers clung to the mistaken notion that there existed a loophole whereby the pods were legal to sell and buy: many advertised their products as being for “floral arrangements only” the same way that head shop owners stress that their bongs are for “tobacco use only”; sites selling dried poppy pods even included nonsense legalese claims like “SweetPaulasPods sells all its dried poppies for ornamental purposes only. The use of poppies for any other reason is illegal.”

Yet according to DEA spokesperson Rusty Payne, it’s unequivocally illegal to grow poppy in the United States, except in a very few specialized cases that require extensive licensing, and exceptions that have never been made for “ornamental use.”

A search of legal databases turns up plenty of court cases prosecuting poppy growers through the 1950s and ’60s, though they tail off after that, and then show up only sporadically. One can only assume that the government stamped out fields being used to produce heroin to its satisfaction. The craft hobbyists, generally unaware of what they were working with, were left alone and within a few years, “ornamental use” poppies were being sold all over EBay.

Payne would not confirm any sort of current crackdown, saying only cryptically, “We've become aware of some poppy fields and are looking at them.” Though EBay had no comment on poppy sales on the site, the sales were common before July 2009, when they abruptly disappeared. A frequent poppy pod buyer explains that when he asked the person he’d always bought pods from in the past what was going on in August of that year, the seller said that PayPal was suddenly refusing to handle any transactions having to do with poppy pods. Neither EBay nor PayPal would confirm these reports.

Once they found the EBay supply had run dry, frantic tea heads went to independent sites where they were price gouged or burned and ripped off altogether. Fly-by-night sites have popped up to take the tea fiend’s money, promising poppies at the old prices and then never shipping anything. But, like any domestic agricultural crop, the supply of U.S.-grown poppy pods is seasonal. In the spring of 2010, when the new crop offered some relief, the new EBay-less market was unstable and supply nowhere near as abundant as it had been in years past. That paltry inventory was soon depleted altogether, leaving tea fiends paying more or left out in the cold in the second wave of the panic. By the winter of 2011, poppy was near impossible to come by and the tea fiends looked forward to spring, making do with crushed melatonin or Sleepy Time for a quick fix to hold them over. May and June offered some new sources, but not as many as the year before, and the future looked even bleaker. Canadian sites importing pods from overseas charged ridiculous fees, domestic prices also skyrocketed and the rip-off con sites proliferated.

One former Florida-based seller who wished to remain anonymous said his company (literally a mom-and-pop outfit run by a husband and wife in their golden years) had been selling pods since 1997 but were recently shut down by the feds. He wouldn’t go into details, even when pressed repeatedly, but described a scene involving burning fields and a seizure.

The panic hit forums where tea heads, frequently using the common acronym SWIM (for Someone Who Isn’t Me) to distance themselves from illegal activities, congregate to share information and, just as often, self-dramatize their own habits. In a posting in one such forum, a user wrote, “We all know that the prices have risen to insane levels. My friend hasn't ordered any in months due to it. When he emailed his vendors to complain, the vendor said that prices will never go as low as they were before.” Receipts obtained by The Fix show 20 “mammoth” dried poppy pod heads selling for $30 in 2008. A similar size and number of dried poppy pods would cost as much as $180 (plus a steep shipping charge) today.

The real casualty here, of course, are the innocent hobbyist decorators who wandered into their neighborhood craft stores one day and couldn’t find any of the oddly shaped woody orbs they’d enjoyed working into their arrangements. In all likelihood, they probably just moved onto the next box of shimmering tulle ribbon that caught their eye, never giving a thought to the illegal trade in which they’d unwittingly played a supporting role.

John Capone is a freelance writer living in the Bay Area. This is his first piece for The Fix.

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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.

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