Where do poppy seeds come from?

Answers to your questions about the news.
May 24 2005 6:33 PM

If You Can't Grow Poppies …

Where do poppy seeds come from?

Barely legal? Click image to expand.
Barely legal?

In an internal memo sent on May 13, U.S. officials in Kabul complained about the Afghan government's failure to support a poppy eradication program. The charge of negligence was refuted by Hamid Karzai on Monday. Are poppies illegal all around the world? Where do poppy seeds come from?

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

Growing poppies is legal in some countries, with certain restrictions. The poppy seeds used in baking come from all over, but our two main sources are Turkey and the Netherlands. When you buy a bottle at your local store, chances are you're getting Dutch poppy seeds, which are a familiar blue-grey.

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Poppies come in different varieties, only some of which can produce narcotics. The Papaver somniferum, or "opium poppy," is used to make morphine, heroin, and a number of other painkillers. Papaver somniferum also produces the seeds we put on bagels and in lemon pound cake.

To harvest opium from a poppy, a farmer waits until the last petals of the flower have fallen off and then lances the seed pod, taking care not to cut too deep. Over the next half-day, opium will seep out through these holes in the form of a milky sap that can be scraped off the side of the pod. Later on, dried pods can be cut open to reveal a harvest of tiny seeds.

Rules for the legal cultivation of opium poppies were set out in the United Nations' Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs in 1961. Countries that produce and export opium must keep a close watch on the poppy farms within their borders. In Turkey, for example, poppy farmers harvest both the opium and the seeds. The opium is sent off to a pharmaceutical company, where it is processed into legal painkillers, and then the seeds are harvested to make poppy-seed oil or to send abroad. The government keeps a close watch on cultivation: Farmers must submit crop estimates before they begin planting, and government officials check these estimates against the actual yield and their own inspections of the land.

It's against the law to grow opium poppies in the United States, although enforcement has been inconsistent in the case of small-time gardeners who grow them as ornamental flowers. According to the Controlled Substances Act, every part of the opium poppy except the seed is illegal, including the seed pods, but some companies do import dried seed pods for decorative purposes.

At the discretion of the Department of Justice, the United States imports opium and poppy products to the extent necessary for "medical, scientific, or other legitimate purposes." For more than 20 years, the government has imported narcotic poppy products according to the "80-20 rule," according to which 80 percent must come from Turkey and India, while the rest comes from Belgium, France, Hungary, Poland, and Yugoslavia.

Explainer thanks Jerry Tenenberg of The Great Spice Company and Rogene Waite of the Drug Enforcement Administration*.

*Correction, May 26, 2005: The initial version stated that Rogene Waite works for the Drug Enforcement Agency. In fact, Ms. Waite works for the Drug Enforcement Administration.

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