An Instructive Experience With Opium Poppy Tea 

    Like many overthinkers and traumatized people, I sleep poorly. My insomnia sometimes worsens to the point that I feel the need to rely on external help.

    Previously, I used heroin, in part to cope with this issue, and it worked. But after some years of doing that, I decided to try to simplify my life by no longer breaking the law. Prescribed medications that I’ve tried haven’t worked well for me, however, and I’m wary of the side effects of other drugs that may be prescribed off-label for sleep.

    Recently, I found myself dealing with an especially bad bout of insomnia. And it was after one awful, long night of sleeplessness and scrolling that I began searching for a florist.

    Yes, you read that right. The internet had told me that opium poppy pods are legal where I live in Europe, despite their contents being Schedule II in the United States. (It’s the latex from the pods which contains morphine and codeine; the seeds may have residue from the pods on them, but won’t get you high once they’re washed, processed and on your bagel.)

    Craft stores and florists openly sell the plants with dried pods where I live, even if their proprietors might frown upon the use I had in mind. Finding them was simple. They cost less than a euro each, and came in big bouquets.

    Without the recommended lemon juice, I found the taste of my first batch absolutely vile. The effects were not particularly dramatic.

    That evening, I brewed a tea from the pods, following the recipe on Erowid. Out of laziness, I didn’t grind the pods with a coffee grinder, but just chopped them into small chunks and placed them in boiling water. The pods were small, around the size of larger walnuts, so I used two.

    Without the recommended lemon juice, I found the taste of my first batch absolutely vile—kind of how I imagine the bandages used to wrap mummies would taste. Following online suggestions, I drank just a small amount to begin with. Overdose is possible if you drink a lot; the potency is normally low, but I no longer had tolerance.

    I then waited about half an hour for it to kick in. The effects were not particularly dramatic. Mostly, I felt sleepy and pleasant, and my ankle, which tends to ache and may be arthritic, didn’t bother me. I went on a long walk through my city, looking at the shop windows and pretending I was Thomas de Quincey.

    Afterwards I slept pretty well. Still, it wasn’t perfect—I woke up a couple times for water, and my mouth was fairly dry.

    I continued to use the opium poppy tea, almost daily, for around three weeks. It helped me sleep more after particularly bad nights. Sleeping better, if not exactly well, allowed me to think more clearly and get my homework done more efficiently.

    One issue was that the stuff lasted for about eight to 10 hours. In the mornings, I woke up feeling calm, warm and sleepy. I needed quite a lot of black tea to get going. A couple times I stayed up studying and took it too late—around one or two in the morning—and went to class kind of dazed, although I don’t think anyone noticed. After that, I only took it at around 10 or 11, to give the effects time to wear off.

    One thing to be clear about is that I never had any fear of “relapse” due to using opioids again.

    The dose also varied. There was no real way that I could find to know my tea’s strength without tasting it. Sometimes the pods were much stronger than I wanted, and I only took a few sips. Other times, I drank a whole cup, felt nothing, and then drank a second. Because I waited half an hour after testing each batch, for safety, it cost me a lot of time when the tea wasn’t strong enough.

    Specific effects also seemed to depend on the individual pod. Some were more dreamy and pleasant, others simply exhausted me and gave me a bad stomach ache.

    This unreliability was irritating, and the reason I stopped after a few weeks. It had been a helpful short-term intervention, but the lack of consistency, at least in the form I could access, means I don’t think it would be truly useful for me long-term. Of all the other sleep aids I’ve known, I’d rank the tea somewhere similar to the foul-tasting valerian root gummies I sometimes buy.

    Quitting wasn’t difficult. I had no withdrawal symptoms for the first few days. I suspected this would be the case, because I’d previously stopped for a one or two days without any symptoms. After the first three days, I felt vaguely achy and had some mild stomach issues for about a week, but nothing I couldn’t overcome with the help of a little aspirin.

    One thing to be clear about is that I never had any fear of “relapse” due to using opioids again. My heroin use had been frequent, but it was something I managed and controlled, and I have never considered it “addiction.” Since quitting heroin, I have also used prescribed opioids for pain, and that was no problem either. Many people whose use was once chaotic or problematic find that they can use again—at a different time of life, and in a different context—without problems, despite the popular prejudice against this.

    Opium tea is usually at the mildest end of the opioid spectrum, as I found. It seems obvious enough to me that it has real potential as a substitute for people who wish to reduce their use of more potent opioids—including those who might not be able to access medications like methadone or buprenorphine.

    When humans will always use drugs, shouldn’t the use of less potent, safer versions of our preferred substances be welcomed?

    Any opioid should be used cautiously, of course, and with awareness of drug combinations that increase risk. But risks will be minimized for people with opioid tolerance and experience. Drinking tea also avoids specific risks associated with other routes of consumption, like injecting or snorting.

    While the Iron Law of Prohibition incentivizes uptake of more potent substances, making opium tea legally available, in the US and elsewhere, would push in the opposite direction. When humans have always used drugs, and always will, shouldn’t the use of less potent, safer versions of our preferred substances be welcomed?

    In my imaginary utopia, this tea would be consumed in a pleasant, coffeeshop-like setting, where people could keep an eye on each other. To further promote safety, it would come in a regulated, tested form, with clear labeling of contents. And the baristas would find imaginative ways to make it taste wonderful.



    Photograph (cropped) by Avriette via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 3.0

    • Sam Taylor is the pseudonym of an American writer living in Europe.

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