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Why a red flower is an emblem of both veterans and drug addicts

Posted November 11

As Veterans Day approaches, many people around the world pin an artificial flower near their heart to show respect for men and women who died in service to their country. But ironically, the same flower also represents another group of people who are dying in large numbers — those lost to opioid addiction.

The flower is the red poppy — the blossom that put Dorothy and Toto to sleep in "The Wizard of Oz" and the one Dr. John McCrae wrote about in his famous World War I poem "In Flanders Fields."

That same poppy is also the genesis of opiate addiction, and its seeds might be in your pantry right now, which could be a problem if anyone in your family needs to take a drug test anytime soon.

Here's the story of why an elegant flower is both sacred symbol and scourge.

A gift from God?

Since ancient times, humans have used the milky sap of the poppy to elevate mood, induce sleep and relieve pain. The Sumerians called it "the joy plant" and its seeds have been found in excavations dating to thousands of years before the birth of Christ. The plant's Latin name, Papaver somniferum, means "sleep-bringing," a quality of poppies that was noted by Hippocrates and Galen.

Author L. Frank Baum, however, used creative license in having Dorothy fall asleep just by walking in a field of poppies in Oz. It's not the blossom that induces relaxation, but a gel-like fluid that's contained in the plant's seed pod.

As the PBS show "Frontline" explained, this is opium "in its crudest form," harvested like this:

"The sap is extracted by slitting the pod vertically in parallel strokes with a special curved knife. As the sap oozes out, it turns darker and thicker, forming a brownish-black gum. A farmer collects the gum with a scraping knife, bundles it into bricks, cakes or balls and wraps them in a simple material such as plastic or leaves."

The ancients considered the poppy a gift bestowed by God, and the renowned 17th-century British physician Thomas Sydenham said, “Among the remedies which it has pleased Almighty God to give to man to relieve his sufferings, none is so universal and so efficacious as opium.”

In some places, morphine went by the acronym "G.O.M." — God's Own Medicine.

"No other substance has been found to be as effective as opiates for the management of extreme pain," the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration says on the website of its Arlington, Virginia, museum.

Ties to addiction, Veterans Day

The judicious use of poppies to relieve suffering, however, can quickly devolve into abuse, which is why thousands of Civil War soldiers are thought to have become addicted after receiving morphine for their injuries.

The body produces its own natural painkillers — endorphins — which bind to receptors in the brain and soften or obliterate the sensation of pain. The alkaloids of opium bind to those same receptors, causing the body to produce fewer endorphins of its own.

Nations have gone to war over opium, but until about a hundred years ago, its recreational use was largely tolerated, and it was smoked and consumed in "opium dens" around the world. In the U.S., this ended with the Harrison Narcotic Act of 1914 that regulated and taxed opium importation and production.

A year after the Harrison Narcotic Act was passed, McCrae gave poppies new meaning when he penned "In Flanders Fields."

McCrae was a World War I surgeon who wrote the poem after a chlorine gas attack by Germany killed half of his brigade, including his best friend. It begins: "In Flanders fields the poppies blow/ Between the crosses, row on row."

The poem, and one woman's reaction to it, is the reason that poppies are associated with servicemen and women who perish in battle.

Three years after the poem was composed, a New Yorker named Moina Michael bought a bouquet of poppies and handed them out at a YMCA, asking people to wear them in tribute. She vowed to wear one every day, and later came up with the idea to sell silk poppies to raise money for wounded veterans.

In Michael's memoir, she called the poppy "the miracle flower," and she would be pleased to know that they are omnipresent in the United Kingdom in the days leading up to Remembrance Day, Nov. 11. (Even the queen wears them.)

In the U.S., poppies are more often worn on Memorial Day than Veterans Day, although many Americans will wear them Nov. 11, particularly if they live in states that border Canada, which also observes Remembrance Day.

The American Legion Auxiliary also promotes poppies as a sign of respect for veterans, and distributes millions of poppies made of red crepe paper for Memorial Day and Veterans Day.

To the Royal Canadian Legion, the poppy is a "sacred symbol of remembrance" even though it's also the flower that enables much of the illegal drug trade.

Big Poppy

Afghanistan is said to supply 90 percent of the poppies that provide the resin used used in making morphine, codeine, oxycodone and heroin, highly addictive drugs that have contributed to a steep rise in overdose deaths in the U.S.

But cultivatable poppy seeds are sold on the internet, as food writer Michael Pollan can attest. In an article in Harper's magazine called "Opium Made Easy," he detailed his adventures growing poppies in his backyard in New England, which ended with him destroying the plants for fear of prosecution.

His advice for gardeners: "The less you know about it, the better off you are, in legal if not horticultural terms."

In other words, if you don't know you have opium poppies in your backyard, you're probably OK if the DEA comes knocking. If you know it, you may be in trouble, even if you don't intend to do anything but admire them.

It's a paradox that caused Reason magazine to conclude that cultivating poppies is "sort of illegal."

Beware the poppy-seed muffin

The black dots that stud bagels and give texture to lemon muffins and cakes are the same seeds that grow the opium poppy. Eat too many, and they may show up on a drug test.

The urban-myth-busting website Snopes.com notes four cases in which people lost jobs or job offers after failing drug tests that were later determined to be positive because of poppy seeds. This is why federal prisoners aren't allowed to eat food containing poppy seeds, even when they're on furlough, David Mikkelson wrote for Snopes, acknowledging that the rumor is true.

And it's one reason the American Academy of Pediatrics has come out against drug-testing for adolescents without their consent.

But that doesn't mean your children will get euphoric from eating a poppy-seed bagel.

"Although these seeds do have opium content, the amount used for cooking purposes is extremely small," the DEA says.

EMAIL: jgraham@deseretnews.com

TWITTER: @grahamtoday

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