When a mother in labor seemed to test positive for opiates, that alone was enough to get her reported for drug use. To make matters worse, she claimed that she hadn't actually been using drugs.
Baltimore County mother Elizabeth Eden was in labor at St. Joseph Medical Center when a doctor informed her that she tested positive for opiates, WBAL-TV reports. Earlier that day, Eden had consumed a poppy seed bagel. She remembered hearing in a health class that the poppy seeds could lead to a false positive in a drug test.
"I said, 'Well, can you test me again? And I ate a poppy seed bagel this morning for breakfast,' and she said, 'No, you've been reported to the state,'" Eden recalled. After giving birth, Eden's daughter, Beatrice, was forced to remain in the hospital for five days. Eden was also assigned a caseworker, who conducted a home check. When the caseworker concluded that the poppy seed defense was legitimate, the case was closed. Still, Eden called the ordeal "traumatizing."
Time explains why something as small as a poppy seed can cause such a misunderstanding:
Opium, heroin, codeine and morphine all come from opium poppies. While poppy seeds do not actually contain any of these substances, they can become tainted with morphine during the harvesting process, according to Brittanica. In some cases, the morphine residue on the seeds, while not enough to create a high, is enough to throw off the results of a drug test, research shows.
Over the years, cases like Eden's have inspired questions about the thresholds used in drug tests—not to mention an arguably overzealous response when a new mother is suspected of drug use. In Pennsylvania in 2009, Lawrence County Children and Youth Services (LCCYS) seized Eileen Ann Bower's newborn son from Jameson Hospital after poppy seeds in a potato salad triggered a false positive drug test. He remained in foster care for two months.
A similar incident occurred at the same hospital in 2010. After Elizabeth Mort and Alex Rodriguez welcomed their baby girl, Isabella, into the world, they received a home visit from LCCYS. The three-day-old was forced into foster care for five days before LCCYS realized its mistake. As in Bower's case, the seizure revealed that cutoff level for opiate testing was low enough for poppy seeds to trigger a positive. This, coupled with what Mort and Rodriguez called a "seize first, ask questions later" policy in their eventual lawsuit, led to confusion between the legal system and parents.
In Eden's case, Dr. Judith Rossiter-Pratt, chief of the OB/GYN department at St. Joseph Medical Center, told WBAL-TV that the test's threshold was lowered in an attempt to catch more people. Setting the bar higher to only identify "true positives" could cause the hospital to miss several drug users, she argued.
Reason's Jacob Sullum has argued that the rush to separate mothers from their children following a positive drug test is misguided:
The problem with Lawrence County's policy is not just that urinalysis is not always reliable. It is also that drug use during pregnancy does not ipso facto prove that a newborn is in danger of neglect or abuse, or that he would be better off in foster care. "By law," [Charles Davis of Change.org] notes, "the state is only permitted to take a child from its parents if there's clear evidence of abuse or imminent danger—and only as a last resort." The government does not (and should not) automatically seize the children of women who drink alcohol or smoke tobacco during pregnancy, and there is no rational reason to treat illegal drugs differently.
It's not just new mothers who get tangled in these policies. Just this year, Eleazer Paz, an officer with the New York City Department of Correction, lost his job after failing a drug test. Paz blamed the positive on poppy seeds, and sure enough, a doctor concluded that the opioids found in his drug test were "inconsistent with heroin or individual morphine and codeine ingestion." Nonetheless the department decided to uphold the firing.
Bonus links: Here's a story of a woman who was nearly placed behind bars because of a false drug test. Here is yet another story of a mother getting separated from her baby after failing a dubious drug test.