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A three-part series in Wilderness Medicine Magazine explored food and medicine available for free in nature (as well as toxic plants/mushrooms that are equally free but certainly worth avoiding). The series would not be complete without a short discussion of wild plants and mushrooms that are consumed for other than nutritional or medicinal reasons—such as spiritual communing with nature in beautiful places, tuning in, and dropping out. And perhaps expanding one’s perception or alleviating anxiety and depression could be considered food or medicine for the soul. Aldous Huxley wrote in his 1954 The Doors of Perception: “All the vegetable sedatives and narcotics, all the euphorics that grow on trees, the hallucinogens that ripen in berries or can be squeezed from roots - all, without exception, have been known and systematically used by human beings from time immemorial.”

With this in mind, you may find yourself counseling seekers who travel to South America to drink powerful tea with the guiding hand of the local shaman. Or you may see patients in the ED who have sampled the local flora (accidentally, or more likely intentionally) and suffered an unfortunate consequence of their seeking.

Terminology

Certain wild plants, mushrooms, and animals (toad licking is not discussed here) are sought for their expansive mind-altering effects. Terminology includes:

  • Psychoactive – substances that can alter consciousness, mood, and thoughts.
  • Psychedelic – relating to or denoting drugs that produce hallucinations and apparent expansion of consciousness.
  • Hallucinogen – causing hallucinations (the perception of a nonexistent object or event and sensory experiences that are not caused by stimulation of the relevant sensory organs).
  • Entheogen – a chemical substance, typically of plant origin, that is ingested to produce an abnormal state of consciousness for religious or spiritual purposes.
  • Psychomimetic – producing effects such as hallucinations or paranoid delusions that resemble or are identical with psychotic symptoms (not necessarily desired).

Legality of Psychedelic Plants and Mushrooms in the United States

The US Drug Enforcement Agency
classifies the following psychedelic substances that can be found in the wild as Schedule 1, meaning they have “having a high potential for abuse and the potential to create severe psychological and/or physical dependence.” However, the legality of these “drugs” differs by state, as discussed below. Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA, also known as “ecstasy”), also Schedule 1, are consumed for their psychedelic effects, but are synthetic and not discussed here.

Marijuana

Photo by CRYSTALWEED cannabis on Unsplash

The Cannabis sativa plant (marijuana), containing the primary psychoactive compound tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), can be found growing naturally in many places throughout the world. It has been used since prehistoric humans started smoking and ingesting it for its mind-altering (among other) effects, although it’s not considered a psychedelic per se like the other plants discussed here. In the U.S., it is legalized for medical and recreational use in 19 states, and for medical use in 17 states. Note that it is still illegal under federal law. Legality in other countries throughout the world varies wildly. While a pot plant isn’t generally found growing by the roadside (in the U.S. anyway; we spotted it in Kathmandu on the edge of a gravel road), it could conceivably be growing in a beautiful meadow and plucked-however, there is a likelihood of getting shot!

Peyote

Image by Emma Gabriela Pérez Vargas from Pixabay

The peyote cactus, Lophophora williamsii, is found in parts of Mexico and Southwest Texas. Containing the hallucinogen mescaline, the buttons on the plant are dried and eaten or brewed into a tea, creating visual and auditory effects. As noted above, it is a Schedule 1 drug, but under U.S. federal law, it can be used legally in Native American Church ceremonies or for traditional Native American religious use.

Psilocybin

Source: US Drug Enforcement Agency

Psilocybin, an indole-alkylamine, tryptamine, acts on serotonin receptors in the CNS. It can be found growing wild in 180 species of “psychedelic” or “magic” mushrooms (aka “shrooms”) in the U.S. South and Northwest, and in parts of Mexico and South America. The mushrooms can be consumed dried or brewed into a tea. Psychedelic effects are like LSD and peyote. Still classified as Schedule 1, magic mushrooms are nonetheless going mainstream, with Denver CO, some towns in California and Massachusetts, and Washington DC decriminalizing use of the diminutive fungi starting in 2019. To take it one giant step further, Oregon became the first state to decriminalize psilocybin and also to make it legal for medicinal use (although it is still illegal federally). Psilocybin has enjoyed a huge resurgence of interest after a hiatus of more 5-6 decades for a variety of medical, psychiatric, and human interest conditions; www.clinicaltrials.gov currently has over 60 trials listed using the synthetic version (instead of mushroom harvested in the wild).

Illegality of Psychedelic Plants and Mushrooms in the U.S.

The following plants and mushrooms are commonly used for their psychedelic effects and are decidedly not legal in the United States. They may also be very harmful to unsuspecting or careless users who may end up in a local ED to be treated for toxic effects.

Amanita muscaria

Photo by Jaccob McKay on Unsplash

This is the classic red spotted toadstool (also known as “fly agaric”) more commonly found in the eastern United States. Amanita mushrooms are consumed for their hallucinogenic properties induced by the neurotoxins ibotenic acid and muscimol, which generate sought after CNS symptoms that include alteration in visual perception, including macropsia and micropsia, where objects seem to grow and shrink (think Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, whose author, Lewis Carroll, was known to consume the pretty mushroom). Muscarinic intoxication from these mushrooms can cause the SLUDGE syndrome (salivation, lacrimation, urination, diaphoresis, GI upset, and emesis). A. muscaria are fortunately are not as potentially fatal as amatotoxin-containing mushrooms, consumption of which can lead to hepatocellular necrosis. But they have been reported to have been mistakenly eaten by people (especially young adults) looking to get high from A. muscaria, as well as wilderness trekkers who mistakenly eat them for dinner, and by soldiers engaged in survival training activities.

Jimson Weed

Image by zoosnow  from Pixabay 

Jimson Weed is the common name for Datura stromonium, native to North America, but found in other parts of the world. The flowers, stems, and seeds of the plant contain the tropane alkaloids scopolamine, hyoscyamine, and atropine, and are smoked, ingested, or made into a tea for their hallucinogenic effects, commonly by adolescents. Toxicity results from anticholinergic effects, which include the mnemonic: hot as a hare (or hot as Hades), blind as a bat, dry as a bone, red as a beet, mad as a hatter. 

Salvia divinorum and Morning glory

Image by Brett Hondow  from Pixabay 

 

Photo by Nancy Pietroski

Salvia divinorum (herb diviner’s sage), when chewed, smoked, or brewed into a tea, delivers salvinorin A, a psychoactive substance. Morning glory seeds, brewed into a tea, contain ergonovine and lysergic acid amide (ergot alkaloids). These are similar to LSD and produce psychedelic effects including colorful visual hallucinations and dissociation, like those produced by Salvia. Both Salvia and Morning glory can be found in nature or bought online. Salvia is legal, illegal, or decriminalized by state. Morning glory seeds themselves are not illegal to possess, but a pure formulation of lysergic acid amide is classified as a DEA Schedule III controlled substance.

Flying High to Get High

There are those who act locally in getting their high, and those who think globally when they want to expand their consciousness. Narcotourism, aka drug tourism, describes travel to global climes where an illicit drug experience can be easily accessed. A more high-flying name for this is “spiritual travel.” An excellent review of drug tourism described the types of travelers who seek these experiences and the countries where they can be found, and is useful for practitioners asked to provide travel medicine advice. Of paramount importance in these travelers should be a discussion of drug interactions with prescribed travel medicine drugs and illicit substances, as the former are often discontinued for the fear that drug interactions will interrupt the desired high. As well, the consultation should include the danger of using the substances in countries where illegal drug laws are much stricter (think “Midnight Express”).

Increasing popular destinations for drug tourism are Peru and Brazil, where the consumption of Ayahuasca is enjoyed (or not enjoyed) for its intense hallucinogenic effects. Used for hundreds to thousands of years in the Amazon in shaman-led ceremonies, it is a concoction made from the from the leaves of the psychoactive chacruna plant (Psychotria viridis) that contains dimethyltryptamine (DMT), which acts at serotonergic receptors to produce its psychoactive effects, and stems of the vine Banisteriopsis caapi (ayahuasca), which contains a monoamine oxidase inhibitor that breaks down the DMT. DMT is classified as Schedule 1, but interestingly in 2006, the Supreme Court ruled (unanimously) that members of a New Mexico church (Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao do Vegetal [UDV]) could use ayuhuasca tea in their religious practices. Currently, there are ayahuasca retreats in the United States, although the legality of these practices may be questionable.

Additional Information

For a fascinating account of the history of psychedelics, check out How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence by author Michael Pollan.

Dr. Miguel Pineda gave an entertaining and award-winning talk at the Wilderness Medical Society Winter Conference called “Nature vs. Narcotics: Organic and Synthetic Toxidrome Doppelgangers” which discussed some of the plant and mushrooms in this article (accessible by registered attendees of the conference only).

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