Most psychoactive drugs come from plants, and there are hundreds of plants with psychoactive properties. People have put most of them to use in one part of the world or another at one time or another. Often drug plants taste bad, are weak, or have unwanted side effects. Traditional peoples who use these plants, such as Native Americans, have come up with clever ways of preparing and ingesting them to maximize the desired effects or make them easier to take. Traditional peoples do not tamper with the chemical composition of the plants, however. For example, South American Indians have found that drying coca leaves and mixing them with ashes or other alkalis increases their stimulant effect. They have also learned to make a powerful snuff from the resin of the virola tree (a DMT-containing plant) in order to take psychedelic trips. In a similar way, Old World natives learned to roast coffee beans and extract them with hot water to prepare a flavorful and stimulating beverage.
Crude plant drugs contain complex mixtures of chemicals, all of which contribute to the effect of the whole. Often more of one chemical will be present than of any other, and that one may account for the most dramatic effects of the plant. Cocaine is the main drug in coca leaves and is responsible for the numbness in the mouth and much of the stimulation that coca chewers like. In the same way, caffeine is the predominant constituent of coffee. Doctors and pharmacologists refer to these predominating chemicals as the "active principles" of the plants, which would be fine except that it implies all the other constituents are inactive and unimportant.
In the mid-1800s, scientists first began to identify the active principles of well-known drug plants. They soon succeeded in isolating many and making them available in pure form. Doctors quickly began to treat patients with these purified derivatives. Today, most doctors regard green medicinal plants as old-fashioned and unscientific; they rely instead on refined white powders derived from plants. Because pharmacologists have also lost interest in plants and study only isolated active principles, they know little about how whole plants differ in their effects from refined drugs.
The relationships people form with plants are different from those they form with white powders. Crude natural drugs tend to be less toxic, and users tend to stay in better relationships with them over time. One reason for this difference is that plants are dilute preparations, since the active principles are combined not only with other drugs but also with inert vegetable matter. Drugs plants commonly contain less than 5 percent of an active principle. (Coca rarely has more than 0.5 percent cocaine.) By contrast, refined preparations may approach 100 percent purity.
In addition, crude plants usually go into the body through the mouth and stomach, whereas purified chemicals can be put into the bloodstream more directly, such as by snorting, smoking, or injecting (you can't snort a coca leaf). Harmful effects, both immediate and long-term, are more likely to appear when people put drugs directly into their bloodstreams without giving their bodies a chance to process them.
Finally, the many other compounds in drug plants — often a single plant will contain twenty or more active components — may modify the active principles, making them safer or softening their harsher actions on the body. These safety factors and modi-
fiers are lost when the active principles are isolated from the crude drugs that nature provides.
Natural drugs in whole plant form are the safest types of drugs. They always have lower potentials for abuse. If people choose to take drugs, they would be wise to use natural plant forms in order to give themselves the best chance of avoiding problems.
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