For whatever reason, we tend to think anything "natural" is somehow safer than anything that isn't. But, the fact that a drug came out of the ground doesn't actually have anything to do with its safety.
"The idea that natural drugs are safe is a huge generalization that doesn’t have any sort of scientific backing," says Brad Burge of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). Instead, we're learning that drugs are drugs, all with good and bad aspects.
When assessing a conventional drug's safety, the FDA evaluates substances based on three major criteria: its potential for dependence, its toxicity, and its lethality. And, as anyone who's taken a minute to read the back of an Aspirin bottle can tell you, even FDA-approved drugs come with known, potentially serious side effects. "So, FDA-approved drugs have side effects and 'safe' is not necessarily defined as 'without potential for harm,'" says Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). "It's defined as an acceptable level of harm."
But, the way drugs are classified by the government according to specifications set forth in the 1970 Controlled Substance Act is a little bit different. Here, substances are broken down by "schedules" based on their potential for abuse and whether or not they have any accepted medical use. Although the original goal of the act was a noble one — figuring out which drugs were the most likely to be addictive — we've learned a lot about these substances since the '70s. And, that new information hasn't necessarily been reflected in the scheduling.
Now, we are beginning to reevaluate the scheduling of some of these drugs as continued exploration of their mechanisms indicates they may have therapeutic benefits. Which means that pharmaceutical solutions to medical issues may one day come from unlikely sources. However, natural drugs (like all drugs) pose potential hazards and unintended side effects. And, Armentano argues that we should evaluate all drugs based on what balance of these factors we're willing to accept — whether they're natural or not.
"Drugs are simply what they are," says Dennis McKenna, PhD. "The good and bad aspects come into how people use these things, and our perceptions of what's a 'bad use' can change." Indeed, just this month, we voted to legalize marijuana for recreational use in Alaska, Oregon, and the District of Columbia — and it is now legal for medical use in 23 states. And, on the Internet, anything goes (as proven by Doug Benson's Getting Doug With High).