Marijuana, Coke, Nicotine: The Truth About "Natural" Drugs

Illustrated by Marcel George.
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).
To understand why medical marijuana is gaining momentum (and what substances might be next) click through and see how these nine headline-making, plant-based psychoactive drugs stack up.
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Illustrated by Marcel George.

U.S. Legal status: As of this month, 23 states have voted to allow medical marijuana, and four have voted to legalize it for recreational use. But, at the federal level, marijuana remains illegal; it's a schedule I drug, which means it is considered one of the most dangerous substances, with a high potential for addiction and no therapeutic value.

Potential benefits: There is some research to suggest that marijuana can be beneficial for people dealing with a wide variety of medical issues. These include cancer, Alzheimer’s-related dementia, osteoporosis, and chronic pain that doesn’t respond to more commonly prescribed treatments.

Potential hazards: In the short term, the most common negative effects of marijuana are anxiety, dizziness, and increased heart rate. In the long term, the negative effects are more difficult to ascertain. A recent study suggested it may cause a lowered IQ later in life, but that has been disputed. And, there are several complex factors at work here, including the age at which it was first ingested, as well as how much and how often the drug was taken after that.
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Psilocybin Mushrooms

U.S. Legal status: Psilocybin, the psychoactive chemical within the mushrooms, is a schedule I substance. Therefore, the mushrooms themselves are a controlled substance.

Potential benefits: Recent studies suggest that psilocybin can be useful for easing certain types of anxiety and depression. In particular, the drug has been shown to help with end-of-life anxiety in patients with terminal cancer alongside psychotherapy. Others have suggested that we begin to look at psilocybin as a possible antidepressant due to its effects on serotonin receptors. It has also proven to be effective in smoking cessation in a small pilot study. And, remarkably, other research suggests it can lessen the pain of cluster headaches.

Potential hazards: Psilocybin use has been associated with panic attacks, nausea, and feelings of depersonalization. But, researchers have concluded that these events tend to be rare.
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Illustrated by Marcel George.

U.S. Legal status: As a schedule II drug, cocaine is considered to have a high potential for abuse, but also some therapeutic value. It is a highly controlled substance across the country.

Potential benefits: As a stimulant, cocaine has a long history of medical uses: Traditionally, coca leaves are chewed for their help in reducing hunger and their mild stimulant effect. Cocaine (the purified extract of the cocaine alkaloid in the leaves) was sold as an ingredient in “Forced March” pills and soothing throat drops. And, coca leaves were once an ingredient in Coca Cola. Today, it’s still used as a local, topical anesthetic on its own or as part of a mixture.

Potential hazards: In recreational use, cocaine is taken in a different way. When injected, snorted, or smoked, it can act faster in the brain and more intensely than when it’s just applied to the skin. Through this mechanism, cocaine usually becomes extremely addictive. After a long period of abuse, cocaine can cause heart failure, among other life-threatening effects.
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Illustrated by Marcel George.

U.S. Legal status: This one’s a little blurry. The ayahuasca root on its own hasn’t been specifically scheduled. But, the other component of the tea (the Chacruna shrub) contains a schedule I substance (DMT) and is mixed with the root. And, the law is a little fuzzy on the subject of DMT-containing plants — of which there are many. A few churches in the country have been allowed to drink the tea for religious purposes, but it remains illegal for the most part.

Potential benefits: Although studies of ayahuasca are limited, it has been suggested that the tea could help with PTSD, among many other issues.

Potential hazards: There is almost always some sort of “purge” associated with drinking the ayahuasca tea, meaning vomiting and/or diarrhea. Although it doesn’t sound great, this step is considered an important part of the experience. And, a few years ago, there was one widely-reported death of a teenager who had traveled to Peru to take part in an ayahuasca ceremony. But, it’s unclear what exactly caused his death.
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Illustrated by Marcel George.
Tobacco (Cigarettes)

U.S. Legal status: Legal, but age-restricted.

Potential benefits: Most of cigarettes' effects are from the nicotine contained within the tobacco plant. Some research shows that nicotine (even in patch form) can improve cognitive functioning and reduce anxiety. And, contrary to its reputation, nicotine on its own doesn’t always cause addiction. One study showed that nicotine isn't much of a factor in whether or not people relapse after quitting smoking.

Potential hazards: Instead, nicotine's interaction with other stuff in cigarettes is what makes smoking so addictive. Indeed, the CDC estimates that over 440,000 people die prematurely due to smoking-related causes. That includes deaths from lung cancer and heart disease, as well as diseases contracted from secondhand smoke exposure.
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Illustrated by Marcel George.

U.S. Legal status: In most states, all parts of the peyote cactus are considered schedule I controlled substances. A few states (including Arizona, New Mexico, and Nevada) do allow the use of peyote in religious practice.

Potential benefits: Peyote actually has a reputation as both a cure for and protective against alcoholism, and there are a few studies from the 1970s to back that up. However, there haven’t been any recent follow-ups. One more recent study found no significant negative cognitive or psychological effects from long-term peyote use.

Potential hazards: The most common negative side effect of ingesting the mescaline-containing cactus is feeling nauseous. The drug can also cause changes in blood pressure and breathing.
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Illustrated by Marcel George.
Coffee Bean (Coffee)

U.S. Legal status: Starbucks.

Potential benefits: Any regular coffee drinker can tell you the major benefit of that caffeinated nectar is its power to make you feel awake and alert. Other benefits, such as protection from liver disease and diabetes, have not been totally confirmed.

In the past, coffee has been accused of many things (such as increasing cholesterol levels and the risk for heart disease). But, since then, research has clarified that it’s not coffee that’s causing these things. Even drinking up to six cups a day hasn’t been found to increase our risk of death from any cause.

Potential hazards: However, drinking a lot of coffee can certainly interfere with our ability to fall asleep. Chronic sleep deprivation can have a whole lot of undesirable effects down the line, including slowed cognitive functioning as well as higher risks of chronic illnesses such as heart disease. And, of course, there’s the fact that we can become somewhat dependent on that morning cup — to the point of experiencing withdrawal symptoms when we don’t get it.
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Illustrated by Marcel George.
Iboga root (Ibogaine)

U.S. Legal status: Ibogaine is a schedule I drug in the U.S. That includes both the root and the purified ibogaine.

Potential benefits: Some research suggests that ibogaine shows promise in the treatment of addiction, including dependence on opiates and stimulants.

Potential hazards: Although most studies show that ibogaine doesn’t come with major negative effects when used under proper supervision, there have been a few serious cases, including deaths. But, these individuals often already had drug addictions for years before trying ibogaine.
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Illustrated by Marcel George.
Hops (Beer)

U.S. Legal status: Legal, but age-restricted.

Potential benefits: Hops are added to beer primarily to add bitterness. They are also naturally sedative and have been recommended by some researchers for use as a sleep aid.

Potential hazards: But, the other majorly active component of beer is alcohol, and the long-term health effects of excessive drinking are pretty well-documented at this point. They include an increased risk for liver disease, heart disease, cancer, and mental health issues. Also, beer binge-drinkers in particular may need to be concerned about an increased risk for developing stomach cancer.