Flashback Friday: Jimsonweed, The World’s Worst Dope

In this edition of Flashback Friday, writer Steve Block outlines all the reasons why everyone should avoid jimsonweed. Originally published in the December, 1975 issue of High Times.

The search for exotic highs is like the temptation to bet on “propositions”: of course, you know who won the World Series in 1936, how to sing the “Horst Wessel Song,” or that the dude drinking pink ladies cannot pour that glass into your trousers without getting you wet. Damon Runyon summed up the smart gambler’s attitude to “propositions” in his advice to Sky Masterton in Guys and Dolls “Sky,” he said, “some day a man is going to come along and show you a brand-new deck of cards on which the seal has not been broken, and he is going to offer to bet you any amount of money that he can make the jack of hearts jump out of the deck and squirt cider in your ear. But son, do not bet him, for as sure as you do, you will wind up with an ear full of cider.”

So it goes with dope. You trek 900 miles overland into the Amazon jungle to sample yagé in its natural habitat and some unscrupulous brujo (sorcerer) sells you a skullful of leopard piss that decorticates your left cerebral hemisphere. Cosmic Danny, the most righteous dealer in Denver, sells you a dozen buttons of peyote that get you the Nobel Prize for puking. Some hand-picked coca leaves trickle into Vancouver and your fillings trickle out. After a certain number of unsuccessful experiments with these overpriced emetics, one reluctantly gives up hit-and-run highs in favor of the tried and true, and peace reigns in the troubled brain.

Still, the temptation always lies beneath the surface. Stories circulate about gentle new blends of PCP or “mescaline.” Perhaps no such drug is so big in legend and so awful in the event as jimsonweed.

Wherever high trash gather to slobber over week-old roaches, jimsonweed is the dope most highly spoken of in tones of awed, appreciative speculation. I would like to put these silly rumors to rest once and for all. In my opinion, jimsonweed is, beyond the shadow of a doubt, the world’s worst drug.

Jimsonweed acts swiftly and lasts long, and to the unprepared it shows no mercy. It is called the devil’s weed and like the devil it claims body and soul.

The use of jimsonweed goes back thousands of years. There is an amusing anecdote about the use of jimsonweed among Mark Antony’s legions in 38 B.C. Unfortunately I cannot remember it. The devil’s weed does funny things to your memory.

In 1564 a well-known Spanish physician, one Monardes, received a shipment of “cacho” seeds from a fellow Spaniard residing in the new colony of Peru. After studying and cultivating them, Monardes sent some seeds to the Turkish herbalist, Lord Zouch, who in turn sent seeds to the great British botanist Gerarde. Gerarde classified the plant, calling it the Thorn Apple of Peru. He put it in the nightshade or Solanaceae family. In Latin it is called Datura; other names—stinkweed, stink-wort, mad apple—followed, and they all fit.

Jimsonweed has long been used by native Americans as a medicine. The Aztecs used it for centuries in poultices to soothe scalds and burns. Some Indians also used it as an anesthetic while setting bone fractures.

In this century jimsonweed extract—stramonium—has been used as a muscle relaxant, in cigarettes for asthmatics, and as a palliative for hemorrhoids. It has been used to treat rabies and to knock out intended victims of the French Revolution’s guillotine and candidates for the strangling cord of India’s “thuggee” death cult.

Apart from these mundane uses, jimsonweed’s reputation persists as a key that can give one access to one of what Don Juan calls the “million paths of knowledge.” Carlos Castañeda claims to have taken it with an old brujo and found it a sure route to heightened perception and enlightenment. I don’t know anybody else who has, but I’m here to tell you it’s like snorting Drano.

I found some datura growing wild on the Jersey shore. OK, so I didn’t have an assignment from the Atlantic Monthly to study geriatric brujos in Mexico. I can pick jimsonweed and chop it up and scarf it down as well as the next guy.

After some slight nausea, itching and shortness of breath, I noticed that my heart was throbbing. Vision became blurred, hearing decreased, and my mouth was parched. I realized that death awaited me, and I was assailed by feelings of self-doubt and contrition for sins I had never imagined, let alone committed. The fear of dying grew in me and I ran over to a friend’s house, gasping for help. After a while I passed out for about five hours. When I came to I was completely exhausted.

I have never experienced anything but physical pleasure and a blissful consciousness of self-acceptance and love of the world on LSD, DMT, STP, mescaline, peyote, ayahuasca, yagé, marijuana, hashish, opium, cocaine, even the heroin I snorted at Jimmy Farrell’s birthday party. I don’t know what got into me but it’s never going to happen again. Jimsonweed poisoning, though dangerous, is not always fatal. Left alone, a victim will more than likely recover from the effects within a few days, depending of course on how much of the chemical alkaloids he has ingested.

The Department of Pediatrics of the University of Virginia School of Medicine reported in 1955, “Although distinctly less frequent than kerosene or salicylate intoxication, Datura has had about the same incidence as lead, barbiturates, alcohol, rodenticides, and insecticides as a source of poisoning.” The incidence among children is somewhat higher than among adults because kids are attracted by the seeds, which they use as play pills. One report from Cleveland in the 1940s spoke of an entire orphanage stricken by the drug. ‘‘Some kids crawled under beds, some barked like dogs, some picked at imaginary objects from mid-air, and others just moaned or wept.”

Another strange incident of jimsonweed poisoning occurred on a farm not far from Nashville, Tennessee, in the early 1960s. In this case an entire family was poisoned, and it was later learned that the farmer, unaware of the dangers, had been grafting his tomato vines with jimsonweed plants. This was done, he said, to insure that his tomatoes would ripen even in mid-fall, since jimsonweed is hardy enough to fight off the first frost.

The farmer’s tomatoes yielded 4.2 milligrams of stramonium alkaloid per hundred grams of tomato, more than sufficient to produce severe symptoms of poisoning. Neither the farmer nor his family was permanently injured by the poisoning, but they were all sick for two weeks.

High Times

The Thorn Apple grows wild: while it flourishes in moist soil and thrives in the Peruvian sun, it has also done well under more extreme climates throughout the world. Its strong acrid smell can be detected from several feet away. It is a large, fibrous, leafy plant and may grow to five feet in height. On it bloom trumpetlike flowers that remain from early spring to late fall. Only at night do its petals open wide.

The whole plant is poisonous, from leaf to root, and once the seed—which may be scattered by wind, water or beast—germinates, jimsonweed will grow almost anywhere.

There are more than 15 species of datura. Datura stramonium, Datura meteloides and Datura tatula (more purplish than the other two) are the most common on the North American continent.

The name “jimsonweed” derives from Jamestown, Virginia, where it was first used by the English soldiers in the year 1676. The tiny colony had saved itself from economic despair by growing tobacco, and the new tobacco trade had spread to Europe and even to the Orient, despite the bitter opposition of King James I.

A minor revolt against the corrupt government of the Crown was being led by Colonel Nathaniel Bacon, an outspoken gentleman tobacco planter, a man of dissolute personal habits but a determined military leader. Troops were dispatched from England to defend Jamestown. One evening, the troops’ cook brewed up some local herbs, serving a bitter-tasting datura salad, “…the Effect of which was a very pleasant Comedy: for they turned natural Fools upon it for several Days: One would blow up a Feather in the Air: another would dart Straws at it with much Fury: and another stark naked was sitting in a Corner, like a Monkey, grinning and making Mows at them: Fourth would fondly kiss and paw his Companions, and snear in their Faces, with a Countenance more Antick than any in a Dutch Droll.”

“In this Frantick condition they were confined, lest they should in their folly destroy themselves: though it was observed, that all their Actions were full of Innocence and good Nature. Indeed, they were not very cleanly: for they would have wallowed in their own Excrements if they had not been prevented. A Thousand such simple Tricks they play’d and after Eleven Days, return’d themselves again, not remembering a thing that had pass’d” (Robert Beverly, History of Virginia).

These troops, it may be noted, did not bring home the Bacon. (He died later of venereal disease.) Bacon’s Rebellion eventually petered out, despite the first successful military use of a psychoactive drug.

Long before the white man had ever reached the New World, Indians had been using “wighsackan” for medicinal and spiritual purposes. The Powhattans held “huskinawing” initiation rites each spring for young males becoming braves. Given a generous measure of jimsonweed concoction to drink, the youths were sent into the woods for several days. There, under extreme hallucinosis, they underwent the secret ceremonies of admission into manhood. It must have been a caution.

Out west, too, the Zunis, Paiutes and Walapais used the plant for similar purposes. “Among the Luiseno of California,” wrote another observer, “several youths of puberty age were gathered at night into a special enclosure where they drank a concoction prepared from the roots of the weed. The effect of the drug lasted from two to four days. During that time the initiate experienced visions of spirits, which he believed gave him supernatural powers. Later, he had to descend into a pit dug in the ground, symbolic of death, and then climb out again, supposedly indicating rebirth.”

Older tribesmen also took the drug. An eighteenth-century missionary, John Heckewelder, witnessed many such occasions. Of one incident he says:

“He will fancy himself flying through the air, stepping from ridge or hill to the other, across the valley beneath, fighting and conquering giants and even monsters, and defeating whole hosts of enemies with his single arm. He then has an interview with Maninito or spirit who lays out before him his fate. This belief in the truth of the visions is universal among the Indians. There are even some who believe in the transmigration of the soul. I have known several Indians who firmly believed they knew, by means of their visions, what was to become of them when they should die. How their souls were to retire from their bodies and take abode into those bodies still unborn.”

The most famous account of Indian experience with jimsonweed is given by Carlos Castañeda’s Don Juan. Admitting that the drug can give some insight into the soul, Don Juan says, “She distorts men, she gives them tasks of power too soon without fortifying their hearts and makes them domineering and unpredictable. She makes them weak in the middle of their great power’’

Atropine, hyoscyamine and scopolamine are the chemicals that constitute datura. Alone, each is a potent drug that chemists carefully dilute for medicinal purposes. In combination they produce symptoms quite similar to those of belladonna: severe dryness and burning of the throat, extreme dilation of the pupils, delirium, nausea and wild hallucinations.

Jimsonweed is illegal in this country, but it grows wild almost everywhere. It grows best in marshy and swampy regions, but may even be found flourishing in vacant lots in big cities. It’s easiest to find, though, in unweeded fields where moisture abounds.

If you will not be satisfied until you have trifled with this mephitic mind-fucker, the old Indian way of preparing jimsonweed dictated picking the fruit of the plant late in the harvest season, with, if possible, the light of the full moon falling over your left shoulder while you mutter the names of demons. Separate the leaves, stem, pod and seeds. All parts are toxic and will get you “high.” Drying the leaves will rid them of their strong odor but will not affect their toxicity.

The active alkaloids—atropine, hyascamine and scopolamine—are available from any drugstore—with a prescription. Or just get hold of a pack of stramonium cigarettes for asthmatics, still manufactured in Europe, and boil the contents junkie style.

Next time someone tells me jimsonweed is far out, I’m going to agree with him. But I’m not going to take it, not the jack of hearts from an unopened deck of cards.

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