Psychoactive Plants

The use of psychoactive plants predates recorded history; but it is known that the earliest cultures and civilizations were using and experimenting with these plants to achieve purposes of numbing pain, relieving fatigue or hunger, and providing an escape from worldly issues. The ancient civilizations of the Nile, Mesopotamia, and the Indus (river valley in present day India) have all recorded to some extent the uses and purposes of psychoactive plants in their societies (Levetin & Mcmahon 2008). "Their use has often been highly ritualized (especially true for hallucinogens) and incorporated into religions or mystical ceremonies in such a way that the novice is guided and protected by more experienced members of the ritual" (Lewis 2001). The expansion of these plants and their psychoactive properties was rapid, and has led to a number of goverment enacted regulations over the last few centuries. The debate is ongoing about the actual harm done to the human body through exposure to psychoactive plants, but the arguments on both sides are strong and well documented.

How Psychoactive Plants/Drugs Work:

Psychoactive drugs work by influencing the release of, or mimicking the actions of neurotransmitters, which are “chemical messengers within the nervous system” (Levetin and McMahon 2008). "The message system of nerve cells, or neurons, relies on both electrical and chemical transmission. Neurons rarely touch each other; the microscopic gap between one neuron and the next, called the synapse, is bridged by chemicals called neuroregulators, or neurotransmitters." ( 2009) The chemicals released by the plant interact with neurotransmitters found on cells, most notably in the brain. Thus altering brain function, resulting in temporary changes in perception, mood, consciousness and behavior; however, it should be noted that varying drugs/plants will exhibit a range of different affects when induced by a user. Some of the more commonly known and used psychoactive plants are:300px-Synapse_Illustration2_tweaked.svg.png

Marijuana - Steven Donahue
Kava - Brandon Lahoud
Tobacco - Julie Ruggieri
Cocaine - Matt Batstone
Opium - Stephanie Meyer

Three types of Psychoactive Drugs:

"Their effects may be separated into hallucinogenic, stimulating, or depressing properties depending on the plant used and the present compounds, which are usually secondary metabolites. A few plants, however, have major multiple effects based on one or more compounds present, such as tobacco containing nicotine, which can be both stimulating and depressing" (Lewis 2001). Stimulants are desired because of their ability to “excite and enhance mental alertness, and physical activity” (Levetin and McMahon 2008). Stimulants also possess characteristics that seemingly suppress hunger and combat fatigue; a milder example of a stimulant would be caffeinated beverages, while a more extreme example is cocaine. Hallucinogens alter the user’s perception, evoking “dream like” experiences and sensations. Hallucinogens certainly alter mental capacities, but can also evoke intense physical experiences; i.e. a heightened sense of touch and feeling. The most common psychoactive plants falling under the hallucinogen category are peyote, marijuana, and LSD. Depressants on the other hand tend to dull mental capacity, and effect an individual by essentially slowing them down; physical performances suffer, and the person may lack a degree awareness, to the point of inducing sleep “or a trancelike state.” These qualities are found in drugs such as opium, morphine and heroin; and more commonly in society through alcohol.

Psychoactive Plants in American Culture: 250px-Grateful_Dead_-_Jerry_Garcia.jpg

The use of psychoactive drugs in the United States saw a massive increase beginning in the early 1960’s. Reasons for this are far reaching and varied, but major influences were the war in Vietnam, the Kennedy assassination, and a sense of rebellion amongst the youth of America. The youth movement was one of the most influential movements of the 20th century in this country; for the first time young men and women were questioning the norms, and reacting against authority (government, parents, etc) who was telling them to grow up and get involved in the world. The youth sought freedom, and psychoactive drugs provided the perfect means; the drugs provided an escape from the world that was seemingly coming down around them. The culture that developed as a result of this youth movement was also hugely influenced by the use of psychoactive drugs, music of the day ranging from The Grateful Dead to Led Zeppelin to the Beatles were all experimenting with popular drugs of the day which spanned the entire spectrum of psychoactives. Lyrics were largely reflective of drug use, and in turn influenced more individuals to join the growing counter culture. By the late 60’s early 70’s drug use has become mainstream and government had had enough, large scale crackdowns began to be implemented, and psychoactive drug use diminished for a time, until a recent resurgence in the 1990’s. Today there are more proponents for legalizing particular psychoactive plants than we have ever seen before, state governments are even enacting their own laws for the legalization of certain amounts of drugs. For those who consider history a type of pendulum, the United States is definitely experiencing a swing back in support of psychoactive plants.

GovernDrugsAndNarcotics_half[1].jpgment Classification of Psychoactive Drugs
A different approach to the classification of psychoactive drugs is taken by the legal system, who classifies them as "narcotics". A narcotic applies to any psychoactive compound that is considered addictive (Levetin and McMahon 2008), and according to the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970, drugs are categorized into five “schedules” according to the perceived risk of dependency and restriction. Schedule I drugs, such as heroin, marijuana, and most psychedelics, have a high risk of physiological and psychological dependency, are restricted substances, and cannot be obtained even by prescription, although marijuana can be prescribed in some states.
Schedule II drugs, such as morphine, opium poppy, and cocaine have a high risk of dependency but are accepted by the medical population for treatment. Schedule III drugs have a risk of moderate physical dependency, such as anabolic steroids. Schedule IV drugs have a very low potential for abuse and are currently used for medical use in the United States, including certain types of depressants such as Xanax or Darvon. Schedule V are the least restricted drugs and can be prescribed by a medical physician.
Substances classified in different schedules:
If caught in possession of certain psychoactive drugs, there are strict penalties that follow


Drug Scheduling. U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Web. 7 Dec. 2009. <>.

Levetin, Estelle and Karen McMahon. Plants and Society, 5th Ed. New York: McGraw Hill, 2008

PSYCHOACTIVE DRUGS. (2009). Retrieved 06:27, Dec 7, 2009, from

“Psychoactive Drugs”. February 14, 2008. Online Pharmacy, Medical News Today. Retrieved December 7, 2009. <>.

"Scheduling of Drugs." Uses Drugs of Abuse- Origins and Effects. Web. 7 Dec. 2009. <>.

Walter, Lewis. Psychoactive Plants. 2001.