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8 Drugs that Exist in Nature

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By Therese Oneill

Most drugs today, legal and otherwise, are synthesized in a laboratory. But most medical and recreational drugs originally began in the wild, growing naturally in forests, fields, and deserts. Some can still be found there. Here are some of the country's better known drugs, in their natural, pre-processed form.

1. Opium poppy (heroin, morphine, codeine)

Morphine is one of the many opiates that come from the opium poppy (above). The poppy is sliced while still in bud form, and the milky fluid (latex) that bleeds out is dried, becoming raw opium. Then a long process of adding dangerous chemicals, filtering, and cooking increases the potency of the drug. Heroin is a super-strong, quickly absorbed form of morphine, and the most intense use of opium. English researcher C.R. Wright accidentally created it for the first time in 1874 when he boiled morphine and acetic anhydride together on his stove.

2. Blue agave (Tequila)

Alcohol is unique in the world of drugs because it's made through the process of fermentation, not a particular basic ingredient. Fermentation occurs when yeast eats the sugars of whatever plant you're using, the by-product being ethanol (drinkable alcohol). In tequila, named for the Mexican town where it originated, the sugar comes from the beautiful blue agave. The center of the blue agave looks like pineapple. After it's roasted and mashed, it provides the sugar that, once properly rotted, leaves behind alcohol.

3. Coca leaves (cocaine)

Coca leaves, mostly grown in South America, have to go through some pretty ugly steps to become cocaine—powdered cement, gasoline soaks, and battery acid baths are all needed to condense the naturally occurring leaves into an illegal narcotic. The leaves themselves have been used by native populations for centuries as a (much milder) stimulant and medication. Spanish physician and botanist Nicolás Monardes described the effect of the leaves in 1569: "When they wished to make themselves drunk and out of judgment they chewed a mixture of tobacco and coca leaves which make them go as they were out of their wittes."

4. Ephedra sinica (Sudafed, meth)

This scraggly little bush, also called ma huang, has been used in Chinese medicine for centuries. If it sounds familiar, that's because decongestants like Sudafed once synthesized their main ingredient from ephedra (pseudoephedrine). Products containing ephedrine or pseudoephedrine are very hard to find now, as the U.S. government considers it a controlled substance. The alkaloids in the plant can be abused, most commonly in the form of weight-loss drugs and meth production. Researching the plant, I couldn't find out if this plant was legal to own. I called the DEA to ask, and, well, they weren't sure either. But they politely researched their documents, and translated them to people-speak for me. It is legal to grow and own the ephedra sinica plant. You just have to register your herb garden with the government and submit to monitoring if you do.

5. Psilocybin mushroom (shrooms)

Psilocybin, the naturally occurring compound that causes the euphoria and psychedelic trips associated with shrooms, can be found in over 200 species of mushrooms, most of which grow wild in Mexico. Different mushrooms have different concentrations of psilocybin, even varying in which part of the fungus you eat. A word of advice to the adventure seeker: Shrooms can be indistinguishable from any number of lethally poisonous mushrooms. Consuming unknown mushrooms may send you on a trip that takes you much further than you intended.

6. Willow bark (aspirin)

Salicylic acid, found in willow bark, has cooled fevered brows across the world for millennia. Even Hippocrates, the father of medicine, used to recommend chewing the bark to reduce fevers and inflammation in his patients, around 300 B.C. The willow tree has strains native to Europe, China, and North America, all of which can be used in medicine. It was from this bark that scientists at the German company Bayer developed aspirin in 1897. An interesting side note: Bayer lost all its patents and trademarks in World War I, when the U.S. government seized the firm as spoils of war and auctioned it off to an American patent medicine company.

7. Sassafras root (ecstasy)

Root beer and sarsaparilla used to have actual sassafras oil in them for flavor. They don't anymore, since the chemical in the oil, safrole, is now a controlled substance. Distilled from the roots and bark of the sassafras tree, safrole is a key ingredient in the manufacture of ecstasy. Not in its original form, of course. It is the treatments with formaldehyde, paint thinner, and drain cleaner that make sassafras oil such a delightful thing to put inside your body.

8. Penicillium mold (penicillin)

Penicillin: The mighty, moldy world changer. It was the first drug to effectively combat bacterial infections, leading to cures of an untold number of afflictions, from strep to syphilis. It was discovered accidentally by Alexander Fleming in 1928. He forgot about a petri dish filled with staph bacteria he'd left out, and he discovered blue green penicillium mold growing all over it. Penicillium mold is an incredibly common species of mold, apt to grow on organic material wherever conditions are dank enough. Wherever the mold touched the staph, the bacteria was gone. Fleming didn't think it would work in people and never tried to make medicine out of it. That was done years later by Australian Nobel laureate Howard Walter Florey, together with the German Nobel laureate Ernst Chain and the English biochemist Norman Heatley.

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The 10 Best Sci-Fi Movies on Netflix Right Now
Disney/Marvel
Disney/Marvel

If you’re in the mood for some speculative fiction and your pile of Arthur C. Clarke books has been exhausted, you could do worse than to tune in to Netflix. The streaming service is constantly acquiring new films in the sci-fi and fantasy genres that should satisfy most fans of alternative futures. Here are five of the best sci-fi movies on Netflix right now.

1. CUBE (1997)

This low-budget independent film may have helped inspire the current "escape room" attraction fad. Six strangers wake up in a strange room that leads only to other rooms—all of them equipped with increasingly sadistic ways of murdering occupants.

2. METROPOLIS (1927)

Inspiring everything from Star Wars to Lady Gaga, Fritz Lang’s silent epic about a revolt among the oppressed people who help power an upper-class city remains just as visually impressive today as it did nearly 100 years ago.

3. TROLL HUNTER (2010)

A Norwegian fairy tale with bite, Troll Hunter follows college-aged filmmakers who convince a bear trapper to take them along on his exploits. But the trapper fails to disclose one crucial detail: He hunts towering, aggressive trolls.

4. NEXT (2007)

Nic Cage stars a a magician who can see a few minutes into the future. He's looking to profit with the skill: the FBI and others are looking to exploit it.

5. THE HOST (2006)

A slow-burn monster movie from South Korea, The Host has plenty of tense scenes coupled with a message about environmental action: The river-dwelling beast who stalks a waterfront town is the product of chemical dumping.  

6. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOLUME 2 (2017)

Marvel's tale of a misfit band of space jockeys was a surprise hit in 2014. The sequel offers more Groot, more Rocket Raccoon, and the addition of Kurt Russell as a human manifestation of an entire sentient planet.

7. STARDUST (2007)

Director Matthew Vaughn's adaptation of the Neil Gaiman novel features Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert De Niro as supporting players in the tale of a man (a pre-Daredevil Charlie Cox) in search of a fallen star to gift to his love.

8. KING KONG (2005)

Director Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings) set his considerable sights on a remake of the 1933 classic, with the title gorilla pestered and exploited by opportunistic humans.

9. DONNIE DARKO (2001)

What will a teenage mope do when a giant rabbit tells him the world is about to end? The answer comes in this critical and cult hit, which drew attention for its moody cinematography and an arresting performance by a then-unknown Jake Gyllenhaal.  

10. ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (2016)

Soon we'll have a movie for every single major or minor incident ever depicted in the Star Wars universe. For now, we'll have to settle for this one-off that explains how the Rebel Alliance got their hands on the plans for the Death Star.

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Library and Archives Canada, Wikimedia // Public Domain
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9 False Rumors With Real-Life Consequences
King Louis XV of France
King Louis XV of France
Library and Archives Canada, Wikimedia // Public Domain

Don’t believe everything you read—or everything you hear. Unverified but plausible-sounding rumors have been the basis for violent death and destruction throughout history, whether or not the stories had anything to do with the truth.

In their book A Colorful History of Popular Delusions, Robert Bartholomew and Peter Hassall describe rumors as “stories of perceived importance that lack substantiating evidence.” They also note that the sociologist Tamotsu Shibutani describes rumors as “improvised news,” which tends to spread when the demand for information exceeds supply. Such an information deficit most often occurs during wars and other crises, which might explain why some rumors have had such dramatic results. Here’s a selection of some of the most interesting rumors with real-life results collected in Bartholomew and Hassall’s book.

1. KING LOUIS XV WAS KIDNAPPING CHILDREN.

In 1750, children began disappearing from the streets of Paris. No one seemed to know why, and worried parents began rioting in the streets. In the midst of the panic, a rumor broke out that King Louis XV had become a leper and was kidnapping children so that he could bathe in their blood (at the time, bathing in the blood of children was thought by some to be an effective leprosy cure).

The rumor did have a tiny kernel of truth: Authorities were taking children away, but not to the king’s palace. A recently enacted series of ordinances designed to clear the streets of “undesirables” had led some policemen—who were paid per arrest—to overstep their authority and take any children they found on the streets to houses of detention. Fortunately, most were eventually reunited with their parents, and rumors of the king’s gruesome bathing rituals were put to rest.

2. LONDON WAS GOING TO BE DESTROYED BY AN EARTHQUAKE.

Two small earthquakes struck London at the beginning of 1761, leading to rumors that the city was due for “the big one” on April 5, 1761. Supposedly, a psychic had predicted the catastrophe. Much of the populace grew so panicked that they fled town for the day, with those who couldn’t afford fancier lodgings camping out in the fields. One soldier was so convinced of the impending doom that he ran through the streets shouting news of London’s imminent destruction; sadly, he ended up in an insane asylum a few months later.

3. JEWS WERE POISONING WELLS.

A deep well
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Reports that Jews ritually sacrificed Christian children were not uncommon during the Middle Ages, but things took a particularly terrible turn during the spread of the Black Plague. In the 14th century, thousands of Jews were killed in response to rumors that Satan was protecting them from the plague in exchange for poisoning the wells of Christians. In 1321 in Guienne, France alone, an estimated 5000 Jews were burned alive for supposedly poisoning wells. Other communities expelled the Jews, or burned entire settlements to the ground. Brandenburg, Germany, even passed a law denouncing Jews for poisoning wells—which of course they weren't.

4. BRIGANDS WERE TERRORIZING THE FRENCH COUNTRYSIDE.

In July 1789, amid the widespread fear and instability on the eve of the French revolution, rumors spread that the anti-revolutionary nobility had planted brigands (robbers) to terrorize the peasants and steal their stores of food. Lights from furnaces, bonfires, and even the reflection of the setting sun were sometimes taken to be signs of brigands, with panic as the predictable result. Provincial towns and villages formed militias in response to the rumors, even though, as historian Georges Lefebvre put it, “the populace scared themselves.” In one typical incident, near Troyes on July 24, 1789, a group of brigands were supposedly spotted heading into some woods; an alarm was sounded and 3000 men gave chase. The “brigands” turned out to be a herd of cattle.

5. GERMAN-AMERICANS WERE PLOTTING SNEAK ATTACKS ON CANADA.

Officers of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police marching in a Canada Day parade
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Canada entered World War I in 1914, three years before the United States did. During the gap period, rumors circulated that German-Americans sympathetic to their country of origin were planning surprise attacks on Canada. One of the worst offenders of such rumor-mongering, according to authors Bartholomew and Hassall, was British consul-general Sir Courtenay Bennett, then stationed in New York. In the early months of 1915, Bennett made “several sensational claims about a plan in which as many as 80,000 well-armed, highly trained Germans who had been drilling in Niagara Falls and Buffalo, New York, were planning to invade Canada from northwestern New York state.” Bizarre as it may sound, there was so much anxiety and suspicion during the period that Canadian Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden requested a report on the story, which the Canadian police commissioner determined to be without any foundation whatsoever.

6. THE INDONESIAN GOVERNMENT WAS HUNTING HEADS FOR CONSTRUCTION PROJECTS.

In certain parts of Indonesia, locals reportedly believe—or once did—that large-scale construction projects require human heads to keep the structures from crumbling. In 1937, one island was home to a spate of rumors saying that a tjoelik (government-sanctioned headhunter) was looking for a head to place near a local jetty construction project. Locals reported strange noises and sights, houses pelted with stones, and attacks from tjoelik wielding nooses or cowboy lassos. Similar rumors surfaced in 1979 in Indonesian Borneo, when government agents were supposedly seeking a head for a new bridge project, and in 1981 in Southern Borneo, when the government headhunters supposedly needed heads to stabilize malfunctioning equipment in nearby oil fields. Terrified townspeople began curtailing their activities so as not to be in public any longer than necessary, although the rumors eventually died down.

7. POWERFUL APHRODISIAC GUM WENT ON SALE IN THE MIDDLE EAST.

An assortment of sticks of pink bubble gum
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In the mid-1990s, the Middle East was home to some alarming rumors about aphrodisiacal gum. In 1996 in Mansoura, Egypt, stories began spreading that students at the town’s university had purchased gum deliberately spiked with an aphrodisiac and were having orgies as a result. One local member of parliament said the gum had been distributed by the Israeli government as part of a plot to corrupt Egyptian youth. Mosque loudspeakers began warning people to avoid the gum, which was supposedly sold under the names “Aroma” or “Splay.” Authorities closed down some shops and made arrests, but never did find any tainted gum. Similar rumors cropped up the following year in the Gaza Strip, this time featuring a strawberry gum that turned women into prostitutes—supposedly, the better to convince them to become Shin Bet informants for the Israeli military.

8. SORCERERS WERE PLAGUING INDONESIA.

In the fall of 1998, a sorcerer scare in East Java, Indonesia, resulted in the deaths of several villagers. The country was in crisis, and while protests raged in major cities, some in the rural area of Banyuwangi began agitating for restitution for past wrongs allegedly committed by sorcerers. The head of the local district ordered authorities to move the suspected sorcerers to a safe location, a process that included a check-in at the local police station. Unfortunately, villagers took the suspects’ visits to police stations as proof of their sorcery and began killing them. Anthropologists who studied the incident said the stories of supposed sorcery—making neighbors fall sick, etc.—were based entirely on rumor and gossip.

9. OBAMA WAS INJURED BY A WHITE HOUSE EXPLOSION.

These days, rumors have advanced technology to help them travel. On April 23, 2013, a fake tweet from a hacked Associated Press account claimed that explosions at the White House had injured Barack Obama. That lone tweet caused instability on world financial markets, and the Standard and Poor’s 500 Index lost $130 billion in a short period. Fortunately, it quickly recovered. (Eagle-eyed journalists were suspicious of the tweet from the beginning, since it didn’t follow AP style of referring to the president with his title and capitalizing the word breaking.)

An earlier version of this story ran in 2015.

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