5 Forgotten Drug Fads

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Vin Mariani ad, via The Atlantic

Some drugs have dynamite PR. Methamphetamine pervades pop culture, iconized by a scowling Walter White and his pork pie hat. Crack cocaine, a mainstay of big-city life since the 1980s, remains in public consciousness with the help of hapless Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. Even bath salts and their designer-drug consorts got some well-earned name recognition two summers ago, as sensational headlines howled of faces eaten and an imminent zombie apocalypse.

Other drugs are less fortunate. They wilt into obscurity, remembered only in the footnotes of old news articles. Let us take you through five of the world’s most bizarre and forgotten drug fads.

1. Vin Mariani

Before purified cocaine seeped into the American market in the late 19th century, a cocktail of red Bordeaux and coca leaf extract called Vin Mariani gained popularity across the United States and Europe. Pope Leo XIII awarded the coca-infused wine a shiny gold medal from the Vatican and the drink garnered celebrity endorsements from Thomas Edison, Jules Verne, and Frederic Bartholdi, the French sculptor who designed the Statue of Liberty. Ulysses S. Grant even relied on that little extra kick while writing his post-presidential memoirs. (It obviously worked—Mark Twain lauded the memoirs as a “literary masterpiece.”) The original version of Coca-Cola, introduced in 1886, similarly touted itself as “the ideal brain tonic” thanks to its cocaine content.

2. Jimson Weed

Wikimedia Commons

Also known as Datura stramonium or "locoweed," Jimson weed has its roots in the fine arts. In Homer’s Odyssey, the nymph Circe poisons Odysseus’ crew with a potion of “malignant drugs,” which modern scientists have hypothesized to be stramonium. In the Léo Delibes opera Lakmé, the titular character uses Jimson weed in her suicide. And in Sandro Botticelli’s Venus and Mars, one historian argues, the slumbering Mars might actually be stoned from the Datura stramonium that appears to be painted in the corner. The plant, also used in ancient Chinese and Indian rituals as well as for asthma treatment, causes fever, dry mouth, and vivid hallucinations, all of which could last for hours or even days. Though Jimson weed isn't a popular drug in the 21st century, hospitals occasionally have to treat someone who has fallen for its spell.

3. Mescaline

Wikimedia Commons

Use of mescaline today is nowhere near as widespread as it once was—it’s difficult to synthesize and unable to compete with the more popular LSD. The psychedelic drug is the active amphetamine in the peyote cactus, which grows in the southwestern U.S. and Mexico and has held deep cultural significance for Native American groups for thousands of years. Each button on a peyote cactus contains a very small amount of mescaline and can be chewed, ground into powder, or soaked in water to produce a liquid. And though mescaline has abundant side effects—among them numbness, muscle twitches, intense nausea, and violence—it was popular amongst a wide spectrum of creative types. The drug has captivated everyone from Aldous Huxley to George Carlin to Melissa Joan Hart. Clarissa, explain yourself.

4. Toad-Smoking

Cane toad, via Wikimedia Commons

The compound bufotenin, found in the milky venom of many Bufo genus toads, can be converted into a form of the psychedelic compound DMT. These toads secrete their venom as defense against predators, but applying pressure to their parotoid glands on the back of their heads can also release the bufotenin, along with other toxic compounds. At certain concentrations, the venom can be fatal.

Australia imported the cane toad from Hawaii in 1935 to destroy rampant, destructive beetles. Decades later, daring Aussies began licking live toads to test their psychoactive potential. Americans also developed a taste for the dangerous secretion, particularly that of the Sonoran Desert toad, before discovering a far more efficient way to get high—by smoking its dried venom from a pipe. A 1994 L.A. Times headline sums up this fad neatly: “The quest for new highs has led some seekers to a new low.”

5. Quaaludes

'The Wolf of Wall Street,' Paramount Pictures

Quaaludes owe a big thanks to Martin Scorsese and The Wolf of Wall Street for lobbing them back into the national conversation this winter. Created in the 1950s by Indian researchers searching for a malaria cure, methaqualone offered a safer alternative to addictive barbiturates and became a popular sleeping pill marketed under various names. Quaaludes—a portmanteau for “quiet interlude”—was one such brand.

By the late 1960s, a black market flourished as college students began to abuse the drug. A decade later, Quaalude users began combining the potent drug with alcohol to “’lude out”—a practice which at best reduced stress and lowered inhibitions and at worst could lead to liver failure, respiratory arrest, or death. Indeed, the drug had tragic consequences: The beloved Freddie Prinze committed suicide under its influence and it was one of many substances found in 42-year-old Elvis Presley when he died. The DEA finally labeled it a Schedule I Controlled Substance in 1984.

Bonus: The Bananadine Hoax

If the prospect of scraping, boiling, and drying the insides of banana peels to yield a psychoactive drug called “Bananadine” seems like a real stretch, that’s because it is. Theories on this hoax’s origins vary, but most agree that its first written account was in a March 3, 1967 editorial for the Berkeley Barb, a Bay Area underground weekly. Columnist Ed Denson wrote that he had been “turned on to bananas” during a trip to Vancouver, offering up the instructions for extracting Bananadine as his “recipe of the week.” “This recipe has been hinted at in earlier literature, and the high is thought to be something like an opium high,” he wrote. That same issue of the Barb also contained a letter to the editor from an anonymous reader who claimed to have seen the Berkeley police “narco squad” sniffing around the produce section for suspicious-looking banana buyers.

Mainstream media outlets fell hard for the hoax. The University of Michigan’s student newspaper ran a story headlined, “Cheap ‘Trip’ Ticket, Students Say: You Can Fly High on Banana Peel.” By late March the New York Times and Wall Street Journal chimed in, reporting that an alarming number of hippies were tripping on banana peels. Finally, the FDA mounted what it called a “very complex” weeks-long investigation of Bananadine’s possible hallucinogenic or euphoric qualities, only to find that it had none. Subsequent studies, to the surprise of many, confirmed the placebo effect. Case closed.

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February 18, 2014 - 11:00am
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