Uses. This bad-smelling plant grows around the world in temperate and subtropical climates and thrives without cultivation. Jimson weed can cause hallucinations and has been a component of witches' potions and shaman experiences. Archaeological evidence exists for prehistoric spiritual use in North America, and accounts exist of such usage by native peoples into the twentieth century. Jimson weed is biologically related to several food plants including potato, pepper, eggplant, and tomato. Someone was able to graft a tomato plant onto jimson weed, with the resulting fruit so potent that consumers were hospitalized; one account described the incident as apparently "the first known instance of hallucinogenic tomatoes."
Effects are similar to those of belladonna. Drugs found in jimson weed leaves, flowers, and seeds include atropine, hyoscyamine, and scopolamine, which are often called "belladonna alkaloids." Folk medicine preparations from jimson weed flowers are put on bruises, wounds, or insect bites to diminish discomfort; leaves and roots are used in a similar way and also to treat boils. A drink from the plant is given to help people endure the pain of setting broken bones. Inhaling jimson weed smoke is a traditional remedy for asthma, sore breathing, or coughing. Vapor from boiling the substance is used for the same purposes. Scientific measurement has confirmed that jimson weed smoke improves airway function of asthmatics. The natural product is also a treatment against cramps, eye inflammation, and feverish infection. The plant has been used as an aphrodisiac.
Drawbacks. Jimson weed has anticholinergic actions, meaning it can change heartbeat, affect eyesight (including extreme and prolonged dilation of pupils), and halt progress of material through the intestines. Jimson weed should be avoided by persons with heart trouble, glaucoma, or slow bowels. Other body signs indicating that Jimson weed should be avoided include enlarged prostate, urination difficulty, fluid buildup in lung tissue, and obstruction that impedes movement of food from the stomach. The substance can raise blood pressure and body temperature while drying mucous membranes. Persons hospitalized following jimson weed ingestion have shown a flushed face, exaggerated reflexes, other reflexes consistent with a poison acting upon the brain, and changes involving prothrombin (a factor in blood clotting). Paranoia may be present. More than one report about jimson weed describes users with a saying such as this: "Blind as a bat, hot as a hare, dry as a bone, red as a beet, mad as a hatter, the bowel and bladder lose their tone, and the heart runs alone."
Fever and breathing difficulty may occur after using jimson weed. People can become fidgety and even manic, talk continuously, go into delirium (which may be combative), and fall into an exhausted sleep. Reportedly such responses to the plant inspired medical use in past times against epilepsy and psychotic behavior. The atropine component of jimson weed is powerful enough to agitate an elephant.
Intoxicated persons can be unaware of what they are doing and unaware of what is going on around them, additional hazards on top of the drug's sometimes dangerous physical effects. As with other substances accidental dosage can occur. Cases are documented of agricultural workers and gardeners being affected by apparently rubbing their eyes after contact with jimson weed or other datura plants; a case report also exists of absorption through the skin. Contamination of food is known, and unsuspecting persons have used wine and honey made from the plants. Rats on a 90-day diet including jimson weed seed experienced lower cholesterol levels, less weight gain, and increased weight of livers. Investigators running the experiment described the consequences of chronic jimson weed seed diet as undesirable, but of course humans do not eat the seeds as a regular food. In this experiment female rats were more affected by jimson weed than males. Jimson seed meal has also been found to harm development of chickens. Horses, cattle, and pigs react badly to jimson weed, but rabbits and sheep are relatively unaffected.
Abuse factors. Europeans were using Datura plants such as jimson weed in the 1500s; one account from that era mentions long-lasting intoxication with emotions ranging from euphoria to weeping, with people having amnesia about what they did while under the influence. The same account mentions prostitutes using Datura to make clients more pliable, and old reports speak of sexual frenzy induced by the substance. During the 1600s soldiers sent to suppress Bacon's Rebellion in colonial Virginia partook of jimson weed, and according to an account dating from 1722, some were incapacitated for 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 up in a Corner, like a Monkey, grinning and making Mows [grimaces] at them; and a Fourth would fondly kiss, and paw his Companions, and snear [sic] in their Faces."1 Such incidents still occurred in the twentieth century. In a three-week period during 1980 almost two dozen U.S. Marines at Camp Pendleton were treated for
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