Historical Background of Herbal Drugs of Abuse

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The use of psychoactive plants for mind-altering purposes has a long tradition. Archaeological evidence shows the use of psychoactive plants by humans for many thousands of years, often in a highly ritualized and ceremonial context [3].

The earliest archaeological evidence of a potential psychoactive plant in a cultural context is from a Neanderthal burial site in northern Iraq. Large quantities of pollen of different plants (including Ephedra spp.) have been found in the soil surrounding a male Neanderthal burial [4]. The pollen was dated to more than 50,000 BCE.

This finding might indicate that the body was deliberately, perhaps ritualistically, buried on a bed of plants [4].

Evidence of the use of cannabis found in Taiwan has been dated to approx. 10,000 BCE. Cord-impressed pottery with possible fiber evidence has been found in early postglacial fishing sites [3].

Preserved remains of plant and animal material including seeds of Papaver som-niferum were found in ruins of a Stone Age settlement in Italy. The seeds were presumably cultivated for food, medical, and possible cult use and were dated to 5500 BCE [3].

Table 19.1 Herbal drugs of abuse sorted by their scientific name, including English name, common use, and most important active compound

Scientific name

Common English name

Common use

Active compound (most important)

Atropa belladonna

Deadly nightshade

Oral ingestion (infusion, berries)

Atropine, scopolamine

Banisteriopsis caapi


Oral ingestion (infusion)

Harmine, harmaline

Brugmansia spec.

Angel's trumpet

Oral ingestion (infusion), smoking (leaves and flowers)

Atropine, scopolamine

Cannabis sativa


Smoking, oral ingestion (cookies)


Datura stramonium


Oral ingestion (infusion), smoking (leaves and flowers)

Atropine, scopolamine

Ephedra spec.


Oral ingestion (infusion, herbal pills)


Erythroxylum coca


Smoking, intravenous abuse, snorting (freebase)


Ipomea tricolor

Morning glory

Oral ingestion (infusion, seeds)


Myristica fragrans


Oral ingestion (infusion, seeds)

Myristicin, safrole

Papaver somniferum

Opium Poppy

Intravenous abuse, oral ingestion (tablets), smoking

Morphine, codeine

(common in Asian cultures)

Piper methysticum


Oral ingestion (infusion, herbal pills)


Psychotria viridis


Oral ingestion (infusion)


Rivea corymbosa

Morning glory

Oral ingestion (infusion, seeds)


Salvia divinorum


Smoking, chewing (leaves)

Salvinorin A

Tabernanthe iboga


Oral ingestion (roots)


Recently, the presence of a psychoactive compound in a 5700-year-old dried cactus "button" found in a cave in Texas has strengthened the evidence that humans recognized the psychoactive properties of plants at that time [5].

Approximately 3000 BCE P. somniferum was described as the "plant of happiness" on a Sumerian tablet [6]. Much evidence of the medical use and abuse of opium can be found in Egyptian, Greek, and Roman reports between 3000 and 1000 BCE [3]. Also, artifacts including vases and ornaments filled with crude opium were found and dated to this time frame [3].

In the Middle Ages, authors such as the Arabic scientist Avicenna (980-1037) and the German abbess Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) described numerous plants and their effects, including their psychoactivity. The description of plants including their psychoactivity was mainly continued in the 16th century by the so-called founding fathers of botany. These were the botanists Hieronymus Bock (1498-1554), Leonhart Fuchs (1501-1566), and Otto Brunfels (1488-1534). The first published systematic study of psychoactive plants was published in 1855 by Heinrich von Bibra. His book described 17 narcotic and stimulant plants including their effects on the human body [6].

The abuse of herbal drugs initiated the first treaty of international drug control. In 1912 the International Opium Convention was signed by 13 countries to provide control over the distribution of morphine and cocaine. In 1925, the convention was revised by the addition of the prohibition of hashish due to its common abuse. Today, many herbal drugs of abuse are controlled by national and international conventions and laws.

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  • anke
    Can papaver somniferum pollen be smoked or snorted?
    8 years ago

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