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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July 8, 2013 - 5:00pm
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