Plants, Drugs from

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Editors: Pamela Korsmeyer and Henry R. Kranzler
Date: 2009
Encyclopedia of Drugs, Alcohol & Addictive Behavior
Publisher: Macmillan Reference USA
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 7
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1260L

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Page 251

Plants, Drugs from

Humans have used their local plants for medicinal effects since prehistoric times. They gathered and ate plants and noticed the effects that some offered—whether therapeutic, mind-altering, or toxic. From trial and error they fashioned associations between cause and effect, keeping certain mushrooms, roots, barks, leaves, or berries for certain situations—the treatment of accidents, ill health, childbirth, coughs, fevers, rashes, and so on. Over the centuries, people established herbal medicine, as it is now called; they had also found certain plants that produced immediate and mind-altering effects, many of which were relegated to religious ritual. By the nineteenth century, Europeans had developed the science of chemistry to the point at which they could isolate and concentrate the activator in many plants.

If experimentation with plant materials has led to such cures as quinine for malaria or digitalis for heart disease, it has also led to the discovery of unpleasant effects or the discovery of poisons. From the literally thousands of substances that have been self-administered over the centuries, Page 252  |  Top of Articleonly a few continue to be used for nonmedicinal purposes. Even fewer have given rise to serious problems of chronic use and dependence. The legal and readily available drugs that are found naturally in plants (e.g., nicotine, caffeine) or are derived from plants (e.g., alcohol) will be described here first because the use and abuse of these drugs is more widespread than all the other abused drugs combined. The health problems associated with the chronic use of alcohol and tobacco are therefore a very serious problem in our society, not only because of the large number of people who suffer and die each year from the direct toxic effects of these drugs but also because of the costs—the absenteeism from work and the unnecessary health care costs. The illegal drugs will be discussed next; although the illicit use of marijuana, cocaine, opioids, and psychedelics remains a major social, legal, financial, and health problem in the United States today, the proportion of the population physically dependent on these drugs is actually relatively low—only a small fraction of a percent. Finally, it is important to note that people often do not restrict their drug use to a single type. Alcohol users typically smoke cigarettes and may sometimes use other drugs as well. Heroin users may also smoke and consume alcohol, marijuana, coffee or colas, and in some instances various stimulants. Multiple drug use is therefore a relatively common occurrence.


Alcohol is perhaps the most widespread drug in use worldwide. It forms naturally by the fermentation process of plant materials and has been produced on purpose since at least Neolithic times, when grains were first farmed, harvested, stored, and processed into gruels, porridges, puddings, and so forth. Often these spoiled, forming a fermented base. Alcohol is made as well from other starchy or sugary plant materials, such as fruits, canes, roots, and such. Fermentation (also called anaerobic respiration, or glycolysis) is the chemical process by which living cells, such as yeast, use sugar in the absence of air to produce part or even all of their energy requirements. In fermentation, sugar molecules are converted to alcohol and lactic acid. Beer, wine, and cheese production, as well as certain modern commercial processes, require fermentation by specific kinds of yeast, bacteria, and molds.

Ethyl alcohol, also called ethanol, is the type of alcohol that is usually produced for human consumption. In its pure form, alcohol is a clear liquid with little odor. People drink it primarily in three kinds of beverages: (1) beers, which are made from grains through brewing and fermentation and normally contain from 3 to 8 percent alcohol; (2) wines, which are fermented from fruits, such as grapes, and naturally contain from 8 to 12 percent alcohol (up to 21% when fortified by adding more ethanol); (3) beverages or spirits, which are distilled from a fermented base, such as whiskey, gin, or vodka. Spirits contain about 40 to 50 percent alcohol, on average (often expressed in proof, so that 40% equals 80 proof; 50% is 100 proof).


Tobacco is a tall herbaceous plant, the leaves of which are harvested, cured, and rolled into cigars, shredded for use in cigarettes and pipes, and processed for chewing or snuff. Tobacco has become a commercial crop in almost all tropical countries as well as in many temperate ones. The main source of commercial tobacco is Nicotiana tabacum, although Nicotiana rustica is also grown and is used in Asian tobaccos. Tobacco has been developed to yield a wide range of morphologically different types, from the small-leaved aromatic tobaccos to the large broad-leaved cigar tobaccos. Tobacco is native to South America, where it was used in a drink for ritual purposes long before inhaling the smoke of the dried plant material was first documented by the Maya more than 2,000 years ago. Tobacco was then traded and grown in Central America; it moved into Mexico and the Caribbean and eventually into North America by about 800 CE. The Arawaks of the Caribbean smoked tobacco; during Columbus's voyage of 1492, he found the Arawaks smoking loosely rolled cigars. The Spanish took tobacco seeds to Europe, where Jean Nicot, France's ambassador to Portugal, sent tobacco to Paris in 1560 and gave the plant the name of its genus (Nicotiana). In England, Sir Walter Raleigh began the popularization of pipe smoking in 1586, and the cultivation and consumption of tobacco spread with each voyage of discovery from Europe. Two kinds of tobacco were traded between Europe and America: “Spanish,” from the West Indies and South America, and “Virginia,” from the British plantations in their

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Figure 1. Some of the plants used in making drugs and alcoholic beverages. Figure 1. Some of the plants used in making drugs and alcoholic beverages. ILLUSTRATION BY GGS INFORMATION SERVICES.GALE, CENGAGE LEARNING

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colony of Virginia. Despite its popularity in England, King James I forbade its production there since he vehemently disapproved of tobacco. Europeans at first smoked their tobacco in pipes, and later in cigars. It was often provided free to drinkers of coffee in coffee houses and cafés, as was the new product sugar. (Both remain strongly associated with coffee drinking.) Cigarettes spread in popularity only after the Crimean War (1854–1856), and their spread was especially aided by the first cigarette-making machine, developed in the United States in 1881.

Nicotine is the most powerful ingredient of the tobacco plant, found primarily in the leaves. Nicotine is an extremely poisonous, colorless, oily alkaloid that turns brown upon exposure to air. Nicotine can affect the central nervous system, resulting in respiratory failure and general paralysis. Nicotine can also be absorbed through the skin. Only two to three drops—less than 50 milligrams—of the pure alkaloid placed on the tongue can be rapidly fatal to an adult. A typical cigarette contains 15 to 20 milligrams of nicotine; however, the actual amount that reaches the bloodstream (and therefore the brain) through normal smoking is only about 1 milligram. Nicotine is responsible for most of the short-term as well as the long-term effects of smoking and plays a major role in the reinforcing properties.


Caffeine is an odorless, slightly bitter, alkaloid chemical found in coffee beans, tea leaves, and kola nuts, and several other plants used by humans such as cacao (chocolate) and maté (a South American holly used as a popular drink). In small amounts, caffeine acts as a mild stimulant and is harmless to most people. In large amounts, however, caffeine can result in insomnia, restlessness, and cardiac irregularities.

Tea. Tea is the beverage made when the processed leaves of the tea plant are infused with boiling water. Native to Southeast Asia, the tea plant, Camellia sinensis, is a small shrub-like evergreen tree that belongs to the family Theaceae. The seeds of the tea plant contain a volatile oil, and its leaves contain the chemicals caffeine and tannin. Although second to coffee in commercial value, tea ranks first as the most frequently consumed beverage. More than 50 percent of the world's population drink some form of tea every day. Many also use tea medicinally as a stimulant. The tea plant originated in the region encompassing Tibet, western China, and northern India. According to ancient Chinese legend, the emperor Shen-Nung learned how to brew the beverage in 2737 BCE, when a few leaves from the plant accidentally fell into water he was boiling. Tea leaves began to be processed in China (dried, smoked, fermented, pressed, etc.) and were sold in cakes of steamed leaves, as powder, or in leaf form. Tea was introduced by Chinese Buddhist monks into Japan (9th to 13th centuries), where the preparation and consumption of tea developed into the ritual tea ceremony called cha no yu. Tea culture then spread into Java, the Dutch East Indies, and other tropical and subtropical areas. British merchants formed the East India Company (1600–1858) and introduced teas from China and India into England, the American colonies, and throughout the British Empire.

Coffee. The coffee bean is the world's most valuable legal agricultural commodity. In 1982, for example, the coffee-importing bill for the United States alone was 2.537 billion dollars. Of the many varieties of the genus Coffea (family Rubiaceae) known to exist, only two species have significant commercial importance—C. arabica and C. robusta together constitute 99 percent of production. Coffee is native to the Ethiopian highlands and has been cultivated and brewed in Arab countries for centuries. The drink was introduced into Europe in the mid-seventeenth century and European colonial plantations were established in Indonesia, the West Indies, and Brazil, soon making coffee cultivation an important element in imperialist economies. Today, Latin America and Africa produce most of the world's coffee. The United States is the largest importer, having broken with the British tea tradition during the Revolutionary War to maintain the new American drink of coffee instead (purchased from non-British sources). In 2006 the United States imported 24 million bags of coffee, 25 percent of the world's supply.


Marijuana is the common name given to any drug preparation derived from the hemp plant, Cannabis sativa. Two varieties of this plant are Cannabis Page 255  |  Top of Articlesativa variety indica and variety americana. The several forms of this drug are known by various names throughout the world, such as kif in Morocco, dagga in South America, and ganja in India. Hashish refers to a dried resinous substance collected from the flowering tops of the plant (also known as charas in Asia). In Western culture, cannabis preparations have acquired a variety of slang names, including grass, pot, tea, reefer, weed, and Mary Jane or MJ. Cannabis has been smoked, eaten in baked goods, and drunk in beverages. In Western cultures, marijuana is prepared most often from the dried leaves and flowering shoots of the plant as a tobaccolike mixture that is smoked in a pipe or rolled into a cigarette. As one of the oldest known drugs, cannabis was acknowledged as early as 2700 BCE in a Chinese manuscript. Throughout the centuries, it has been used both medicinally and as an intoxicant. The major psychoactive component of this drug, however, was not known until the mid-1960s. This ingredient is tetrahydro-cannabinol, commonly known as THC. Psychoactive compounds (cannabinoids) are found in all parts of the male and female plants, with the greatest concentrations found in the flowering tops. The content of these compounds varies greatly from plant to plant, depending on genetic and environmental factors.


Cocaine is an alkaloid drug found in the leaves of the coca plant, the common name of a shrub, Erythroxylum coca, of the coca family, Erythroxylaceae. Coca is densely leaved and grows to heights of 8 feet (2.5 m). It is cultivated in its native South America but also in Africa, Southeast Asia, and Australia for the narcotic alkaloids of its leaves, particularly cocaine. Whole or powdered dried leaves, usually mixed with lime (calcium carbonate), have been chewed by the people of what is now Colombia, Bolivia, and Peru for centuries, to dull the sense of hunger and to lessen fatigue. The coca shrub should not be confused with the cacao tree, the source of cocoa and chocolate.

Cocaine was first used in Western medicine as a local anesthetic. In 1884 it was used by Carl Koller, an ophthalmologic surgeon. Historically, the chief medical use for cocaine has been as a local anesthetic, especially for the nose, throat, and cornea, because of its effectiveness in depressing nerve endings. Cocaine has been largely replaced by less toxic, synthetic local anesthetics. Used systemically, cocaine stimulates the central nervous system, producing feelings of excitation, elation, well-being, enhanced physical strength and mental capacity, and a lessened sense of fatigue. It also results, however, in increases in heart rate, blood pressure, and temperature, and its use can result in death. Cocaine use became popular because of its stimulating properties. In Western countries, it is frequently ingested by sniffing its fine white powder, often called snow. It is sometimes injected intravenously, although repeated injections can result in skin abscesses, hepatitis, and the spread of AIDS. Cocaine can also be inhaled (smoked) once it has been converted to its freebase form; some preparations of freebase cocaine are known as rock or crack. Crack cocaine gained popularity in the late 1980s and early 1990s because it is relatively inexpensive as a single dose, (e.g., $10 to $20 per “hit”); usually smoked in a special pipe, it produces an intense euphoria as it is rapidly absorbed from the lungs and carried by the blood directly to the brain.


Opium is a drug obtained from the juice of the immature seed pods of the oriental poppy, Papaver somniferum. There are over 20 natural alkaloids of opium, including codeine and morphine. Morphine is the largest component and it contributes most significantly to opium's physiological effects. Heroin (diacetylmorphine) was derived from morphine and is the most important drug synthesized from opium's natural alkaloids. As a folk medicine, opium has been used to relieve pain, reduce such drives as hunger and thirst, induce sleep, and ease anxiety and depression. Opium and some of its derivatives are highly addictive, and their use has led to abuse and serious drug problems. Drugs derived from opium are still used widely in medicine, despite the development of such synthetic opioid drugs as meperidine (Demerol). The therapeutic effects of the opioids include pain relief, suppression of the cough reflex, slowing of respiration, and slowing of the action of the gastrointestinal tract. Opium's constipating effect led to its initial use, in the form of paregoric, in treating diarrheas and dysenteries. The main producers and exporters of opium are located in India and Turkey. About 750 tons (680 metric tons) of opium are annually needed to meet medical uses worldwide.

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Opioids have been used since ancient times both for medicinal purposes and for pleasure. Opium was taken orally as a pill or added to beverages for centuries in the Middle East, India, and Asia. Addiction did not become a widespread problem until the practice of opium smoking was introduced by the British from India into China in the late seventeenth century (in an effort to gain a trade opening to the “closed” empire of China). China attempted to deal with the problem by restricting the cultivation and importation of opium in the nineteenth century. This restriction led to the Opium Wars (1839–1842), since the opium trade became highly profitable to the British East India Company. Britain won over China, and opium was sold to the Chinese through treaty ports until the twentieth century.

In Europe and North America in the eighteenth century, opioids became widely used as most effective and reliable analgesics (painkillers). Heroin was developed in Germany in the 1890s and used from 1898 as a cough suppressant and analgesic with the hope that it would not lead to addiction, as did morphine (from which it was derived). From the first year or two after introduction, some clinicians agreed that it did not show addictive properties. A few even suggested that it might be useful in treating people addicted to morphine. Within a few years it became clear that, like morphine, the use of heroin could lead to addiction comparable in gravity to that of morphine.

On the street, opium is sold as a dark brown chunk of gum (from the pod of the opium poppy) or in dried powdered form. It is smoked, eaten, and drunk or injected as a solution for medicinal and recreational purposes. Indian and Chinese immigrants brought the practices with them, but the number of users is not great. During the early phases of addiction, opium produces a feeling of euphoria or well-being. With time, one may become dependent through physical and emotional factors. Tolerance develops and larger and larger doses of the drug are required to produce the same effect. If denied access to the drug, an addict will experience severe withdrawal symptoms; sudden withdrawal in a heavily dependent person has occasionally been fatal.


Peyote, or mescal, is the common name of the small spineless cactus Lophophora williamsii, found in the southwestern United States and northcentral Mexico. Peyote is used in Native American religious rituals, primarily for its hallucinogenic effects. At the end of the nineteenth century, Arthur Heffter demonstrated that mescaline (3,4,5-trimethoxyphenethylamine) is responsible for peyote's pharmacological effects. Mescaline is related to the amphetamines. When ingested, it can produce hallucinations, frequently of a visual nature, characterized by vivid colors, designs, and a distorted space perception. It stimulates the autonomic nervous system and can cause nausea, vomiting, sweating, tachycardia (rapid heartbeat), pupillary dilation, and anxiety. The use of peyote in Native American ritual, referred to as Peyotism, was documented by Europeans in the sixteenth century. The modern practice of the peyote-based religion began in the late nineteenth century, was widely practiced by Native Americans in the southwestern United States, and was incorporated as the Native American Church in 1918. This church claimed more than 200,000 members in the 1960s. From the church member's point of view, peyote symbolizes spiritual power; the peyote “button”—the dried top of the cactus—is eaten as a sacrament to induce a hallucinogenic trance (of a few hours duration) for communion with God.


Psilocybin is the active substance contained in the fruiting bodies of the Psilocybe mexicana mushroom (called the magic mushroom); it is a potent hallucinogen that can cause psychological disturbances. Taken orally or injected, the drug produces effects similar to those of the chemically unrelated LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), and cross-tolerance has been experienced between psilocybin, LSD, and mescaline. The use of psilocybin is illegal in the United States, except for the direct consumption of mushrooms by a few religious groups as part of their ritual.


Throughout the world, many other natural plant substances are used for mind- and mood-altering effects. These include the use of the KAVA root (Piper methysticum) for an intoxicating drink in the South Pacific; indole-containing snuff (distilled from indigo, genus Indigofera) among the Amazonian Indians of Brazil; khat leaves of a bush indigenous to East Africa containing an amphetamine- Page 257  |  Top of Articlelike drug (cathinone); betel nut derived from the betel palm (Areca catechu) and widely used throughout the Pacific rim; and fly agaric (a toxic mushroom, Amanita muscaria) among the Uralic-speaking tribes of Siberia.

See also Alcohol: History of Drinking (International); Ginseng; Ibogaine; Jimsonweed; Morning Glory Seeds; Nutmeg; Opiates/Opioids; Paregoric; Tobacco: Tobacco Industry.


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Reisine, T., & Pasternak, G. (1996) Opioid analgesics and antagonists. In J. G. Hardman et al. (Eds.), The Pharmacological basis of therapeutics, 9th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill Medical. (2005, 11th ed.)

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Spinella, M. (2001). The psychopharmacology of herbal medicine: Plant drugs that alter mind, brain, and behavior. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.


Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2699700364