Datura: The Scariest Drug I've Ever Taken

These herbal cigarettes might cure your asthma but they'll blind you for three days in the process.
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The first time I took LSD, it was like being thrown out of an airplane without a parachute only to discover that I’d always had the power of unassisted flight. It just came naturally to me; there were no bad trips. If the experience started out unpleasant, it didn’t stay that way for any length of time (or at least any length of time that I was conceptually aware of). As long as I embraced what was happening and stayed in the moment rather than fighting it, the possibilities were endless.

With magic mushrooms (my real weapon of choice, psychedelically speaking) it was even better. While an acid trip was vivid and comic-book sharp, mushrooms were more blurred and the colours more muted; like walking about in an ever-mutating, endlessly hilarious and profound impressionist painting.

But my experimentation with hallucinogens was never just some thoughtless necking of tabs or shrooms at house parties. I actually studied and read about psychedelics in great detail long before I ever embarked on physical experimentation. From Ken Kesey to Tom Wolfe, I devoured the literature.

From anthropological tracts on shamanism to detailed reading of Tim Leary’s experiments at Milbrook in the early 1960s, I understood all about context (or set and setting), and I embraced all sorts of shamanistic ideas about the sacramental nature of this kind of drug use.  I could have gone on Mastermind with LSD as my specialist subject long before I ever got my pupils dilated to saucer-size.

It was never just about recreational diversion, even though it turned out to be massively enjoyable when I finally did get thrown out of that airplane. I was always curious about the different effects of different hallucinogens; from Fly Agaric toadstools to peyote buttons to the little psilocybin ‘pookies’ that grew in native Irish abundance every October, I read about and consumed them all.

I studied and read about psychedelics in great detail long before I ever embarked on physical experimentation.

But the only substance I ever happened on that scared the mother-loving bejesus out of me was Datura. A friend of mine at University had discovered a local pharmacy that was still selling a long-discontinued preparation known as Potter’s Asthmatic Cigarettes.

Now straight away, that’s counter-intuitive; who smokes to cure a life-threatening respiratory condition? But I guess they were simpler times....The active constituent in this dubious preparation was a herb or weed called Datura stramonium or Jimson Weed. It does have a number of more colourful monikers should you ever need to avoid it: devil's trumpet, devil's weed, locoweed, devil's cucumber and hell's bells.

Datura is not an hallucinogenic per se, it is a deleriant which is to say it blocks certain neurotransmitters in brain and creates an all-encompassing delirium. You remember those old scare stories that used to be told about taking acid? The old urban legends about people taking LSD, thinking they could fly and then walking out of third floor windows? (Of course if you’re on acid and you think you can fly then it’s not the acid that makes you jump out the window; it’s plain stupidity that makes you do it on the third floor instead of testing your theory first on the ground...)

But with devil’s weed, you really are so removed from reality, that the possibility of doing yourself a fatal mischief is all too real. Here’s what the US Department of Agriculture says: “Datura intoxication typically produces a complete inability to differentiate reality from fantasy (delirium, as contrasted to hallucination); hyperthermia; tachycardia (increased heart-rate); bizarre, and possibly violent behavior; and severe mydriasis (pupil dilation) with resultant painful photophobia that can last several days.” It has high enough levels of toxicity that it can also kill you if you're not careful about the dosage.

Historically, Datura has had ceremonial and sacramental use in India and the Americas. Europeans have generally had a less than religious experience of the Devils trumpet. The name ‘Jimson weed’ for example is a corruption of the term ‘Jamestown weed’ which derives from its use and abuse in the 17th century English colony in Virginia.

With devil’s weed, you really are so removed from reality, that the possibility of doing yourself a fatal mischief is all too real.

An extract from ‘The History and Present State of Virginia, In Four Parts’ by Robert Beverley (1673-1722) should give some idea of how this weed’s effects are to be judged: “The plant, was gather'd for a boil'd salad, by some of the soldiers and some of them ate plentifully of it, the effect of which was a very pleasant comedy, for they turned natural fools upon it for several 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; a fourth would fondly kiss and paw his companions, and sneer in their faces with a countenance more antic than any in a Dutch droll.”

So far so good, but there was a clear downside for the whacked out squaddies: “In this frantic condition the soldiers were confined, lest they should, in their folly, destroy themselves — though it was observed that all their actions were full of innocence and good nature. Indeed, they were not very cleanly; for they would have wallowed in their own excrements, if they had not been prevented.”

And that’s about right...When myself and some of my braver colleagues had prepared our own broth by breaking up the ‘asthmatic’ ciggies into a teapot with some boiling water, the first thing we noticed was the awful taste and the powerfully astringent quality of our broth. It dried our mouths out very quickly leaving us with dark green tongues and blackened lips.

I wish I could give a more scientific account of my encounter with Jimson Weed but my memories of the experience are fragmented, disjointed and disconcerting with most of it seeming to take place on an inexplicably fog-strewn moor with shadowy faceless figures screaming at me from the periphery of my vision.

One of my unenhanced colleagues (the de facto control for our experiment) told me we went to a night-club and I narrowly avoided arrest after trying to attack someone on the dancefloor during a prolonged strobe-lit techno set.

One of my colleagues went blind for about three days afterwards and none of us felt too clever for about a week. The looks we were getting from strangers on the street were enough to tell us that the devil’s trumpet was not an instrument to be taken up lightly. Potters Asthmatic Cigarettes were taken out of retail circulation shortly afterwards, not that we ever went looking for them again...

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