The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Monday, February 28, 2011

My Life With the Datura Kill Cult

One of the weird side-effects of studying archaeology is that you soon find that some of your friends think of you as nature's drug dealer. For example, about a month before I finished my Masters degree, a friend of mine approached me and asked if I could identify Jimson Weed (aka Datura stramonium), a highly-toxic plant that , under very, very specific preparation and conditions can produce very strange hallucinations, but outside of those very, very specific conditions will kill you. He had been reading (naturally in culture-porn filled New-Age sources) about North American shamanic practices, and specifically about the use of hallucinogens in these practices, and decided that he wanted to have the experience. I told him about the dangers of the plant, and he claimed that these were over-blown by the DEA in order to discourage use (no, no they're not), even claiming to know someone who had used it and not died. I then pointed out that, even if the Jimson Weed didn't kill him, he was talking about recreating a state that, within it's normal religious context, was watched over by practiced people who had a pretty good idea of how to wrangle the person who had taken the drug in order to prevent them from harming themselves, and he was talking about doing it on his own without any real understanding of what effect it would have on his mind. He declared that he was experienced enough with "altered states of consciousness" that he would be fine.

Unless you were raised and trained by Shamans from a group that uses the plant in its ceremonies, the odds of you poisoning yourself while using it are pretty damn high, and there's a decent chance you'll kill your damn fool self. This isn't marijuana. Hell, it's not even crack. This is fucking datura. People historically have made animal poisons out of this plant for a reason! I would not have shown him the plant to begin with, but as the conversation went on and it became increasingly clear that he wasn't willing to accept just how dangerous the plant really is, nor how it might affect him, I informed him that I would not show him the plant not simply for basic legal reasons, but also because I didn't trust him to be safe and therefore would consider it a moral failing on my part to help him find it.

Given that there was a patch of it growing a five minute walk from his front door, I was particularly averse to showing him how to identify it.

Naturally, if these people are going to ask archaeologists about these plants, they will also ask Native Americans. One of my friends, who is a member of a local Native American tribal organization, tells me of a guy she knows, one of the "I would rather use crystals than chemotherapy should I contract cancer, which I won't because cancer is caused by bad vibes which I don't have because I shop at Whole Foods" sorts of people. He had informed her that he wanted to have a vision quest, and to that end he wanted her to supply him with peyote. Naturally, she refused.

Again, we have somebody without any real knowledge of what he is getting himself into asking someone who knows better to supply him with a dangerous plant. In this case, it is made even more absurd by the fact that the guy, who, like me, is as white as a lily, going to somebody who is from a group that he has some really weird misconceptions about in order to get something that he doesn't know how to use in order to experience a ritual from a culture that he knows next to nothing about. Hell, if he'd known anything about the culture, he would have asked for Jimson Weed instead of peyote - he was talking with a Native Californian and not New Mexican, after all.

Most of the folks I know, when asked to show someone one of these plants for their own use, rolls their eyes and tells the person what they can go do with themselves. But I wonder how often someone, whether out of a misplaced desire to be friendly or out of a sense of morbid curiosity, tells the wanna-be shaman how to identify the plants in question. And I wonder how many of the yearly plant deaths are due to this. Probably very few, but I am still curious.


Joe said...

Your friend thought he needed to ask an archaeologist to find a common plant that he could have looked up in any of the standard reference works (even Wikipedia)? That fact alone probably says a lot about his thought processes.

Anthroslug said...

Yeah...given that he wanted to use a toxic plant for recreation, I didn't feel that ti was appropriate to point out that he could easily find information on it.

Michael Duchek said...

When I was studying mycology (mushrooms), my professor talked about a similar problem. The difference was that alot of the people looking to try halucinagenic mushrooms would often just go out and try whatever they found, when again the information to properly identify the mushrooms was readily available. Even knowing that some mushrooms would kill them.

Taylor Wray said...

People who eat things they don't know about deserve to experience the consequences, especially after having been explicitly warned of danger.

I do, however, support the growing locavore/hunter/gatherer food movement on the West Coast, especially among young people who have become wise to food commodification and factory farming.

Granted, one should always follow educated supervision or guidance when harvesting anything in nature, but I can certainly testify that finding free, fresh herbs, nuts or berries in your local environment provides a delicious high of its own.

Anthroslug said...

@Taylor: Unfortunately, the people who have asked me to identify these plants are generally more concerned about tripping out than about the food distribution system.

jedbeetle said...

I was a young and foolish experimenter at one time. Made a Datura smoothie once. I didn't die, something I am quite happy about in retrospect. I can't really recommend its use to anyone else since the standard hallucinogens are far more pleasant. Salvia Divinorum is a better route to go for potent, legal trips.

What I remember from the experience:

I was in a car. NOT driving - I had the forethought to arrange help in this area. I couldn't talk all of a sudden. This was a combination of an utterly dry mouth and the inability to properly form words with my brain.

We stopped at our destination - an outside dance fiasco of some kind. I the amazing feeling that I was connected to the core of the earth. I could see the connection in my mind and feel the breadth of our planet. Every step I took reached for miles below the surface. I felt gigantic, expanding, my consciousness reaching across space.

After that, things got pretty confusing. Our party (4 total) decided to leave the outdoor dance party since the other guy who had partaken of the smoothie was having a much harder time dealing with the scene than we anticipated. I was disappointed - I had hoped to get my groove on while my consciousness raced towards the edge of the universe.

So we went back home. At some point, my other tripping friend had completely removed his clothing in a bizarre and clandestine manner. My friend handed me my keys so I could unlock the door, and I had the darndest time telling the difference between them and the water bottle in my other hand.

I went to the bathroom at some point, and I remember that my tiny downstairs bathroom looked like a HUGE locker room filled with strangers. I was a bit shy about peeing and sang a little song to comfort myself ("I was sailing along"- I wasn't even aware that I knew this song.) My friends were listening intently outside the door. Apparently, I came to a "money is evil" place - my friend noticed a dollar swirling in the toilet and asked how much I had tossed to which I answered "A couple bucks."

Later, I was asked to write my name, as a sort of challenge. I rolled my eyes, and proceeded to move the paper out of the way and write on the counter. After some arguing, I was convinced that writing on the paper was the better option, and I managed to write "J"-scribble, close enough since my name does begin with a "J". Not yet satisfied, my friend (whose name begins with an "M") challenged me to write his name. I begrudgingly acquiesced, and wrote approximately the same thing: "J"-scribble.

I have a memory of talking to my friend about the guy dating the girl I was in love with at the time. It was then that I re-discovered the flower of speech and let fly the most elaborate and intricately designed stream of expletives and insults my friend has heard to this day. I don't remember the whole stream, though I do remember that it involved fornication with several unattractive land mammals and that it flowed from my mouth as easily as water from a faucet.

One other memory I have was later in the morning when I was still a bit delirious, but not aware of it. I went to the bathroom and saw a purple-hued hologram of an acquaintance standing in my my way staring stolidly in my direction. I ignored this image, walked through her, and chalked it up to dreaming. I proceeded to pee, dress, go into the kitchen, and attempt to boil water in an empty pot without actually filling it. The pot kept mysteriously leaving the stove, and I had to replace it several times. It wasn't until I gradually came to, sitting in an easy chair surrounded by friends and family that I realized someone had been moving the empty pot from the stove to avoid damage to it, me, or the kitchen.

Anthroslug said...

That is a fantastic story. Gracias!