Plant substances with narcotic effects

Linnaeus’ book on intoxicants.

Much of that which we call narcotics today has its origins in the plant world. Narcotics is really a term for anaesthetic or soporific substances but it is used in everyday language to mean all drugs that are abused. Linnaeus published a compilation of all the known intoxicants of his time. He called this book Inebriantia. Below is a presentation of the narcotics that often crop up in the mass media together with their known medical effects, both in the short and the long term:

Cannabis is probably the most common narcotic product and it comes from Indian hemp, Cannabis sativa. The name is used both for the leaves, marihuana, and the resin from the female flowers, hashish. Its psychoactive – hallucinogenic – substance is called tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Hashish contains more THC than marihuana and is therefore a stronger narcotic drug.

Another classical narcotic plant is the opium poppy. Scoring the immature capsule allows the latex to run out and be tapped. The dried latex is called opium and contains between 9% and 12% morphine. Both opium and morphine have been much used in medicine. From morphine a semi-synthetic substance is produced which is officially called diacetylmorphine but it is better known as heroin. Curiously it was originally intended for the treatment of alcoholism and morphine abuse. Heroin was also used in the treatment of asthma and persistent coughs. It took many years before the adverse side-effects of this “medicine” became apparent.

People in South America chew leaves of the coca shrub to increase stamina and reduce the feeling of hunger. During the 19th century, it became possible to extract the active substance, cocaine. It is a local anaesthetic and could be used in eye operations. A drawback was its psychoactive properties that caused people to misuse it. For a long time Coca Cola used an extract from the coca shrub in its drink, but nowadays the cocaine has been removed. Cocaine can be smoked, snorted into the nose or injected. If you heat cocaine together with baking powder and water, you make crack.

People in East Africa chew a plant known as khat which has been much talked about in the mass media over the past few years. In America and China there is another plant species known as ephedra which contains similar substances but is drunk in the form of tea as a stimulant. Central American Indians used to eat hallucinogenic cactuses in order to get into contact with their gods and similarly other cultures ate toadstools known as “magic mushrooms”. All of these plants and fungi contain substances that are similar to those in the human nervous system, which affect consciousness. Semi-synthetic substances are manufactured from these sources such as amphetamines and the drugs collectively known as ecstasy. All of them affect the brain’s release of substances which produces a feeling of well-being but at the same time they also destroy the releasing cells which can lead to severe depressions in the long-term.

Reference (in Swedish):
Nyman, U och Bruhn, J G 1990. Opiater och vallmoodling – produktion och problem. s. 29-55 ur Naturliga läkemedel. (red. J G Bruhn), Apotekarsocietetens förlag, Stockholm.

Skog, D. 1996 Ecstasy – det högteknologiska knarket. Kemisk Tidskrift/ Kemivärlden 11:32-34.

Last modified: 2021-11-08