For millennia, when confronted with a newly discovered material man has asked himself one burning question: Can I use this to get fucked up? It comes as no surprise that some of the most bizarre and banal materials make it in to the drugs we know, love and abuse.
You Might Know it as: Downers, Sleeping Pills
Barbiturates describes a wide ranging spectrum of drugs all derived from barbituric acid. They have similar effects to alcohol, which include sleepiness, numbness and total anesthesia. They’ve largely fallen out of favor among medical professionals because of their potent side-effects which often include dependence and a terrible case of death. Popular in recreational usage for their mellowing, relaxing effects, they’re a drug of choice for mixing with stimulants.
Barbituric acid is now primarily derived from Diethyl malonate, which has the distinction of being perhaps one of the most strangely multipurpose substances ever synthesized. When used in powerful barbiturates, diethyl malonate can kill. When used with a slightly different formulation, it becomes Vitamin B. Change it again and you get a pleasant, fruity aroma for use in artificial flavorings and fragrances. So what was this magical substances originally derived from? It occurs naturally in grapes and strawberries.
You Might Know it as: Meth, Ice, Speed, Crystal Meth
Meth is something of a wonder drug that causes the user to become energetic, alert, euphoric, highly focused, and prone to clean their house with a toothbrush. It’s a superman drug that can treat a variety of symptoms and turns its users into absolute machines of human beings. Unfortunately it is also the most addictive and destructive drug out there.
The production process for meth is notoriously dangerous and toxic. It basically involves reducing ephedrine or pseudoephedrine and combining it with a methyl group. This process commonly involves the use of red phosphorous, which is derived from white phosphorous, a chemical God put on this Earth to kill stupid people. Aside from being toxic in just about every way imaginable and comically glowing in the dark, white phosphorous burns at extremely high temperatures for no reason. It has even been known to self-ignite because it didn’t like your expression.
Military units use it in their incendiary ammunition, as well as adding it to explosives just for the kick of burning everything to the ground. It is often put into short-range missiles that burst into fine phosphorous flakes, which then catch flame and fall like hell-snow on the unfortunate enemies below. These are especially damaging because of white phosphorous’ tendency to stick to the skin as it burns.
Toxic to inhale, ingest, or cast a sideways glance at, white phosphorous is perhaps the last thing in the world you want to be working with in a hot, cramped, dangerously ill-equipped laboratory. But that is what happens with meth. And then on top of that, they sell it to people who inject it directly into their veins.
You Might Know it as: Special K, Mean Green, Vitamin K
First synthesized in the early 60s, Ketamine quickly became a popular recreational drug at raves and similar events. Prized for its dissociative time-altering qualities, it was the drug of choice next to PCP and ecstasy. It’s currently classed as a Schedule III controlled substance in the US, and is generally illegal across the world.
First developed as a safer alternative to PCP, Ketamine was originally given to soldiers during the Vietnam war as a quick, powerful anesthetic. Why the US government felt it necessary to equip their soldiers with a dissociative hallucinogenic instead of good old-fashioned morphine probably explains a lot about that era. Nowadays most people popping the K don’t realize that’s also the prime ingredient in horse tranquilizer. Though perhaps its strangest modern use is as part of a treatment for alcoholism. Nothing like substituting a powerful psychotropic for a preexisting addiction, surely there will be no negative consequences of that at all.
You Might Know it as: DMT
One of the oldest and most widespread hallucinogens, DMT occurs naturally in many plants across the world. A wide variety of cultures can be found to have used the drug, usually as part of a ritualized ceremony. In modern times it is often synthesized to a highly concentrated crystalline form, though a small number of religious organizations have gained the legal right to incorporate DMT-laced tea into their services. While most of us are stuck with eggnog getting plastered the old fashioned way, the Uniao de Vegetal church was recently granted the right to serve the tea as part of their Christmas services.
It most likely occurs naturally in your brain. Scientists speculate that this chemical is behind humans’ ability to dissociate themselves from reality and have visions that are distant from reality. While this may sound strange, it makes sense when you think about just how much “hallucinating” is going on while you dream. Some even go as far as to speculate that small doses of this and other naturally-occurring hallucinogens are what allow humans to make such extensive use of our imagination when considering hypothetical scenarios. That’s right, your highly developed conscious thought may partly be the result of tripping almost constantly.
You Might Know it as: DXM
Like a lot of pain killers and anesthetics, DXM was originally developed by the US government as a substitute for a more addictive and destructive drug, in this case codeine. Similar to Ketamine and PCP, DXM acts as a dissociative hallucinogenic, also known as the “whoa…like…I am the world” drugs. Sold as a strangely popular pill in the 60s and 70s, they were pulled when it was figured out that the drug’s popularity was the result of everyone getting thrashed off of it.
You might recognize it today as cough syrup. Remember how your mom always made you choke down this horrible, syrupy, everything-that’s-wrong-with-the-world concoction back when you were little? Well it turns that cough syrup was designed to taste terrible so that people wouldn’t start chugging it to get high.
DXM has remained legal despite a number of reasons for which it was almost banned. Repeatedly abused by users, the companies switched to foul-tasting syrup, as if we lived in a world where people don’t regularly imbibe foul-tasting things to get drunk. Recently, they’ve even switched to gelcaps as if the whole thing was never a problem. DXM even needed a special exemption in order to remain on shelves because it’s the optical isomer of the opiate levomethorphan. Though since DXM is less harmful than Codeine, the worst that any state has done is put it behind the counter like pseudoephedrine.
You Might Know it as: The addictive ingredient in cigarettes.
Derived from chemicals found in tobacco leaves, nicotine serves as an antiherbivore chemical, meaning any animals who ate the leaves would get the uncomfortable nicotine buzz and stop eating. This is also the reasoning behind a whole host of side-effects of products that humans ironically can’t get enough of, such as the sting of hot peppers and caffeine buzz of coffee beans. While mild in its effects, nicotine addiction is notoriously difficult to break. Next time you’re about ready to berate your smoking friends for failing to quit, remember that the chemical and biological processes present in the addiction are very similar to much harder drugs like heroin.
Remember that part about nicotine being a major turn-off to any animal trying to eat it? Well some clever (or not so clever) farmers decided that’s exactly what a pesticide it supposed to do. For years before cigarettes and widespread recreational smoking, one of the chief uses for nicotine products was as an insecticide. In fact, it’s even used to this day in a lot of organic farming as an all-natural alternative to Round-up. So while going organic might save you on industrial pesticides, you may start inexplicably craving a cigarette.
You Might Know it as: The drug “that guy” brought to the party
When the Spanish first discovered native South Americans chewing the leaves of the coca plant, they declared it the work of the devil. That was until they tried it themselves and realized it was totally awesome and had serious applications in the future for giving their kids that extra edge in their college math classes. Never able to be happy with weak sauce, it was later refined, and distilled to the potent white powder we know today. Used widely as an anesthetic until around the turn of the century, it’s widely banned, but highly abused today.
Have you baked and eaten a cake recently? Congratulations, you have just used two of the main products that go into creating cocaine. Though not present in the drug itself, hydrochloric acid is a key ingredient used to refine cocaine into its powered hydrochloric salt state. It is also the acid most present in your stomach. Similarly, sodium bicarbonate is present in large amounts in crack cocaine as a result of impure refinement methods. It is also likely the leavening agent you used to bake that cake. If you baked a chocolate cake recently, you are that much closer to manufacturing cocaine (not to mention the chocolate you used comes from the coca plant too). If you have not baked a cake recently, congratulations on having a sad, empty life.
You Might Know it as: Ecstasy, MDMA
MDMA was first produced as a work around of Bayer’s patents by Merck. Though it’s thought of as an 80s drug, it was actually first patented in 1912. For decades, what is now one of the most popular drugs in the world languished in a Merck archive. From time to time researchers would dig it out as a candidate compound for some drug, then stow it back when nothing came of it. For almost 70 years, no one knew its effect on humans.
After gaining traction among psychotherapists as a way to lower emotional barriers and increase the efficacy of psychotherapy, MDMA eventually was subjected to the “Let’s Get Blitzed WOOO!” phenomenon and became a popular recreational drug across the world.
Ecstasy is derived from the sassiest of trees, the Sassafras. Used to make file powder, Sassafras oil was common in several fragrances before being banned after studies showed it to be a potent carcinogen. It was also the main flavoring ingredient in root beer until it was outlawed. In fact the name “root beer” is derived from the fact that the flavor was extracted from the roots of the Sassafras tree.
You Might Know it as: “H”, That drug that makes even regular drug users stop and go “whoa”
Heroin is widely known today as the most powerful opiate and just about one of the hardest drugs behind Crystal Meth. Ironically, heroin was originally derived from morphine and intended to be a less addictive combination of morphine and codeine. Whoever thought it was a good idea to combine two of the strongest opiates to get a weaker one obviously needs some help, but nevertheless Bayer developed and marketed the drug as such, quite seriously naming it Heroin as a derivation of the German “heroisch” or heroic. Unsurprisingly, it was quickly discovered that Heroin was almost three times as powerful as morphine and crossed the blood-brain barrier with lightning speed, destroying everything along the way.
Heroin is derived from morphine, which is derived from opium which is derived from the Opium poppy plant. While everyone knows that poppy seeds are derived from this same plant, few realize just how common opium poppies are. Used for everything from decoration to curry paste, they are quite common in Indo-European cuisine. So if you’re avoiding the poppy seed bagel for fear of the opium showing up on a drug test, you might want to pass on the masala as well.
Lysergic acid diethylamide
You Might Know it as: LSD, “acid”
Easily one of the most infamous drugs in American history, LSD has been held up by opponents as the worst example of the excesses of drug culture. Proponents cite its relative harmlessness and hold it up as an example of the fearful reactionary nature of drug legislation. Championed by batshit crazy Timothy Leary as a psychological cure-all and utilized by the scary, crazy CIA MKULTRA program as a possible truth serum, LSD has a tumultuous and storied past.
It was originally synthesized from the lowly ergot fungus. Having plagued rye crops for centuries, you might think you’ve never heard of this fungus; you have. The condition known as “St. Anthony’s Fire”, whose symptoms are basically a much more severe and painful acid trip, is believed to be connected to consumption of ergot-tainted grain. Additionally the epic poem Beowulf is believed to be an allegory for the suppression of a cult that consumed ergot for its hallucinogenic properties by Nordic tribes, which explains the otherwise nonsensical translation of “barley wolf”.
You Might Know it as: The base ingredient of mescaline
Commonly used as a medicinal and ritualistic plant by Native Americans, peyote enjoyed a surge among recreational drug users in the 60s. It’s easily one of the oldest known drugs on this list, being traced back as far as 10,000 years. A relatively harmless psychotropic drug, peyote is legally protected for Native Americans but a schedule I substance for the rest of us.
While it may be quite a while before most Americans can legally consume peyote, we’re already experiencing its benefits; it’s shown to have some pretty potent anti-microbial properties in laboratory studies. Importantly, with the rise of testicle-shrinking, flesh-eating, laughing-in-the-face-of-antibiotics bacteria like MRSA, peyote has proven effective against these penicillin-resistant bacteria. As if that weren’t enough to make you jealous, regular peyote users are more happy and fulfilled than the average American.
You Might Know it as: Valium, Xanax
Designed as a safer, less habit-forming alternative to Barbiturates, the Benzodiazepines are famous for encompassing just about every drug you’d steal from your parent’s medicine cabinet, and having one of the most fun to say names in pharmacy. They generally have the same effects as barbiturates, but are more commonly prescribed and are less likely to lead to coma and death. Generally they’re taken for the purpose of providing a relaxing, pleasing high.
A specifically infamous form of the drug is Rohypnol, or “roofies”, the date-rape drug. As if that weren’t enough, though they are generally safe, the dangers associated with benzodiazepines skyrocket when combined with alcohol–which is also the other thing a potential date rape victim is most likely to be imbibing.
You Might Know it as: Adderall meets green tea
A well-known and commonly consumed drug in the Middle East, khat produces a mild amphetamine-like effect. Consumed almost entirely as a recreational drug, users either chew the leaves or brew it in tea. Though it does produce a slight psychological dependence, its health effects are some of the most harmless in the drug world.
It is basically the Middle Eastern coffee and cigarettes, and fills a similar role in social activities. It is quite common for men, especially in Yemen, to gather at local cafes and chew khat while mulling various meandering topics. It’s a pick me up in the morning, as well as the go-to hangover cure. It’s also unfortunately a schedule II substance in America, though it’s significantly less harmful than its legal western counterparts.
You Might Know it as: THC, the stuff in Marijuana that gets you high
What American is not at least tangentially familiar with sweet Mary Jane? Easily the most commonly used illegal recreational drug in America, it’s ironically more widely consumed than its much more legal — but much more toxic — cousin tobacco. Hilariously classified as a schedule I substance, this famously mild drug has been known to induce feelings of euphoria, giddiness, munchiness, uncontrollable giggling, and generally making you less of a square maaaaaaan.
THC is part of a diverse group of organic compounds known as Terpenoids. These closely-related compounds give rise to a wide variety of some of the most wonderful flavors on earth. Cinnamon, ginger, cloves, eucalyptus and menthol are all terpenoids. They are also responsible for the life-saving steroids in your emergency inhaler, as well as cholesterol which, despite its bad rap, is essential for survival. Strangely, THC has a habit of bringing all of these terpenoids together; just think of the pot, plus the incense, plus the cholesterol from that bag of Cheetos you’re probably going to be eating.
You Might Know it as: The Poor Man’s Shroom
A psychoactive and highly poisonous mushroom, Amanita Muscaria was only occasionally consumed as a recreational drug. But when the more common psilocybin mushrooms were outlawed, the muscaria (or fly agaric) gained popularity as a replacement. These brightly colored mushrooms have been consumed by indigenous Siberians for ages, and are even speculated to be the main ingredient in the Soma mentioned in the Rigveda.
Though they don’t have many uses beyond their psychotropic and marginal culinary properties, these tiny mushrooms nonetheless have been re-purposed again and again throughout art history. While relatively obscure until recently, this tiny fungus has had a large influence on popular culture. They have shown up as a highlight in paintings of nature since the Renaissance, as well as in Fantasia, and Alice in Wonderland. They were even the inspiration for the mushrooms in Super Mario Brothers, presumably because of their association of making Norse Berserkers more powerful. Some historians even believe the story of Santa Claus was an allegory for these mushrooms and their effects, though this is largely unsubstantiated.