Ye Olde Biowarfare: how climate change is affecting hallucinogens (Part 1)

Growing up in New England, you are living, breathing and eating American history.

The place where you picnicked with your grandparents as a kid? That was the birthplace of the American Revolution. That graveyard you snuck into as a teenager on Halloween? That’s where Mother Goose is buried. That naked sex beach you “stumbled upon” last year? That was the location of two of the most useless civil war forts in American history.

And if you’re a disaffected teenager living on the East Coast, there are any number of rebellions to keep you intrigued. There was the Whiskey Rebellion in Western Pennsylvania, fought over…whiskey. The Boston Tea Party in Massachusetts fought over…tea. Then there was Bacon’s rebellion, which interestingly was not fought over the delectable treat, but rather was led by a fellow named Bacon against the English-supported Governor of Virginia, William Berkeley. Once perceived as the first rumblings of American separatism, scholars now see the rebellion as more of a power play between rivals resulting in the indiscriminate murder of Native Americans. Let’s just say, not our proudest moment as future Americans.

Beyond the monstrous behavior stemming from this rebellion, Bacon’s rebellion is notable for one other reason: it was the first (only?) recorded use of drugs as a bioweapon in the American fight against the British.

It all centered on a weed that grew in Jamestown, called the Jamestown Weed (now called Jimson Weed), which was known for its hallucinatory effects. The colonists, irate with the British government, cooked the young weed into a boiled salad (yes, they boiled salads back then, weirdos) and served it to several British soldiers who were sent to Jamestown to quell the uprising.

Robert Beverly reported in The History and Present State of Virginia, that the soldiers “turn’d natural Fools upon it for several Days: One would blow up a Feather in the Air; another wou’d dart Straws at it with much Fury; and another stark naked was sitting up in a Corner, like a Monkey, grinning and making Mows at them; a Fourth would fondly kiss, and paw his Companions, and snear in their Faces, with a Countenance more antick, than any in a Dutch Droll.” (1)

After a little over a week, the soldiers returned to their normal state, remembering nothing. Though this might sound like an amusing escapade for those of you who enjoy chemical alterations to your reality, you should be warned that the Jimson Weed then was most likely nothing like the Jimson Weed growing wild now. And this has everything to do with climate change.

To understand the effect of climate change on Jimson Weed, you need to know about two alkaloid compounds: atropine and scopolamine. Both of these compounds have hallucinatory effects and they are extremely poisonous when taken in pretty low doses (so please don’t try this at home). Atropine is more widely used in medicine today, while scopolamine was used historically to induce twilight sleep (aka amnesia) in birthing mothers, and later as an unsuccessful truth serum (it’s hard to extract a confession from someone who is screaming in terror because their body is being devoured by voracious insects – a popular hallucination).

It turns out that higher carbon dioxide in the atmosphere makes Jimson Weed plants grow much larger (2), and increases scopolamine concentration in their tissues, while leaving atropine stagnant. Meanwhile, increasing temperature has the opposite effect (atropine goes up, scopolamine stays the same). If we combine carbon dioxide levels, temperature and even the age of the plant, it becomes even more complex, as sometimes atropine concentration goes down (older plants under lower temperature and higher carbon dioxide levels) and sometimes scopolamine concentration goes up (younger plants under higher temperatures and higher carbon dioxide levels) (3). Yikes!

Is it possible that other plants that create similar noxious and hallucinatory chemicals will be changed in a similar fashion with climate change?

Perhaps. A study on the related (and equally toxic) Belladonna in the 1950’s suggested that the percent of alkaloids in the dried plant increased with the age of the plant and had an ideal temperature (with the greatest percentage of alkaloids) at 73 degrees Fahrenheit, with reduced percent alkaloids at higher and lower temperatures (4).

Sadly though research in the 1950’s was seemingly a little more casual, as they never state which alkaloids they measured (Atropine? Scopalamine? Hyoscyamine?) and they state in their methods that they analyzed their data “mathematically”. Studies these days actually require you to publish what “math” you used. Oh to be a scientist in 1956….

So, is it possible that the Jimson Weed fed to those poor British soldiers was a less noxious form of the one found today?

Given that the colonists picked the plant while it was young, in an environment that had lower carbon dioxide and lower temperature than today, it might have been. Which may explain why when unruly teenagers attempt to reenact this aspect of the revolutionary war today, they end up like this. Much like all good things, they just don’t make Jimson Weed like they used to. Now, sadly, it’s deadly.

Minda Berbeco has a PhD in Biology from Tufts University and is a science blogger in the Bay area. She wants to remind the readers that Jimson Weed, Belladonna and many other related plants are poisonous and will kill you, so please do not eat them. She realizes that readers may have hoped for an article on more popularly consumed Biological hallucinogens such as peyote or mushrooms. She encourages you to stay tuned for future blog posts in which she will address the effect of climate change on the Ergot fungus (required for LSD). Turns out climate change is going to mess with all biological organisms, but especially your stoner neighbor next door. Poor guy.

Further Reading:
(1) The History and Present State of Virginia, In Four Parts.
(2) The Effects of Elevated CO2 on Plants: Flower, Fruit and Seed Production
(3) Alterations in the production and concentration of selected alkaloids as a function of rising atmospheric carbon dioxide and air temperature: implications for
ethno-pharmacology

(4) Influence of the temperature on growth and alkaloid content of first-year Atropa belladonna L.

4 Responses to Ye Olde Biowarfare: how climate change is affecting hallucinogens (Part 1)

  1. Willfro July 10, 2012 at 3:59 pm #

    It seems to me like hotter environments have lots more “chemically active” plants (and animals, I guess). Do you think that it’s a function of species diversity, or is it the fact that there’s just more energy in the system that allows organisms to cook up lots metabolically-expensive molecules? Maybe global warming will lead to a generally more poisonous world?

    • Minda Berbeco July 14, 2012 at 1:46 am #

      This is a great question! Plants don’t always increase their chemical constituents in response to increased CO2 or warming. It depends on the plant and the constituent, as well as what the plant normally uses those alkaloids for. This is an area that still requires a lot of research, but is going to have a huge effect on people and animals alike (especially the ones that like to chew on those plants!).

  2. Roseblue August 3, 2012 at 8:57 pm #

    Interesting. But if you look at all the Night-Blooming-Solanaceae plants, Mandrake,Datura, Henbane, Brugmansia, Belladonna, etc… They ALL have different levels of all 3 Alkaloids. Belladonna is high on Atropine, Datura High on Scopolomine… I’m also aware that the alkaloid content varies continuously through time with these plants. How do you figure carbon dioxide is to blame? People do use jimsonweed safely and ceremonially… where is the danger now that wasn’t before?

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  1. Ye Older Bio Warefare: The effects of climate change on hallucinogens (Part 2) | Minda Berbeco - July 17, 2012

    […] week I talked about the effect of climate change on hallucinogens in the Solanacea family and their link to American colonial history. In the post, I commented on how living in New England, […]

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