Many people use psychoactive plants every day without realizing it. Coffee, tea, chocolate, and tobacco are among the most popular, but there are others hidden on your spice rack or blended into trendy nutritional drinks sold at the supermarket. There are few cultures, in fact, that do not use psychoactive plants of some sort—even in contemporary times. And yet, it is not common knowledge which of the legal plants out there are also psychoactive. This brief guide walks you through some of the most unusual and unexpected legal psychoactive herbs and spices.
Legal Psychoactive Plants
Most people are familiar with the rockstars of the psychoactive plant kingdom: cannabis, peyote, and magic mushrooms. But, the world of psychoactive herbs and plants is quite vast. Some plants produce mild effects by stimulating alertness and lifting mood. Others produce more profound effects by inspiring visions and changing the reality that we experience. The legal landscape of plants can be equally perplexing. Many plants are outlawed or banned due to their psychoactive potential, and the hallucinogenic properties of others seem quietly overlooked. The following are non-hallucinogenic plants that are legal to grow, consume, and use:
The areca nut is used to make betel, which is somewhat akin to chewing tobacco. Betel is the third most popular psychoactive plant product in the world. To make betel, areca nuts are wrapped in leaves from the Piper betel plant, which is native to the Central and Southeast regions of Asia. The mix produces a mildly psychoactive concoction, thanks to the compound arecoline, which is similar to nicotine. Consumers often experience a mild euphoria, relaxation, and improved concentration. Also like tobacco, chewing betel is associated with oral cancer, as well as tooth discoloration. The areca nut is not restricted in the US nor Canada, and it can be purchased in some Asian supermarkets. Betel is not legal in the United Kingdom.
Coffee is arguably the most widely consumed psychoactive substance in the world. Its main active component, caffeine, is a central nervous system stimulant. The compound blocks the activity calming neurotransmitter called adenosine. Normally, levels of sleepy adenosine increase throughout the day, preparing the body for its natural sleep cycle. Caffeine, however, produces the opposite effect in the human body. Instead of calming the nervous system, caffeine speeds things up. But, these stimulating effects do more than just keep you awake, caffeine may also improve memory and cognitive function.
Wild Lettuce (Lactuca virosa)
Who knew lettuce had a wild side? Amazingly, lettuce is one of the least-known psychoactive plants—that is, a specific species of lettuce, at least. Lactuca virosa is a species of lettuce that grows wild in Pakistan, India, and Australia. It’s earned its own series of nicknames over the centuries, including opium lettuce and poisonous lettuce. Like many other common leafy greens, wild lettuce produces a milky liquid called lactucarium.
In this case, lactucarium contains two potentially mind-altering compounds: lactucin and lactucopicrin. These compounds are thought to be sedative, analgesic, and may be responsible for a euphoric effect. Proceed with caution, however. While wild lettuce can produce auditory hallucinations, it may also cause side effects like dizziness and anxiety. In some cases, it may contribute to breathing issues and cardiovascular complications.
Cannabis (Cannabis sativa, Cannabis indica)
For decades, cannabis was the most widely used illicit substance in the world. In some senses, it still is: An estimated 263 million people consume the plant around the globe. But, Canada, Uruguay, the Netherlands, and in some parts of the US are changing the herb’s illicit status. The plant is now totally or partially legal to consume in these areas—pending some provisions. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the plant’s infamous active constituent, producing a euphoric haze and sensations of bliss. However, be careful, as THC may also cause paranoia, hallucinations, and anxiety.
Ceremonial Tobacco (Nicotiana rustica)
As most people know, tobacco is legal to purchase around the globe. What many people may not know, however, is that the plant is legal for adults to grow for personal consumption, as long as it’s not sold or traded. Another fun fact: What is now considered ceremonial tobacco (Nicotiana rustica) is a small and easy-to-grow plant that can produce up to 18 percent nicotine. This particular variety is native to Brazil and is far stronger than the commercial tobacco traditionally used by native North Americans. Traces of tobacco found in 1200-year-old North American pipes contained a meager 0.16 percent nicotine—a big difference, to say the least.
Kanna (Sceletium tortuosum)
Kanna is a succulent plant native to southern Africa. The mild psychoactive is most abundantly used by the Khoe-San peoples, who are indigenous to the region. But, this psychoactive is not a hallucinogen. Instead, the plant boasts mild mood-elevating properties and is traditionally used to quell hunger and thirst. Like betel, kanna is most often chewed and spit out. Of all the plants on this list, the mind-altering effects of kanna are perhaps the least-studied. Although, that’s not because the plant is new on the psychedelic scene. Khoe-San cultures have used kanna for centuries. At this time, there are no legal restrictions for the growth of consumption of kanna.
Kratom (Mitragyna speciosa)
Kratom leaves come from a tree native to Southeast Asia. The plant, which is a close relative of coffee, produces a mild narcotic effect. This narcotic effect has inspired a fair share of controversy. Kratom produces a mild euphoria and pain relief by engaging the human body’s opioid receptors, much like the opium poppy. But, there are a few differences. First, dried kratom leaves are most often consumed in capsules and teas; not injected or concentrated like pharmaceutical or street opioids. Second, for many, kratom is an alerting alternative to coffee. No sinking into the couch or lulling about with this plant.
In 2016, the US Drug Enforcement Agency tried to ban kratom and classify it along with heroin as a schedule 1 controlled substance. Due to a series of drug-related deaths in which kratom was present, there’s a fear that the plant is a kind of “legal heroin,” a dangerous and addictive new opioid. But, not all scientists agree. Kratom remains legal in the United States, where consumers can buy the leaves at tobacco and smoke shops around the country. Lawmakers continue to try to ban the plant, however, despite protests from consumers and some scientists. In a way, the modern fight against kratom prohibition reads similar to the 80-year prohibition of another pain-fighting plant: cannabis.
There’s a difference between psychoactive and hallucinogenic plants. A hallucinogen inspires visions, changes your visual and spatial perception, and sometimes takes you out of your normal reality and into a markedly different one. Many hallucinogenic plants are considered entheogens, or plants that produce profound spiritual experiences. Almost all of the most potent entheogens, including psilocybin, ayahuasca, and peyote are illegal. This is in spite of the common scientific understanding that hallucinogens often don’t carry the same addictive potential as other illicit substances. Yet, a few hallucinogenic plants remain unregulated, such as nutmeg, mandrake, and a few common houseplants. There’s a catch, though: The side effects of these plants can be very uncomfortable. In the worst-case scenarios, they may even be outright dangerous.
This common holiday spice may produce more profound effects than the average person might expect. Nutmeg contains a psychoactive compound called myristicin, which boasts similar properties to mescaline, the primary psychoactive in the peyote cactus. Large doses of nutmeg can cause hallucinations, dizziness, and general intoxication. But, the psychoactive experience comes at a high price (no pun intended)—eating too much nutmeg can cause intense gastrointestinal distress, including diarrhea. For this reason, most consumers don’t make nutmeg a habit.
Mandrake root is a hallucinogen, but not one that’s recommended to consume. The plant became more famous than it ever had been before, perhaps due to its animated debut in Harry Potter, and later earned a notable supporting role in Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. But, mandrake has been a bit of a celebrity since before the Biblical era. With unique human-shaped roots and psychoactive alkaloids, mandrake is a long-revered mystical plant.
Eating the root, however, poses some potential problems. Mandrake can cause sleepy and hypnotic hallucinations, which can seem very appealing, especially given the root’s long history of magical use. But, mandrake root can be dangerous to administer. At its very worst, the alkaloids in mandrake root can induce coma and asphyxiation.
Coleus (Plectranthus scutellarioides)
With its brightly colored leaves and interesting patterns, coleus is a houseplant that many would find interesting during a psychedelic journey. But, the plant may boast far more than visual appeal. This common ornamental plant may feature mild hallucinogenic properties, perhaps somewhat akin to saliva. However, modern scientific study has paid relatively little attention to this traditional Mexican plant. It’s most famous amongst the Mazatec peoples of southern Mexico, who reportedly use the plant as an alternative to salvia on occasion.
Psychoactive Plants Legal to Grow (Sort Of)
The legal histories of most psychoactive plants can be quite complex. Take opium, for example. The opium poppy is one of the oldest regulated plants in the global marketplace, with laws dating back to China’s Ming Dynasty in 1637. Today, many plants and their extracts remain illegal to produce, grow, and trade, including the coca plant, poppies, and peyote. Still, there are some natural psychedelics that walk a fine line between illicit and legal.
Salvia (Salvia divinorum)
Let’s be clear: Salvia is only legal to grow, possess, and consume in some regions. In others, like Canada and many US states, the psychoactive plant is banned. Banning salvia, however, may be problematic to some indigenous communities. Like coleus, salvia is used in the religious traditions of the Mazatec peoples, native to the Oaxaca region of Mexico. The entheogenic plant produces short visions and hallucinations, which Mazatec tradition uses in divination practice.
The plant became a popular hallucinogen in the US and Canada after actress Miley Cyrus was filmed smoking the herb back in 2010. Since then, an explosion in recreational salvia consumption led to bans in almost half of all US states. In areas where salvia is legal, it’s usually sold in tobacco shops.
Morning Glory (Ipomoea tricolor, Turbina corymbosa)
Morning glory seeds make an appearance several times in the writings of the famed neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks. The seeds contain a hallucinogenic compound called ergine, or D-lysergic acid amide (LSA). The chemical is quite similar to another famous psychedelic: acid, or LSD. In the United States, however, the morning glory has fallen out of favor since its prime time in the 1970s. Now, morning glory seeds are suspected to be adulterated with pesticides and other substances; even psychedelic pioneer Terrance McKenna recommends only experimenting with seeds that you’ve grown and harvested yourself. The Hawaiian Baby Woodrose produces similar alkaloids. Extracting LSA from any seed is illegal.
Mescaline is the active hallucinogenic component in the peyote cactus, which is native to indigenous groups in the southwestern United States and Mexico. Yet, despite the illegality of mescaline and peyote among the general population, some communities can legally cultivate the plant. Native US tribes can still legally cultivate, possess, and use the peyote cactus for religious purposes. For everyone else, however, peyote is classified as a prohibited, schedule 1 controlled substance. In Canada, peyote is also legal to grow, although mescaline is a controlled substance.
Sassafras is a tree native to North America and East Asia. Its roots were once used to make root beer, but that came to a halt in 1979, when the US FDA banned its inclusion in foods and drugs. In the 1970s, laboratory experiments found that sassafras oil contributed to liver cancer in rats. The potential carcinogenic effects of the plant led to its ban as a food ingredient.
Nowadays, sassafras is more famous for something else: party drugs.
Oil extracted from sassafras bark or fruits, called safrole, can be used to make methylenedioxyamphetamine (MDA), a slightly more hallucinogenic sibling to MDMA (ecstasy). There’s a catch, however. While the sassafras tree is legal for anyone to grow, purchase, and possess, safrole is a controlled substance. Essential oil manufacturers can still sell safrole for topical use, but they must report any suspicious purchases of safrole oil to the DEA. Using safrole to make MDA remains illegal (as does the possession of MDA).
Anna Wilcox is a writer, anthophile, and perpetual student. Published on Herb, Leafly, and Green Flower. Reach out on Twitter @anna_wlcx.