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Big Bend Regional Sierra Club Regular Public Meeting Dec 15, 2006

Minutes of Big Bend Regional Sierra Club, Dec 15, 2006

The November meeting of the Big Bend Regional Sierra Club attracted a large crowd to hear Dr. Martin Terry, a botany professor at Sul Ross State University, speak about psychoactive and ceremonial plants of the TransPecos region. Dr. Terry, who has degrees from Harvard Unversity and Texas A&M, is both a graduate and undergraduate adviser as well as botany and zipzip lecturer at Sul Ross. He has investigated archeological sites in West Texas and in Coahuila, Mexico, and his research was recently published in the Journal of Archeological Science.

Armed with slides to show what the plants look like, Dr. Terry began his presentation with plants that are not native to the Big Bend area, but are nonetheless among the most numerous psychoactive plants here - jimsonweed, thornapple and the trumpet flower. All have their petals fused into a single long corolla, and the seed capsules are spiny projections. These plants, of which two lavender-flowering specimen are the datura wrightii and datura quercifolia, contain belladonna alkaloids that inhibit the neurotransmitter acetylcholine and are very toxic if at high enough doses and produce an experience 'generally deemed aversive,' he said.

A person intoxicated by the plant would be 'red as a beet, hot as a hare, dry as a bone, blind as a bat and mad as a hatter," he said. The belladonna blocks both the salivary and sweat secretions, paralyzes the internal muscles of the eye and completely incapacitates the central nervous system.

He said Jimsonweed was given its name from an outbreak of the poisoning in the early colony of Jamestown, Virginia, when soldiers 'were out of whack for a week.'

'This is a true hallucinogen,' Dr. Terry explained, 'these are nasty things people won't do it again if they've done it once."

The datura plants found in the Big Bend area are closely related to tree daturs of Central and South America, which have flowers that hang vertically, and survive to the southern suburbs of Los Angeles. Teenagers there refer to the plants as "hell's bells," he said, adding that any part of the plant can produce a hallucinogenic experience, but the seeds are the most toxic.

Nicotiana gluca, which grows in Big Bend National Park, is kin to tobacco but does not have much nicotine. A similar plant is nicotiana trigonophylla which has the same alkaloids, and the domesticated tobacco. Nicotine, he pointed out, is 'one of the most addictive drugs know.' Solanaceae, nicotine and related alkaloids, he said, cause initial stimulation, then depression of the nervous system. In its pure form it is an extremely potent toxin, he said.

African rue and the creosote bush are in the zygophyllaceae family. Creosote was imported into the Big Bend in the 30s by a rancher near Deming, who was testing plants for cattle feed. The bushes have now spread over a great portion of the southwest desert. desert southwest. Peganum harmala, which blooms in April and May with five-petaled flowers, can be widely seen around Pecos.

African rue contains alkaloids such as harmline & harmine, which are psychoactive/hallucinogenic in their own right and are also monoamine oxidase inhibitors. These cause nervous toxic syndrome in domestic livestock, but it is not clear which alkoloids are toxic in livestock, he said.

The plant is related to ayahuasca, which was the subject of a recent decision by John Roberts, new chief justice of the Supreme Court, involving the Union of the Vegetable Church in Brazil.

A U.S. branch of the Brazilian church, which uses a hummingbird that looks like Christ with his arms outspread as the church symbol, was bringing in ayhuasca in barrels for use in its church services, but they were confiscated by U.S. customs officials. The church, which has 130 members in the U.S., sued and the case went to the Supreme Court.

Chief Justice Roberts, in a decision that demonstrates the power of the religious right, argued that the DEA 'had not done its homework' and that the church was not infringing on government function so long as the ayhuasca was being used for bona fide religious purposes.

The Native American church people who use peyote were very interested in that decision, he added.

Ayahuasca contains exactly the same alkaloids as another bizarre hallucinogen found in the northwest Amazon basin, a shrub called psychotria. These alkaloids inhibit the oxidase and make it possible for the drug 'to go through the gut without being inhibited - it's a combination drug that would be the envy of pharmaceutical people and it was invented by the jungle native people in Brazil."

Another alkaloid of the Big Bend is the silverleaf nightshade or trompillo (solanaccaea), a purple flower that turns into a miniature yellow tomato and contains alkaloid 'with a sugar hook.' Dr. Terry explained that it causes a combined nervous and gastrointestinal irritation in cattle. Berries from the plant are used in the Big Bend area in diluted form to provide the enzyme that curdles milk in the asadero cheese-making process.

In the datura plants the alkaloid blocks, but in this plant it inhibits the enzyme that clears out the acetycholinesterase for overstimulation of the nervous system. The fruit also contains an enzyme 'that chops up proteins,' thereby curdling the milk when making asadero cheese. It is, Dr. Terry said, 'a very useful plant.'

The mescal bean of the Texas mountain laurel, also called the 'big drunk bean' (sophora secundiflora or fabacease) - blooms in late February with blue to purple flowers that have the odor of artificial grape flavoring. Inside the bean pod are red hard-shelled beans that are roughly the size of pinto beans. When swallowed, the shell of the bean is so hard that it goes right through the digestive tract, but if the shell is broken its effects are similar to tobacco. One bean is a lethal dose for a person; one person who ate half a bean was in a coma for three days before waking up.

Some anthropologists believe the beans were used by native Americans, perhaps as an ordeal drug for initiation rites, but no tribes currently use it. Some people say this was the best thing before the Plains tribes got peyote. 'You may see the beans in archeological situations; they were pretty and made nice jewelry. Stores in Mexico will sell some of the red beans as a good luck charm.'

St. John's wort of the hypericum species, called clusiaceae, is not found in the Transpecos except in health food stores, but it grows in East Texas.

'St.. John's wort,' said Dr. Terry, 'is a good example of what bad legislation can do. The plant contains hyperforin, which like some selective serotonin antidepressants, inhibits neuronal reuptake of serotonin. The plant also contains hypericin. 'But if you want to know how much active ingredients they tell you about hypericin, not hyperforin. This is because the FDA in 1994 said that St. John's wort sellers, who wanted a law for herbal remedies, did not have to prove the efficacy and could make no health or disease-curing claims. The sellers told the FDA to keep hands off, that truth in labeling was sufficient protection for the public. 'We've been operating under the suggestion that the FDA is there to protect us, but this legislation took the protection away."

Another plant in the Big Bend is ephedra, or Mormon tea. The plant has no flowers but it has cones. Ephedra trifurca is the local variety, which is a good stimulant without caffeine. The alkaloids in this plant are similar to adrenalin and amphetamines in structure and activity. Ephedra has been sold as a dietary supplement, although it can have adverse effects on the heart. Five people died after taking the herbal product ephedra, so the FDA said it should come off the market. It is now sold with 10 mg. dose of ephedrine, in compliance with the 1994 law, which puts the burden of proof on the FDA.

Marijuana, cannabis species, contains cannabaceae and also the genus humulus, which is hops that gives flavor to beer. Cannabis was originally grown for fiber, and also for the male flowers -- cannabis sativa x indica, female. The male flowers are different and in Mendocino County, California, which is the capital of the marijuana industry, the male plant is pulled before the flowers open. The aim is to produce a female plant which continues to produce flowers. If the female flowers are fertilized, the plant stops blooming.

Medical marijuana seems to ameliorate various illnesses, if it is smoked or vaporized. Similarly, he added, if one could smoke nicotine it wouldn't be as bad for health, if it could be vaporized without resin and carcinogens. "I think it comes down to who should decide in a given situation, but we don't have the data because it's illegal to do the studies," Dr. Terry explained, adding that the DEAbudget is 75 percent marijuana enforcement.

Marijuana probably helps with glaucoma, AIDS, cancer, chemotherapy and terminal cancer, muscular sclerosis, and other debilitating diseases characterized by pain and/or appetite suppression. Multi-disciplinary studies need to be done on psychoactive properties. Some groups are now trying to allow clinical studies on psychoactive compounds according to FDA standards, and are suing the National Institutes of Health. Clinical trials may be down the road.

Psilocybin mushrooms, or 'magic' mushrooms, are thought to be more like animals or fungi than plants. These should be here in Alpine; the plants contain psilocybin and psilocin, a short-acting hallucinogen of the tryptamine family. Terence McKenna has written very entertainingly of mushrooms' effects. The psilocybe cubensis, mushroom grows down in the grass, fed by cow or horse manure. These 'magic' mushrooms are golden fading to white on top.

Tobosa grass, a parasite in several species of grass, can be used to manufacture LSD, which is in the ovary of the grass flower or fungal spores. The discovery of LSD was demonstrated in Albert Hofmann's historic bicycle ride and its sequel in the spring of 1943. He was working for a pharmaceutical company, and had picked some grass as an experiment. He then decided to cook it up again, and felt light-headed. His exposure was minimal, but then he ingested 1/4 of 1 mg in 10 milliliters of water; afterwards, he asked his assistant to accompany him home, Dr. Terry suggested his audience could read about the discovery in LSD: My Problem Child, by A. Hofman, which has been newly reprinted.

Morning glories, ololiuqui of the ikpomoea species , which were blooming until the hard freeze, also contain lysergic acid - ipomoea violacea, it's in many plants - dimethyltryptamine, active in doses of just a few milligrams, also potent in psychic effects.

Acaccia, category clas, has high conscentrations of DMT, also the bundleflower in root bark has lots of DMT.Local acacias are interesting. Phalaris species, canary grass, or phalaris caroliniana, also known as May grass or canary grass.

Peyote, which native Americans call 'the medicine', contains peyote alkaloids, and the most potent is mescaline. Under controlled substance act, it can be ingested only by a member of the Native American Church, and in Texas that means you have to have 25 percent Indian blood. For everyone else it's a highly dangerous illegal drug.

Peyote is a largely Mexican plant that is very spotty in distribution in the TransPecos, and all of these areas are on private ranches. The plant blooms in summer if there is lots of rain; it has a purple flower and a yellow center. Peyotes look a bit like rocks and they tend to grow into rock fissures. They are best harvested with a flat blade to cut off the plant just at ground level; it is the above-ground part that's potent. Peyote when cut may branch out, or just put the top part down and it will also put out roots. The green part of the plant is best for mescaline.

The Native American Church is splintered and decentralized but growing, so peyote consumption and demand is growing too. But the areas where peyote can be legally harvested for NAC religious use is shrinking because 'people with big bucks' are buying the ranches and they are indifferent to renting to a peyote distributor who wants to cut cactus; they have closed the gates to peyote harvesters. Urban expansion, agricultural clearing of land and improper harvesting of peyote are also reducing the population of the plant.

Overharvesting and improper harvesting could be reduced by allowing greenhouse cultivation of peyote by and for the NAC. Negiations have begun between the DEA and the NAC the solution may require litigation since the DEA sees the problem as manufacturing of a controlled substance.

In an aside, Dr. Terry explained that nicotine is not carcinogenic; it's other compounds in the leaf or perhaps other compounds in snuff - nicotine taken in the mouth-that cause cancer.

And similarly, he added, if you want to have the effects of marijuana, it's better to put the marijuana in brownies than to smoke marijuana cigarettes. With the ingested form it takes a longer time to build up and a longer time to wear off. Dr. Terry said he has seen rock paintings that show round things on the tips of deer antlers. These round things have been interpreted as peyote or seeds, and he notes that Mescalero Apaches had peyote before other tribes.


n the 1870s, when Indians were being pushed into reservations, the peyote became a pan-American solace with religious and cultural appeal, he said. Peyote distribution also increased because of trains, but he added that there was no indication it was used by other groups of people other than intellectuals like Aldous Huxley. He said he believed the number of non-Indians using peyote is very small.

In 1968, Richard Evans Shulte, the patriarch of American ethnobotany, discovered a wealth of hallucinogenic substances in the Amazon. He was one of the first to sit with Kiowa Indians in Oklahoma and learn what they were doing with peyote. A mentor of Dr. Terry, he also went to South Texas and looked at peyote fields, which were more abundant there than in the TransPecos. Dr. Terry noted that peyote is 'an amazing plant and so understudied - there is so much to learn.'

Almost every cactus collector will have a hidden peyote, Dr. Terry said. "Nobody can resist it." He added that he has a DEA permit for his peyote. It is an amazing substance for energy and alertness, he said; the Comanches 'mounted up in West Texas, put peyote in the cheek and rode for 125 miles, then came straight back. They were using mescaline to stay awake." He said he has grafted peyote onto another cactus, which allows it to grow faster; this could be done in a greenhouse situation, he added.

The Big Bend Regional Sierra Club will hold its annual Christmas party on Dec. 14 at the Front Street Books annex in Alpine. At the beginning of the meeting, in his customary presentation of 'good news,' President Don Dowdey said the local and Lone Star chapters of the Sierra Club helped to win protection for the Big Thicket National Preserve by filing suit against the proposed drilling for oil in the preserve, saying the National Park Service had not done a serious environmental impact study before proposing drilling. The court ruled in favor of environmental studies before allowing drilling in national parks land.

And in Salt Lake City, an interesting pilot project to convert sewer waste into energy has begun at a downtown building, in an attempt to discover how many toilet flushes it may take to light a light bulb. City officials believe the energy transfer will work for both heating and cooling, and it has the advantage of no carbon emissions.