Can the main psychoactive ingredient of magic mushrooms help treat the world's sixth most debilitating illness?
- Migraines afflict more than ten percent of the U.S. population, yet treatments are often unreliable and there is no cure.
- The new study involves giving migraine sufferers a placebo and, two weeks later, a single dose of pure synthetic psilocybin.
- The results showed that participants reported significantly fewer migraines in the two weeks after the study.
Psychedelics research is enjoying a renaissance. In recent years, studies have shown that hallucinogenic drugs like LSD, psilocybin, and MDMA seem to have powerful therapeutic effects on conditions including major depression, anxiety, and addiction disorders.
One unique aspect of psychedelics is that taking a single moderate dose can yield long-lasting therapeutic benefits for people with certain conditions, such as cancer patients with depression and anxiety.
Now, new research published in Neurotherapeutics suggests these outsized benefits may also apply to people with migraines. The evidence is preliminary but promising, and it could open up new areas of research for treating migraines, which are often chronic and debilitating.
A painful, debilitating condition
Migraine affects more than 10 percent of the U.S. population and it's ranked as the world's sixth most debilitating illness. Treatments can alleviate migraine symptoms, but efficacy varies from person to person, and even treatments that do work sometimes produce unpleasant side effects. There's currently no cure for the condition.
What's a migraine like?
"Put your finger on your temple and imagine drilling it inside your head," a 29-year-old woman named Heather once told Prevention. "My migraines feel like a screwdriver in there, in that one spot, always on my left side and in my left eye. I get a burning sensation throughout my body and in my jaw. Everything becomes sensitive to the touch, like my muscles are on fire."
Migraine treatments can be either preventive or abortive, and they range from prescription drugs, to over-the-counter medications like Advil Migraine, to home remedies like yoga or taking a hot shower. Psychedelics are another sort of home remedy. For decades, anecdotal evidence has suggested that drugs like LSD and psilocybin may help prevent or alleviate migraines, possibly because they're pharmacologically similar to migraine medications like dihydroergotamine, noted the researchers behind the new study.
To put that anecdotal evidence to the test, the researchers designed a placebo-controlled study in which they gave migraine sufferers a moderate dose of pure synthetic psilocybin. The participants included seven women and three men, all adults, who regularly suffered at least two migraines per week. All participants were free of any serious psychiatric or medical diseases and hadn't abused drugs within three months prior to the study.
To track migraine activity, the participants documented their headache attacks in a journal for six weeks, starting two weeks before the study and stopping two weeks after. The study was divided into two sessions, one of which involved taking a small dose of pure synthetic psilocybin.
"In the first experimental session, all subjects received an oral placebo capsule, and in the second experimental session, all subjects received an identically appearing oral psilocybin capsule," the researchers wrote. "In this design, each subject acted as his own control and placebo was given first so that the potential long-term effects of psilocybin, if given first, would not interfere with placebo treatment, if given second."
Schindler et al.
In the hours after each session, the participants answered questions about any psychedelic effects they might have been experiencing. No participants reported any adverse effects.
In the two weeks after taking the psilocybin, most participants did report significant decreases in migraines compared to baseline and the placebo session.
"The percentages of subjects who had at least 25%, 50%, and 75% reductions in weekly migraine days were as follows: 80%, 50%, 30% after psilocybin, and 20%, 20%, 0% after placebo, respectively," the researchers wrote. "Psilocybin and placebo significantly differed at the level of at least 25% reduction."
Interestingly, these reductions weren't correlated with how strongly the participants felt the psychedelic effects of psilocybin. That suggests migraine sufferers don't need to take a large dose of psilocybin and therefore experience its intense and potentially unpleasant hallucinogenic effects to reap the benefits from it.
But perhaps most promising was that the therapeutic effects lasted at least two weeks after a single dose, differentiating psilocybin from other migraine medications that need to be taken regularly. Still, the researchers noted more research is needed:
"While encouraged by the findings in this exploratory study, before this approach could be used clinically, it is imperative that additional controlled investigations be completed in order to understand psilocybin's full capacity to suppress migraine, as well as its long-term safety and tolerability. To verify the present findings, it will be necessary to replicate the results of this study in a larger sample under a fully randomized design. Studies with a dose range will inform on whether the effects of psilocybin in migraine are dose dependent."
A small percentage of people who consume psychedelics experience strange lingering effects, sometimes years after they took the drug.
- LSD flashbacks have been studied for decades, though scientists still aren't quite sure why some people experience them.
- A subset of people who take psychedelics and then experience flashbacks develop hallucinogen persisting perception disorder (HPPD), a rare condition in which people experience regular or near-constant psychedelic symptoms.
- There's currently no cure for the disorder, though some studies suggest medications may alleviate symptoms.
In February 2021, Conor was in his room and looking at his phone when he was struck by a strange feeling.
"The room looked normal, nothing was moving, but I felt as though I was under the influence of a psychedelic," he told Big Think.
As a teenager, Conor had experimented with LSD, mushrooms, and other psychedelics a couple dozen times. Now 25, he had been sober for about a year. He brushed off the incident.
But soon, Conor was struck again by the same strange feeling.
"I had no idea what was going on in my brain at that time and the anxiety and paranoia grew so intense that I became fearful I had developed everything from brain cancer to schizophrenia," he said.
The physical and psychological symptoms he began suffering were "devastating."
"The world [looked] crooked and out of focus, pictures had an eerie quality to them, things would go in and out of focus, at night while falling asleep I would experience vivid and terrifying hypnagogic hallucinations that made rest impossible."
After three weeks, Conor said his visual symptoms amplified with "unbelievable intensity."
"The floors would [breathe], paint on the walls looked wet, visual snow was so intense [that] pure black looked like it was glowing, at night I would see tracers everywhere, halos appeared around text. [...] I did not sleep, my thoughts were anxious and at times deranged, I had unbelievably intense dereliction that made the world seem fake."
What Conor experienced is commonly called an LSD flashback. It's a mysterious phenomenon in which someone who's previously taken a hallucinogenic drug suddenly and temporarily experiences the effects of that drug days, weeks, or even years after consuming it.
Flashbacks can occur after taking a wide range of psychedelic drugs. But compared to other hallucinogens, flashbacks seem to be most common among people who have consumed LSD, according to studies.
Credit Newwup via Adobe Stock
People have reported acid flashbacks for decades. The earliest recorded case may be
Havelock Ellis' 1898 report of taking mescaline and then experiencing sustained heightened sensitization to "the more delicate phenomena of light and shade and color."
But it wasn't until the 1950s, little more than a decade after Albert Hoffman first synthesized LSD, that scientists started researching LSD and its potential long-term effects. While studies have illuminated some aspects of how psychedelics affect the brain, scientists still have much to learn about the nature of LSD flashbacks, what causes them, and how to treat them.
What's certain, however, is that a small percentage of people who consume psychedelics report bizarre and sometimes debilitating effects that emerge long after taking hallucinogens.
Symptoms of LSD flashbacks
Among the most common symptoms of LSD flashbacks are visual distortions. In a 1983 study titled " Visual Phenomenology of the LSD Flashback," the psychiatrist and LSD researcher Dr. Henry David Abraham described 16 common visual disturbances reported by people with LSD flashbacks. To name a few:
- Acquired color confusion: The color of objects changed or presented a newly discovered problem of color confusion.
- Difficulty reading: Text may appear jumbled or leave afterimages of the type against the background of the page.
- Geometric phosphenes: Phosphenes, or eigengrau, are non-specific luminous perceptions that occur when the eyes are closed and may originate from entopic (i.e., arising from within the eye itself) stimuli in normal persons. They also may be induced by gentle pressure on the closed eyelid.
- Pareidolias: This is literally an image within an image. These were described when a subject gazed into a finely reticulated design in linoleum, veneer, or a cloud formation. Besides the abstract pattern of the linoleum, subjects often would be able to see a series of concrete images as well, such as "a fish," "a face," and "a little boy."
- Macropsia: Macropsia is the perception of an object larger than it really is. A characteristic description of this phenomenon came from a subject who noticed that his hand was enormous and then of normal size a few seconds later.
- Micropsia: Micropsia is the perception of an object smaller than reality. One subject said, "My feet looked so tiny, like they were a million miles away."
The effects of LSD flashbacks aren't limited to visual distortions. In a 1970 study called "Analysis of the LSD Flashback," researchers sorted LSD flashbacks into three broad categories: perceptual, somatic (meaning of the body), and emotional.
The emotional flashback is "far more distressing" than the other two, the researchers wrote, providing a case study of a 21-year-old woman who was suffering from LSD flashbacks:
"The patient had these frightening flashbacks during the day, while walking down the street, after smoking marijuana or drinking wine, during the night, and occasionally even while asleep. In one situation she awoke during the middle of the night with a feeling of panic and began running around her house fleeing an imagined threat she could not identify or comprehend. She had taken LSD a number of times, but her last few trips were bad ones with panic and fright followed by loneliness to the point of suicidal despair when she 'came down.' The combination of bad trips and emotional flashbacks made her seek professional help because of her fear that she would harm herself."
To be sure, LSD flashbacks aren't always emotionally distressing. A 2010 survey of 600 hallucinogen users found that, of the minority of users who reported experiencing at least one flashback, only 3 percent described it as a negative experience. In fact, some people enjoyed their flashbacks. On the website Erowid, which promotes research of psychedelic drugs, one user wrote:
"After 2 years of my last acid trip, while on vacation in a very nice wilderness place I was sitting on a rock and then I experienced a clear acid high. I was looking at a very steep hill and suddenly it started moving in nice patterns, exactly as one sees patterns while on acid. It wasn't something uncomfortable. In fact it was really pleasant and there was absolutely no trace of the nasty anxiousness after effects common to LSD. It lasted approximately 2 minutes and I enjoyed it very much."
But some LSD flashbacks are neither brief nor pleasant. A subset of people who use psychedelics develop hallucinogen persisting perception disorder (HPPD), a rare and poorly understood condition in which people experience omnipresent or recurring flashbacks. While the symptoms of HPPD vary, the condition can cause intense pain, irreversible perceptual distortions, emotional and psychological distress, and even suicidal thoughts.
HPPD: The never-ending trip
HPPD is estimated to affect between one to five percent of LSD users, though the actual figure is impossible to determine without better data. The disorder was first described formally in 1986 by the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 3rd edition, revised (DSM-III-R). The current edition of the manual (DSM-5) says patients need to meet several criteria to be diagnosed with HPPD:
- Patients must reexperience perceptual symptoms they experienced while intoxicated with the hallucinogen.
- These symptoms must cause "significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning."
- These symptoms aren't due to a separate medical condition or mental disorder.
So, what's the difference between a flashback and HPPD? Mainly frequency and duration. A 2017 review published in Frontiers in Psychiatry noted that while "a flashback is usually reported to be infrequent and episodic, HPPD is usually persisting and long-lasting."
A 2014 review published in the Israel Journal of Psychiatry and Related Sciences outlined two types of HPPD. The first, HPPD I, is the "flashback type," which is a generally short-term, non-distressing, benign and reversible state accompanied by a pleasant affect. The severity of HPPD I varies, with some people describing their mild flashbacks as annoying, while others say it's like getting "free trips."
But HPPD II is a different beast. The condition can be permanent, with perceptual distortions and other symptoms manifesting irregularly or almost constantly.
"The symptoms usually include palinopsia (afterimages effects), the occurrence of haloes, trails, akinetopsia, visual snows, etc.," according to the aforementioned 2017 review. "Sounds and other perceptions are usually not affected. Visual phenomena have been reported to be uncontrollable and disturbing. Symptomatology may be accompanied by depersonalization, derealization, anxiety, and depression."
What causes flashbacks and HPPD?
When asked what causes flashbacks and HPPD, Dr. Abraham told Popular Science, "I've spent my life studying this problem and I don't know, is the short answer."
But researchers have proposed explanations. One centers on memory. Because psychedelics can cause extremely powerful and emotional experiences, it's theoretically possible that certain environmental stimuli can remind people of those experiences, and then memory "transports" them back into that subjective mindset — similar to how a soldier with post-traumatic stress disorder might suffer an episode after hearing a loud, sudden noise.
Another hypothesis involves how LSD interacts with the brain's visual processing center. Dr. Abraham proposed that HPPD may arise due to "disinhibition of visual processing related to a loss of serotonin receptors on inhibitory interneurons," which may be caused by consuming LSD.
The basic idea is that LSD somehow changes the way the brain interprets visual stimuli. That might explain why people with HPPD have difficulty properly "disengaging" from the things they see around them. For example, a red stoplight might appear not as a discrete red circle but as a streak of red light painted across their field of vision; or a strobe light might not appear as a flickering light but a light that's constantly on.
Credit Yurok Aleksandrovich via Adobe Stock
"Such a locking of visual circuitry into an 'on' position following perception of a visual stimulus would explain such diverse complaints as trailing, color intensification, positive afterimages, phosphenes, and color confusions, each of which may represent a failure of the respective visual function to turn off the brain's response to the stimulus once the stimulus is gone," Dr. Abraham
It's also possible that people are genetically predisposed to HPPD and that ingesting LSD is the key that unlocks the disorder. This hypothesis would help explain why people have reportedly developed HPPD after taking a single, moderate dose of LSD.
Ultimately, the exact causes of HPPD are unclear. Partially as a result, there's currently no cure for the disorder, though studies show that people with HPPD have reported improvements in symptomatology after taking benzodiazepines. There's also anecdotal evidence that fasting can alleviate the disorder.
Despite uncertainty over the causes of HPPD, researchers do have a good idea of what can trigger "flare-ups" of HPPD. Dr. Abraham's 1983 study listed the most common triggers, some of which include:
- Emergence into a dark environment
- Intention (intentionally inducing visual aberrations by, say, staring at a blank wall)
People with HPPD describe the condition
To get a better understanding of HPPD, Big Think posted a questionnaire to the HPPD community on Reddit. Here are some of the responses:
How did HPPD first manifest for you?
"First I noticed highly enhanced creativity and intense visuals when [high on] weed and I really enjoyed that part. The realization that this is not going to go away soured the whole experience tho."
"My enhanced creativity left me after about a week and what I was left with was mild visual snow. I hardly knew anything about HPPD at the time and just didn't really care about my symptoms and still thought they were just going to vanish at some point, which they didn't. I kept taking drugs simply because I was addicted and felt like life is no fun without them. My HPPD got gradually worse over time and more symptoms appeared. First, I noticed mild tracers, which got worse over time (again due to continued drug use) and then tinnitus and brain fog. But primarily my symptoms are visual."
Are your symptoms episodic or constant?
"Both constant and episodic," wrote user LotsOfShungite. "A stressful event can trigger my symptoms off into the deep end."
"Except the brain fog and head pressure that varies, my visual disturbances are constant. The most debilitating ones are the visual snow, especially when I'm inside except if I watch the TV since it filters some of it out. It's also VERY frustrating that I no longer can focus on objects/details (can't stare) and the astigmatism-like symptoms that I got, like blurriness, especially in the distance and ghosting (double vision) plus starbursts from strong light sources. When I'm outside, the pattern glare is really annoying, same with the excessive amount of floaters that came with this. I also see halos from light sources."
"My symptoms are mostly constant and only change through rather obvious outside influences, such as certain drugs (almost all drugs), stress, lack of sleep, etc. Although my HPPD is quite pronounced, I have learned to accept it and almost only notice it when I pay attention to it. I always [know] it's there and it somewhat bugs me but I get along."
What are some common misconceptions about HPPD?
"I think the most common misconception about hppd is when people refer to it as "tripping permanently". There is a massive distinction between those two things. Generally with hppd, your vision may be altered, but to call it "tripping" is incredibly misleading. Tripping entails a massively altered state of mind and visual perception that is not seen with hppd. There are psychological symptoms like panic attacks, anxiety and dpdr, but those stem from the stress of dealing with the condition. Not because you have trapped lsd molecules flying around your brain for decades (another common myth) A person with hppd is capable of thinking clearly and acting the same as any other sober minded person. A lot of us have jobs, can hold conversations, are capable of being productive members of society. The "burnt out acid junkie" stuck in a "permanent trip" is an extremely toxic trope that creates stigmas around people who already feel intense regret and emotional distress caused by a poorly understood condition. We are not the drugs that we took, and are capable of growing past the mistakes we made in life."
"One of if not the biggest 'misconception' is that many people believe that HPPD does not exist. But I guess there is no way to prove to another person that it does, so this is gonna stay the case until HPPD enters the public consciousness of the psychedelic community."
"They usually don't understand anything about it since most haven't heard about it, which really is crazy considering how debilitating this disorder is for many. And as Dr. Abraham said: in the medical field it's highly under- and misdiagnosed. Often as psychosis."
Lopyriev via Adobe Stock
Hope for HPPD
Since experiencing his first acid flashback in February, Conor has found a few helpful strategies to minimize symptoms, including seeing a psychologist, staying sober, getting enough sleep, staying productive, and talking regularly with friends.
He's currently training to be in the military.
"The symptoms will lessen with time and sobriety, and HPPD provides an opportunity to improve yourself. That being said, because thoughts of suicide are apparently common with people that have HPPD, the medical community should take the condition seriously. Especially given how many people use psychedelics today."
While the future of HPPD research remains unclear, general psychedelics research is going through something of a renaissance. In recent years, researchers have published a growing body of studies showing how psychedelics like psilocybin, LSD, and MDMA can help treat conditions like depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and existential distress.
But, among people with HPPD, opinions on the utility of psychedelics vary. Conor advised caution:
"I would not recommend [hallucinogenic] drugs be taken for recreational purposes. They are tools to help us treat illnesses and should be treated as such. If someone has depression or other mental health issue, maybe psychedelics administered in a clinical setting by a doctor is appropriate, but otherwise, playing with your brain like it's a chemistry playset is asking for trouble down the road."
Cannabidiol (CBD) seems to reduce the unpleasantness of pain, a finding that surprised the researchers behind a new, first-of-its-kind study.
- Cannabidiol (CBD) is a compound of the cannabis plant that's significantly less psychoactive than THC, the active ingredient of marijuana.
- CBD is often used to treat chronic pain, but there's been a lack of empirical research on the cannabinoid's analgesic effects.
- The new study was designed to test whether CBD actually relieves pain or whether its perceived benefits are the result of expectations.
As more U.S. states ease regulations on marijuana, cannabis' second-most widely used compound, cannabidiol (CBD), has become one of the world's fastest-growing industries. Currently worth more than $1 billion, the industry is expected to grow to $16 billion by 2025. And that's largely due to the perceived therapeutic benefits of CBD.
One of the top three reasons people consume CBD is to treat chronic pain, according to a cross-sectional study of more than 2,400 CBD users. But can CBD actually treat pain?
Putting CBD to the test
A new study published in Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology is the first to explore that question using experimental pain trials. The results suggest that CBD really does treat pain, rather than just delivering a placebo effect at prices that sometimes match dispensary-grade marijuana.
"For science and the public at large the question remained, is the pain relief that CBD users claim to experience due to pharmacological effects or placebo effects," Martin De Vita, a researcher in the psychology department in the College of Arts and Sciences, said in a press release.
"That's a fair question because we know that simply telling someone that a substance has the ability to relieve their pain can actually cause robust changes in their pain sensitivity. These are called expectancy effects."
To differentiate between expectancy effects and genuine pharmacological effects, the researchers asked 15 healthy adults to participate in a study involving a device that induces controlled levels of heat pain. After assessing participants' initial response to the heat pain, they completed four sessions, each of which involved taking pure CBD oil or a placebo.
But the participants weren't always correctly told which was which. The sessions were structured like this:
- Participants were told the substance was a placebo, and were given a placebo
- Told it was CBD, given placebo
- Told it was placebo, given CBD
- Told it was CBD, given CBD
By structuring the study this way, the researchers "could parse out whether it was the drug that relieved the pain, or whether it was the expectation that they had received the drug that reduced their pain," De Vita said.
Human CBD Receptor ChartAbout time via Adobe Stock
"We hypothesized that we would primarily detect expectancy-induced placebo analgesia (pain relief). What we found though after measuring several different pain outcomes is that it's actually a little bit of both. That is, we found improvements in pain measures caused by the pharmacological effects of CBD and the psychological effects of just expecting that they had gotten CBD. It was pretty remarkable and surprising."
CBD didn't seem to reduce pain intensity, but participants who consumed it did report reductions in the unpleasantness of pain — even when they were told they were consuming a placebo. While reducing pain intensity might seem like the preferable metric, De Vita noted that pain exists not only in a sensory dimension but also an emotional one.
Effects of cannabidiol and expectancies on pain. Credit: De Vita et al.
"It's not sunshine and rainbows pleasant, but something slightly less bothersome," he said. "We replicated that in this study and found that CBD and expectancies didn't significantly reduce the volume of the pain, but they did make it less unpleasant—it didn't bother them as much."
Ultimately, the researchers said they were surprised to find that CBD's pain-relieving attributes extend beyond mere expectancy. But understanding exactly how CBD interacts with the body's pain-response processes, and how its analgesic aspects might help treat other conditions like anxiety, remain topics for further study.
Of the world's 300 honey varieties, none is stranger and more dangerous than mad honey.
- Mad honey is produced by bees who feed on specific species of rhododendron plants, which grow in mountainous regions like those surrounding the Black Sea.
- People have used mad honey for centuries for recreational, medicinal, and military purposes. Low doses cause euphoria and lightheadedness, while high doses cause hallucinations and, in rare cases, death.
- Mad honey is still harvested and sold today, though it's illegal in some nations.
On the mountainsides of Nepal and Turkey, bees produce a strange and dangerous concoction: mad honey.
It's a rare variety of the natural fluid. Compared to the several hundred other types of honey produced around the world, mad honey is redder and slightly more bitter tasting, and it comes from the world's largest honey bee, Apis dorsata laboriosa.
Mad about honey
But what really distinguishes mad honey are its physiological effects. In lower doses, mad honey causes dizziness, lightheadedness, and euphoria. Higher doses can cause hallucinations, vomiting, loss of consciousness, seizures, and, in rare cases, death.
Here's one account of what it's like to take a moderate dose of mad honey, provided by a VICE producer who traveled to Nepal to join mad honey hunters on a harvesting expedition:
"I ate two teaspoons, the amount recommended by the honey hunters, and after about 15 minutes, I started to feel a high similar to weed," wrote David Caprara for VICE.
"I felt like my body was cooling down, starting from the back of my head and down through my torso. A deep, icy hot feeling settled in my stomach and lasted for several hours. The honey was delicious, and though a few of the hunters passed out from eating a bit too much, no one suffered from the projectile vomiting or explosive diarrhea I'd been warned about."
Here's another account from Will Brendza at The Rooster:
"Within 40ish minutes I could feel the honey creeping up on me. The back of my head started to tingle, like I was getting a scalp massage. Then, from within, I felt a warmth around my heart, in my chest and abdomen. Things slowed down a little, and my state of mind became tranquil. By the time we left the restaurant I was feeling good and strange."
"There are no visuals, though. The high is very much a bodily one and a mental one; a warm and relaxed sensation more like a sedative than your conventional psychedelic."
What is mad honey?
The psychoactive effects of mad honey stem not from bees but from what bees feed on in certain regions: a genus of flowering plants called rhododendrons. All species of these plants contain a group of neurotoxic compounds called grayanotoxins. When bees feed on the nectar and pollen of certain types of rhododendrons, the insects ingest grayanotoxins, which eventually make their way into the bees' honey, effectively making it "mad."
Rhododendron ferrugineumCredit albert kok
Bees are more likely to produce mad honey when and where rhododendrons are dominating. The reason has to do with scarcity: With fewer types of plants to feed on, the insects feed almost solely on rhododendrons, so they consume more grayanotoxins. The result is especially pure mad honey.
But accessing honeycombs that contain mad honey can be difficult. One reason is that rhododendrons grow best in higher altitudes, and bees often build their hives on cliffs near the plants, meaning harvesters have to climb mountainsides to harvest the honey.
However, harvesters bold enough to go for the honeycombs stand to profit. The Guardian reported that a kilogram of high-quality mad honey can sell for about $360 in shops around Turkey, while National Geographic noted that a pound of mad honey goes for about $60 on Asian black markets. In general, the value of mad honey is much higher than regular honey.
That's partly because many people believe mad honey has more medical value than regular honey. In the Black Sea region and beyond, people use it to treat conditions like hypertension, diabetes, arthritis, and
sore throat, though the research on the medical benefits of hallucinogenic honey from Nepal and Turkey is unclear.
In northeastern Asia, some buyers believe mad honey treats erectile dysfunction, which might explain why the majority of cases of mad honey poisonings involve middle-aged men, as noted in a 2018 report published in the journal RSC Advances.
How does mad honey affect the body?
Although the medicinal benefits of mad honey aren't clear, what's certain is that humans can be poisoned by consuming too much grayanotoxin-rich honey, which can cause dangerous decreases to blood pressure and heart rate.
Forensic toxicologist Justin Brower elaborated on his blog, Nature's Poisons:
"Grayanotoxins exert their toxicity by binding to sodium ion channels on cell membranes and preventing them from closing quickly, like aconitine. The result is a state of depolarization in which sodium ions are freely flowing into the cells, and calcium influx is on the rise."
This process can lead to a series of symptoms involving increased sweating, salivation, and nausea, Brower said, noting that symptoms typically disappear within 24 hours, as they did for a man in Seattle who suffered mad honey poisoning in 2011. While the exact amount of mad honey it takes to become poisoned depends on the individual and the quality of the honey, the 2018 RSC Advances report noted:
"Consumption of about 15-30 g mad honey leads to intoxication, and symptoms appear after half to 4 [hours]. The level of intoxication not only depends on the amount of mad honey consumed but also on the grayanotoxin concentration in the honey and the season of production. According to Ozhan et al., consumption of one teaspoon of mad honey may lead to poisoning."
Although Turkey records about a dozen cases of mad honey poisonings per year, a 2012 study published in Cardiovascular Toxicology noted that it's rare for people to die from the substance, though cases of animal deaths have been reported.
Mad honey throughout history
The strange effects of mad honey have captivated people near the Black Sea for millennia. One of the oldest accounts comes from 401 BCE, when Greek soldiers were marching through the Turkish town of Trabzon and came across a bounty of mad honey. The Athenian military leader and philosopher Xenophon wrote in his book Anabasis:
"The number of bee-hives was extraordinary, and all the soldiers that ate of the combs, lost their senses, vomited, and were affected with purging, and none of them were able to stand upright; such as had eaten only a little were like men greatly intoxicated, and such as had eaten much were like mad-men, and some like persons at the point of death."
"They lay upon the ground, in consequence, in great numbers, as if there had been a defeat; and there was general dejection. The next day no one of them was found dead; and they recovered their senses about the same hour that they had lost them on the preceding day; and on the third and fourth days they got up as if after having taken physic."
Centuries later, in 67 BCE, Roman soldiers weren't so lucky. As the soldiers pursued King Mithridates of Pontus and his Persian army, they stumbled across mad honey that the Persians had intentionally left behind, intending to use the substance as a bioweapon. Vaughn Bryant, a professor of anthropology at Texas A&M University, explained in a press release:
"The Persians gathered pots full of local honey and left them for the Roman troops to find. They ate the honey, became disoriented and couldn't fight. The Persian army returned and killed over 1,000 Roman troops with few losses of their own."
But mad honey was more often used for nonviolent purposes. People in the Black Sea region have long consumed small amounts of the substance (about a teaspoon's worth), in boiling milk or on its own, both for pleasure and as a folk medicine.
In the 18th century, merchants in the Black Sea region sold honey to the Europeans, who infused liquor with a bit of the substance to enjoy its milder effects.
Mad honey today
Today, beekeepers in Nepal and Turkey still harvest mad honey, though it represents a small fraction of the nations' total honey production. Both countries allow the production, sale, and exportation of mad honey, but the substance is illegal in other nations, like South Korea, which banned the substance in 2005.
While interested buyers in the U.S. can purchase mad honey from countries like Nepal and Turkey, it might be worth sticking with the regular stuff. After all, the handful of experiences posted on the website of the non-profit psychedelic research organization Erowid.org don't sound too enticing.
One user said they "wouldn't even recommend trying it." Another user suffered mad honey poisoning after taking too much, writing that the "symptoms can seem life threatening" and that they hope their report might help "some poor bastard out there not make the same mistake."
Growing marijuana in large, climate controlled warehouses is good for production but has a massive carbon footprint.
- A new study finds that the kilo of marijuana can come with a carbon footprint of up to five tonnes.
- The exact value differs by state, with climate and the availability of clean energy being important factors.
- Alternatives to growing the plant in warehouses can drastically reduce emissions.
At the time of writing, marijuana is legal in 14 of the United States and decriminalized or permitted for medical purposes in 16 more. Several other territories have taken similar steps as well. After a long and costly drug war, the political and cultural momentum behind decriminalizing marijuana appears to be unstoppable.
However, these legal changes have ramifications for how the plant is tended. While past growing methods focused on balancing the need to keep the plant hidden with botanical concerns, modern techniques are increasingly focused on mastering industrial-scale production within legal limits. Indoor growing is a popular answer for both situations, keeping warrant-less prying eyes away in one case while also allowing for heightened security and climate control in another.
These operations cost a small fortune to maintain the needed apparatus. Since cultivators have come out of hiding and industrialized, the costs involved have only grown. Modern indoor facilities consider the temperature, humidity, and even the composition of the air and how they affect their plants — all of which call for equipment that eats electricity like it has the munchies.
Information on how much pollution these operations were creating has been lacking up until now. A new study published in Nature Sustainability measures the carbon cost of industrial marijuana production in every state and considers ways to make the green stuff a little more green.
The hippies finally got their legal weed at a high cost to the environment? How Faustian!
The study uses a model based on the actual operating procedures of a modern warehouse-style growing system, like the kind used by 41 percent of producers who sell in the legal market.
It accounts for factors like the warehouse's HVAC system, which replaces the air in the room an average of 30 times an hour, the air conditioning, the heating, the humidity control, the lighting, the cost of producing supplemental CO2 to aid plant growth, the costs of the average irrigation system, and other elements of production and distribution. Information for different locations can be plugged in, areas with climates unsuited for growing the plant will incur higher temperature control costs, and the required electricity be calculated.
This information can be compared to the known carbon cost per kilowatt-hour in a given area. The results of feeding different information into this model can be seen on this map:
The carbon price of producing marijuana in a modern warehouse by area in the 50 states and DC.
Credit: Jason Quinn et al.
As certain stereotypes would lead you to suspect, southern California can produce marijuana at the lowest environmental cost, caused both by a reduced need for climate control and the abundance of renewable energy in the local grid. The highest costs were incurred in Hawaii, partly due to the burning of oil to produce power on the islands and the large carbon footprint this creates. Differences across the country can be explained in similar terms, with some areas needing lots of carbon-intensive electricity to produce cannabis and others having cleaner energy or more suitable climates.
Across the country, the price of a kilogram of cannabis flowers, the part which is smoked, ranges from around two to five tonnes of carbon dioxide.
I spoke with several "experts" who agreed that the typical American joint has roughly .3 grams of marijuana in it. Using the above data, we can estimate that your regular smoke requires just over one kilo of greenhouse gases to produce, equivalent to burning an eighth of a gallon of gasoline. For comparison, a single bottle of beer might produce half that, and the footprint of an entire bottle of wine is only slightly higher.
What can be done about these emissions?
The authors point out that most of these environmental costs, perhaps 80 percent, are tied to the methods used to grow the plant indoors and can be reduced by making outdoor cultivation feasible. Such a shift would have noteworthy effects on a state's overall carbon footprint. As the study says:
"If indoor cannabis cultivation were to be fully converted to outdoor production, these preliminary estimates show that the state of Colorado, for example, would see a reduction of more than 1.3% in the state's annual [greenhouse gas] emissions."
Such a switch would reduce the carbon footprint of the plant's production by 96 percent. If the change were instead from warehouses into greenhouses, the cut would be a still substantial 43 percent, and the various benefits of growing the planet inside, such as security, would remain.
Additionally, large variations between indoor operations exist as well, some of which are not fully described in the above map. In Colorado, for example, the carbon cost of growing marijuana in Leadville is 19 percent higher than it is in Pueblo, primarily due to differences in climate. If state regulations allowed cannabis grown in Pueblo to be sold in Leadville, the net carbon emissions would fall even after accounting for transportation. The same might be said for interstate sales, though that seems further off.
In the heady rush to legalize marijuana, the question of how this would impact the environment seems to have slipped past state legislatures, producers, and consumers. General efforts to lower greenhouse gas emissions will have to take the production of a drug that 13 percent of American adults use each year into account.