Isaac Campos: Today’s Synthetic Drugs Provoking New Reefer Madness

Home Grown: Marijuana and the Origins of Mexico's War on Drugs, by Isaac CamposFor anyone who hopes to understand the deep and complex origins of marijuana’s controversial place in North American history, Isaac Campos’s new book Home Grown: Marijuana and the Origins of Mexico’s War on Drugs is an indispensable guide. In this guest post, Campos compares recent reports of mania induced from synthetic drugs to reports of similar behavior from marijuana in Mexico a century ago.—ellen

Synthetic drugs, from “bath salts” that mimic the effects of cocaine, methamphetamine, and LSD, to “synthetic marijuana,” are the latest drug menaces to throw panic into parents and authorities across the country. These drugs are being blamed for both health problems in their users and freakish behavioral outcomes. A recent investigative piece on the website Economy Watch, for example, reported the following:

More horror stories emerged from around the US. They ranged from the tragic to the utterly bizarre, but each one involved hallucinations and psychosis. In Kentucky, a mother high on Bath Salts abandoned her two-year-old son along a highway after imagining he was a demon; in West Virginia, a man dressed up in a bra and panties stabbed his neighbour’s pygmy goat to death; in Hawaii, a man threw his girlfriend off an 11th-floor balcony while high on Spice; in Fulton, Mississippi, a man slit his face and stomach with a hunting knife after Bath Salts-induced hallucinations.

But the most notorious case involved 18-year-old David Rozga, from Indianola (Iowa). He got high on K2, then complained to a friend “that he felt like he was in hell”. Despite never having suffered from depression, he returned home and killed himself with a shotgun.

According to Dr. Mark Ryan, director of the Louisiana Poison Center, “Many of the users describe extreme paranoia. . . . The recurring theme is monsters, demons, and aliens. A lot of them had suicidal thoughts.”

As a historian of drugs, and specifically of marijuana in North America, much of this sounds familiar. A century ago in Mexico it was commonly reported that marijuana use sent people into wild bouts of paranoid madness, usually resulting in violence. Users were often described as recklessly “running amok” through the streets as they fled the demons they believed pursued them.

I’ve spent the better part of the last decade trying to understand the origins of these reports, which were not only widespread, but whose veracity was virtually never challenged in any of the sources of the time. You may be surprised by my conclusions: in my view, the most plausible explanation is that marijuana did occasionally help to spur violent incidents and “mad” behavior—not because marijuana necessarily causes such effects, but because the social and cultural environment of marijuana use in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Mexico made such outcomes possible.

Psychopharmacologists have long recognized that the behavioral effects of drugs are dictated by a complex tangle of pharmacology, psychology, and culture, or “drug, set, and setting.” Drugs do not produce behavioral effects simply through the interaction between their chemical compounds and our brains. Their effects are deeply colored by our own psychology and by the broader setting of the drug use, both social and cultural. Given these facts, the seemingly bizarre descriptions of marijuana’s effects in turn-of-the-century Mexico appear less implausible.

Marijuana is a psychotomimetic drug. That is, it can mimic certain symptoms often associated with psychosis, including paranoia, panic reactions, and even hallucinations (at high doses). Combined with the historical circumstances of marijuana use in Mexico, which I thoroughly detail in Home Grown, it seems quite plausible that marijuana did occasionally produce bouts of “mad” behavior and even violence in Mexico a century ago (though certainly not all of such reports were legitimate; some were exaggerations by the press, others efforts by criminals to invoke the insanity defense). Of course such reactions have virtually disappeared as a stable culture of cannabis use has developed in North America over the last century, and today the drug is associated more with relaxation and the munchies than madness and violence.

Have the recently reported bizarre behaviors related to synthetic drugs been primarily caused by these chemical compounds or by the set and setting of their ingestion? The answer is still unclear, but history and science suggest that anxiety produced by unfamiliarity with these drugs and the accompanying horror stories in the press are probably contributing in some way.

Other historical cases certainly suggest as much. In 1970, for example, Andrew Weil published a fascinating paper in the New England Journal of Medicine which examined various adverse effects experienced by marijuana users. Based on his work with hundreds of patients during his time both as a medical researcher in Boston and as a practicing physician in San Francisco, Weil argued that adverse reactions to marijuana, especially panic attacks, were not uncommon, but that these reactions were generally made significantly worse by physicians who diagnosed them, in the fashion of the day, as “acute cannabis psychosis.” Those diagnoses served only to convince the patient that he or she was experiencing a serious mental breakdown, a conviction that tended to make their condition even worse. On the other hand, he found that if a physician simply explained to a panicky patient that he or she was merely experiencing a normal side effect from an especially large dose of marijuana, while reassuring them that they would quickly recover, their panic reactions tended to rapidly recede.

Similarly, in the mid-1960s major medical centers reported that as many as one-third of their patients were landing there thanks to the use of newly fashionable psychotomimetic drugs like LSD. The sociologist Howard Becker, who was familiar with the developing literature on “drug, set, and setting,” hypothesized that these hospitalizations were being produced by the combination of users’ unfamiliarity with the drugs and a larger cultural environment that associated the drugs with permanent psychosis, suicide, and murder. Becker predicted that as the hysteria around LSD use began to diminish, so would the negative reactions that had led so many people to seek emergency medical care. He proved prophetic. Though the numbers of new users of psychedelics would continue to rise sharply until around 1973, in the late sixties, as psychedelic use became more mainstream, the numbers of people hospitalized with psychotic reactions to these substances dropped precipitously.

It may be, of course, that the chemical compounds in synthetic marijuana and “bath salts” are primarily responsible for these behavioral anomalies. We simply don’t yet have all the facts. But as we try and sort them out, history and science suggest that we should tread carefully, for in the world of drugs, the larger discourses that we construct with our words and actions have serious consequences.

Isaac Campos is assistant professor of history at the University of Cincinnati. Follow him on Twitter @isaac_campos.