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October 28th, 2009 12:00 am JAMES PITKIN | News Stories

Natural Selection

IMAGE: Photos by Thomas Martinez | Illustrations by Jill Bliss

It’s incredible what some people will do for a buzz.

Every autumn when the rains hit, a few committed Portlanders emerge from their heated homes and crawl through soaking fields. The fall drenching brings liberty caps and other mind-altering mushrooms that sprout in damp meadows in the Willamette Valley and along the Oregon Coast.

And just as the annual shroom harvest comes around, Oregonians who rely on medical marijuana also have reason to celebrate: Last week the Obama administration announced it would no longer allow federal law enforcement to crack down on pot patients or the growers who supply their medicine.

But not everyone benefits from Obama’s rationality or nature’s bounty. For healthy Oregonians, reefer remains legally off-limits. And those lucky enough to find psychedelic mushrooms in the wild still face felony charges if caught with their booty.

Both the mushroom hunt and Obama’s call-off-the-dogs decision are reminders that not all mind-altering plants are equal under the law. But chemically curious adults can still experiment legally with a little-known but rich pharmacopeia of locally available, natural highs.

So, while the DIY mushroom hunters are pulling on rain gear and heading outdoors in search of forbidden fruit, others are staying high and dry by sampling a crop of legal psychoactive plants found right here in the city limits.

Bob Keith may know more about this than anyone.

A self-described aging hippie, Keith, 64, has been supplying Portlanders with rare and organically grown herbs for 31 years at his Dragon Herbarium shop on Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway in Southwest Portland. His mind-altering drugs are sold to adults only.

Among the funky minerals, T-shirts, glass pipes and tarot cards on sale in Keith’s shop are a number of plants and herbs that contain a legal kick. The best known is salvia divinorum, a powerful psychoactive weed that remains above-board in Oregon and most other states.

Keith says salvia sales surged in 2002 after Oregonian scribe Margie Boulé wrote a column about the supposed dangers of the plant. “All it did was cause a rash of people wanting to know where they could get it,” says Keith, who claims he got 50 calls the next day.

These days the drug of choice for Keith’s customers is kratom, a tree leaf from Southeast Asia that delivers a mix of energy, euphoria and pain relief. Keith says sales have surged in the past five months.

“It’s kind of the workingman’s drug,” he says. “Everybody’s playing with it.”

As a guide for adults in search of a legal high, we’re offering information on seven plants that are not only legal but available in Portland.

Some, like Salvia divinorum, have had their share of notoriety in the press. But salvia’s overpowering hallucinations preclude it from the party-drug set. For now, most of these plants remain relatively obscure except to the chemical connoisseurs among us. Even Keith’s bigger seller, kratom, brings in only about 10 regular customers, he says.

While certain Portlanders seek out their next buzz outside, here’s how a handful of heads are exploring altered states without sweating about the weather or the police.

Disclaimer: All drugs are potentially addictive, and none—even an organically grown herb—is entirely safe. We’ve included specific health warnings for each plant, but these precautions are not a substitute for your own judgment and research, including consulting your doctor. Avoid drugs while pregnant, and never take drugs and drive.

San Pedro Cactus

Active ingredient: Mescaline
Also known as: Buttons, mescal
Health warnings: Possible side effects of mescaline include anxiety, high heart rate, dizziness and vomiting. Hallucinogens are not recommended for people in fragile mental health.
Background: Buying one of these 2-foot-long cactuses is a legal option for scoring mescaline, a psychedelic alkaloid that’s banned as a Schedule 1 drug by the DEA. But the trip is a bitch to achieve. You have to consume the entire nasty-tasting cactus—either raw, or dried and crushed into a huge pile of powder that can be mixed into a beverage. Or 10.
Effects: Mescaline’s most famous booster, author Aldous Huxley, promised that most users “experience only the heavenly part of schizophrenia.” Sensations include the feeling of being a mind in a wind-up toy, plus synesthesia, when you hear colors and see music. The visual effects are stunning, with objects breaking into geometric shapes and TV static swirling into three-dimensional galaxies.
Duration: 12 hours
Price per dose: $25
Popular with: Cubists, florists and aspiring competitive eaters.


Also known as:Herbal Viagra
Active ingredient:Yohimbine
Health warnings: Yohimbe should not be mixed with alcohol.
Background: The bark of the yohimbe tree has been used for centuries as an aphrodisiac in its native West Africa. Westerners discovered it a century ago and have used it ever since to boost sex drive, treat erectile dysfunction and help women reach orgasm.
Effects: It’s easy to cry “placebo effect” for any drug that claims to up the libido. But researchers at the National Polytechnic Institute of Mexico have shown yohimbe reverses sexual exhaustion in male rats, and Japanese scientists have linked the drug to greater volumes of semen ejaculation in dogs. Getting aroused yet?
Duration: Two hours
Price per dose:$1
Popular with:Aging hippies and AARP-ers too embarrassed to ask for Cialis.


Also known as: Ska pastora, diviner’s sage, Salvia divinorum
Active ingredient: Salvinorin A
Health warnings:Salvia is a harsh smoke and can irritate the throat and lungs. It’s also an extremely powerful hallucinogen that should not be used by anyone in fragile mental health.
Background:The Mazatec Indians in Mexico have been using salvia for centuries to induce sacred visions and perform healing ceremonies. Now it’s used by American kids who post videos of themselves on YouTube laughing and falling into a stupor. Those videos have prompted a handful of states to outlaw the drug, but Oregonians can still use salvia legally to access the divine truth or film themselves drooling.
Effects: Some swear Salvia divinorum is the most extreme psychoactive plant ever discovered, but the effects vary greatly by dose. Smaller amounts lead to a stony head-buzz; larger helpings bring potentially terrifying full-scale visions. A sober babysitter is recommended—one Portlander tripped alone in his garage and woke up in the living room, naked with no memories. He has still not found his clothes.
Duration: Five minutes if smoked, one hour if chewed
Price per dose: $5
Popular with: Spiritualists on a tight schedule.


Also known as: Thang, kakuam, ketum
Active ingredients: Several tryptamine alkaloids
Health warnings: Kratom is addictive if used regularly. Longtime users develop weight loss, and the withdrawal symptoms include muscle spasms, irritability and diarrhea.
Background: Kratom is illegal in its native Malaysia, Thailand and Myanmar, where laborers chew the leaves to make it through the work day. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has placed kratom on its list of drugs of concern, but it’s still legal for now. Bob Keith at Dragon Herbarium says he’s seen a growing number of users here, mostly casual but with a few regulars.
Effects: Different doses provide vastly different experiences. Small amounts (2-6 grams) give a chatty energy buzz and a feeling of euphoria—you’ll seek out something to occupy yourself and have a damn fine time doing it. Bigger doses are a painkiller that leaves you sleepy and numb. Users stuff the nasty-tasting powdered leaves into capsules or mix them with a beverage like grapefruit juice to kill the flavor. They also use citrus juices to heighten the effects.
Duration: Five hours
Price per dose: $5
Popular with: The 23 Portlanders who still have jobs.


Also known as: Awa, ava, yaqona
Active ingredients: Kavalactones
Health warnings: Reports of liver toxicity have prompted some countries to ban kava but those reports are hotly disputed by the drug’s advocates. Other users have reported nausea and scaly skin.
Background: Pacific Islanders traditionally sipped a drink made from kava root during ceremonies and holidays. Today it’s drunk at weddings and parties, or to kick back with friends at the end of the day. Western companies are now pimping kava extract as alternative medicine for insomnia, pain and anxiety.
Effects: Kava is the Polynesian Valium, inducing a chilled-out state of numbed bliss while maintaining mental alertness. But unless you buy one of the ready-made supplements, the preparation can be a bitch, mixing the ground-up root with cold water and oil, then straining it through a piece of cheesecloth. Some find the process relaxing—others prefer to pop a pill.
Duration: Three hours
Price per dose: $2
Popular with: Stressed-out craft circles.

Syrian Rue

Also known as: Harmal
Active ingredient: Harmaline
Health warnings: Syrian rue should not be mixed with alcohol, amphetamines, pseudoephedrine, nasal sprays or decongestants.
Background:Mainly known in the western U.S. as an annoying invasive weed, Syrian rue has long been used in the Middle East as a ceremonial drug and antidepressant, and it has also been used to treat depression in the West. Recreational users crush the seeds, which are then smoked or soaked in lemon juice overnight.
Effects: If you had a bar stocked with hippie drugs, Syrian rue would be the tonic. A so-called MAO inhibitor, it boosts serotonin and dopamine, enhancing the effects of LSD, magic mushrooms, DMT and other psychedelics. It also has mild psychedelic effects when taken alone, but the shimmery visuals can also include less pleasant feelings of numbness, confusion and loss of coordination.
Duration: One hour
Price per dose: $2
Ideal users: Those who are bored with the same old temporary insanity.


Also known as: Turnera diffusa, old woman’s broom
Active ingredients: Various alkaloids
Health warning: Damiana can cause headaches, sleeplessness and diarrhea.
Background: A flowering shrub native to Texas, Mexico and Central America, damiana has long enjoyed a reputation as an aphrodisiac and a general tonic for nervousness. Damiana liqueur is popular around Los Cabos in Mexico, where marketers claim it was a key ingredient in the original margarita recipe.
Effects: Alternative-medicine companies market damiana extract as an aphrodisiac, but Portland heads more commonly use the leaves as a substitute for, or accompaniment to, marijuana. Roll a bit with a cigarette, or hit it alone in a pipe, and the effects are a mild, relaxing buzz. Nonsmokers can blend it in tea.
Duration: Two hours
Price per dose: Infinitesimal—it goes for $1.30 an ounce.
Ideal users: Stoners hit by the recession.

Most of the plants in this story are available at Dragon Herbarium, 4638 SW Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway. Silver Spoon, a head shop at 8521 SW Barbur Blvd., sells kratom and salvia from a Vancouver, B.C.-based company.

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