Berkeley Talks transcript: Neurobiologist David Presti on the ritual use of psychoactive plants

Adam Nilsen: Okay. Welcome everyone. We’re going to get started. My name is Adam Nilsen and I’m the head of education and interpretation here at the Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology. We’re not here at the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology right now, so that’s somewhat misspeaking but it is right down the hall. So I hope that you have had a chance, if you haven’t already, to check out the exhibit that this talk is a part of we just opened last week, our new exhibit called Pleasure, Poison, Prescription, Prayer: The Worlds of Mind-Altering Substances, which features objects from the Hearst collection of 3.9 million objects from around the world, spending 2 million years from every inhabited continent. So, in our gallery down the hall, you will find a selection of objects representing 10 mind-altering substances, that all tell different stories of the complexities of the meanings and migrations and uses and altering perceptions of mind-altering substances from around the world.

We’re glad you’re here tonight because this is the first in our series of really fabulous events over the course of the next several months that relate to this exhibit. We have, a series of talks, we also have programming for families, you might ask about family programming, about mind-altering substances, but we promise that your kids will… It’ll be a wholesome experience for all. I want to thank our staff, especially Katy Fleming and Jessica Moreno for putting together this event tonight. And so on behalf of all of our staff, we welcome you. I am going to interview… introduce David Presti tonight. David E. Presti teaches neurobiology, psychology and cognitive science at UC Berkeley here, where he’s been on the faculty in Molecular and Cell Biology for 28 years. His classes are on topics related to brain, mind, consciousness, neurochemistry, and psychopharmacology, and they typically reach more than 1,400 Berkeley students every year. For more than a decade. He worked in the treatment of addiction and posttraumatic stress disorder at the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in San Francisco.

And for the past 15 years, he’s been teaching neuroscience and conversing about science with Tibetan Buddhist monastics in India, Bhutan and Nepal. And he is the author of Foundational Concepts in Neuroscience: A Brain-Mind Odyssey published in 2016 and of Mind Beyond Brain published in 2018. So we’re pleased to have him here tonight. And note that this talk will actually also be available as a podcast on Berkeley Talk, so you couldn’t tell your friends and family if they missed the talk that they can find it there. And like I said, our exhibit down the hall, please do check it out if you haven’t already and know that tonight we’re actually open until 8 p.m., so probably there will be time at the end of the talk if you wanted to swing by. So, thank you again for being here and welcome to David Presti. Thank you.

David Presti: Thank you very much, it really is a pleasure to be here. My screensaver popped on. These are photographs from Palestine and Israel last summer. First of all, this is such a cool exhibit and I’ve not really had time to dig down into it, but the bits and pieces I’ve seen have been fabulous. So I encourage you all to check that out at length at some point if you haven’t already. It’s really awesome that the enthusiasm around the campus and the community is high for this, particular topic.

But I accept it. It is a great title. I love Pleasure, Poison, Prescription, Prayer, it really captures so much that’s of essential importance about mind-altering substances, and it’s just a privilege to be here, part of your lecture series and cheerleading squad for this exhibition and for the field of anthropology in general. I mean, I’m a biologist and a psychologist, but my deep interest in that area is the nature of the human mind and consciousness, and what’s going on with that and how can we expand the scientific discussion around that topic. And there are many different ways into that territory, mind-altering substances is one of them, and the whole field of anthropology is a huge another vector into an expanding understanding of the nature of who we are and our place in the world, so more power to anthropology

It’s great to see all these big placards around the campus. This is one on the main pathway that I took yesterday going to the campanile. There was another thing that speaks to it. That’s the same spot, that’s like three or four years ago. You do not see coca cola trucks on the campus now because the campus contract, the drug purveyors of caffeinated beverages is now Pepsi rather than coke. Overnight, all of the coke machines were replaced with Pepsi machines when that contract switch happened. It was very like sneaky. So one of my favorite words that really captures the essence of this subject really well is this word pharmacon, which comes from the ancient Greek. It’s the root of course, of our words, pharmacy, and pharmaceutical and pharmacology and all of that.

And the cool thing about this word is it means medicine and poison at the same time. And that’s a really, really important notion. And that same notion of course, is captured in the title of this exhibition, poison and prescription, that’s poison and medicine essentially. Then pleasure and prayer, speak to other aspects of it that are also important. But this idea that what we call drugs or medicines or whatever are also poisons always, and you can’t separate those two facets of what they are, the medicine and the poison is really, really important and all too often forgotten. We assume if we get something at a pharmacy that’s a prescription medicine, that of course it can’t be a poison, it’s just a medicine and then other things like some drug that we’ve heard of like heroin or cocaine or something like that.

Well of course that’s just a poison that doesn’t have any medicinal qualities to it. But really they all have all of it. And the other thing I feel is a really important aspect of these medicines and poisons is that many of them have enjoyed long histories of association with humanity and with cultures, and they had been considered as allies. Things that the people draw upon as sources of support and strength, a friend, an ally who helps you out when you’re in trouble, and allies have power, otherwise wouldn’t be very useful to have such a thing, such an entity as an ally if it were a wimp, that wouldn’t be very helpful. So allies have power, and that power has been historic respected and revered and appreciated for its awesomeness. And that gave rise to the development of ritual around the use of psychoactive substances. So historically, mind-altering plants in human societies were treated with respect and reverence.

And their use revolved around ritual. Ritual is related to the Greek ritus which means right. And so ritual is something that has a prescribed set of sort of delineated activities associated with the use of these subs or with whatever. And in this case with the use of a substance. And it’s a way really of bringing mindful, focused attention to the process of whatever the use is. I like this sign here that was advertising a coffee shop just to a couple of blocks from here down west on Bancroft from here a few years ago. It’s not there anymore, Stimulating Conversation. So the idea being that the ritual of sitting down and having coffee together is also a springboard for having interesting conversations and so forth.

So let’s start with coffee. Now, there are lots and lots and lots of mind-altering substances and way more than we can talk about in 45 minutes to an hour or whatever, I want to leave time for questions and so forth. So I’ve decided to just do something really relatively brief on each of the 10 things that are mentioned in this exhibition down the hall. And there are many more things, and some of these other things will be spoken to by other folks in evening presentations like this over the coming months. I teach a whole class in the fall semester here called Drugs in the Brain, it has 600 plus students in it generally. And for each of these substances, there’s anywhere from an hour, and a half to four hours of lecture, and some things I can just go on and on and on forever about like tobacco or something like that. And coffee is another one of those things where I just possibly could talk for days about coffee.

Again, historically coffee emerges out of northeastern Africa. Maybe 1,000 years ago, it started to percolate up out of there into the Middle East. And 500 years ago there were cafes springing up in Europe and eventually not too long after that, in the what’s now the United Kingdom. And it really took off from there. But in North Eastern Africa it’s probably been around much longer and was always consumed in a very respectful, ritual way, and in small quantities that were quite strong and concentrated and often flavored with spices and so forth. There’s the plant, beautiful, aromatic white flowers, and then these berries that develop like cherries, they’re called coffee cherries. And then within the cherry are two seeds that become what we call coffee beans. Then they’re dried and fermented and roasted and then ground to make coffee.

We’re familiar with some of our local legends, this is of course, Alfred Peet who founded Pete’s and really was one of the first people to bring the culture of quality coffee to the United States from Europe, from his native Holland, which was really big in coffee because of the historic role of the Dutch in trade beginning back in the 1500s and 1600s. That’s Giovanni Giotta who started Caffé Trieste in San Francisco in the 1950s, and really introduced the Italian tradition of espresso, which was invented in Italy only in the 20th century, into American culture and then they opened the cafe years later in Berkeley. So coffee, which historically has been consumed like that, we know what’s happened to it now. Servings are getting larger and larger and larger, supersizing of the containers and also a detachment from the ritual consumption.

So it’s not uncommon for folks to go into a coffee shop and grab whatever that 917 milliliter thing is, full of coffee and then walk out and get into their car and drive away, or maybe not even get out of their car when they do it, there’re drive thru ones. So it’s a very, very different relationship we have with this sacred ancient, powerfully stimulating beverage just in the last few years really. And I don’t even know what these things are. Is that really coffee? So the other thing about coffee… I love this thing here. It’s like a drive thru oil change and espresso. Hilarious, who would have thought of that? But it really speaks to the culture of stimulants that we live in. A culture of speed. And not everyone is a caffeine consumer, but the majority of adults in the world are caffeine consumers and certainly in the United States.

And so even if you yourself are not consuming caffeine on a regular basis, probably most of the people around you are. So the culture is driven by the engagement with a powerful stimulant drug that as some have said, was the perfect drug for capitalism or for mercantilism. Because, in the early days when coffee hit Europe, they had no connection with any kind of stimulant beverage. They drink beer. They got up in the morning, and they drink beer for breakfast, because the water was often sketchy ad beer was somewhat sterile because of the alcohol. So the idea of getting up in the morning and being stimulated and going out there and do it a bunch of stuff, accomplishing just didn’t happen that way. You’ve got up, and you got drunk and got into fights all day. And it wasn’t just coffee, it was coffee and tea and cacao, the sorts of chocolate that all entered the European’s sphere around the same era in the 1500s and 1600, changed everything.

If you had to read like one book or one set of books on psychoactive substances, I highly recommend these, but they’re not… As Gary Snyder said in his preface to the first volume, they’re not for everyone, but neither is mountaineering. I use these books as the text for my Drugs in the Brain Class, they’re poetic works of ethnobotany, by a dear friend of mine who died last year, Dale Pedal. And I love the way he says this, “It is the very pervasiveness of the intoxication that makes it so invisible. It blends completely with the landscape, it is the landscape.” He’s talking about caffeine. “Caffeine so permeates our world as this powerful stimulant drug that most people are high on that we don’t even notice. And if you ask people to name the top drugs in terms of prevalence of use, they’ll say things like alcohol, tobacco, cannabis, Prozac. They completely miss, caffeine, which is by far the number one most widely use psychoactive or mind-altering substance on the planet.

Every office large or small has its shrine, its alter, its sacred space, however modest to the coffee plant.” Beautifully said. So there have been some molecules that are identified from coffee and from other psychoactive plants like tea and cacao as well, they’re what are collectively called the methylated xanthines. And there’s caffeine, theobromine, and theophylline. They all look very similar, don’t worry about the meaning of these things, if they’re familiar to you, great, if they’re not. There’s just so much of carbon atoms, nitrogen atoms, oxygen’s and hydrogens hooked together with different shapes. In our contemporary biophysical science, which includes chemistry, we explain everything in terms of atoms and molecules and configurations they’re from. We understand the stimulant activity of caffeine or coffee, say, as due to the presence of these molecules in particular caffeine, that interact with the nervous system in a way.

In the case of caffeine, it sticks to a protein receptor called the adenosine receptor, which normally when the endogenous neurotransmitter, adenosine binds to that receptor, produces a slowing down of the nervous system, a decrease excitability and caffeine sticks onto that same receptor and blocks it. So they the normal slowing down or decreased excitability doesn’t happen. So what do you get? You get more excitability and so there’s just more activity somehow and somehow that gets translated into alertness and wakefulness and energy and so forth. Caffeine was identified from coffee in 1820. This is a very important set of events happening around this time about identifying molecules from plants and then saying, “Aha, now we understand the activity of the plant. It’s that molecule.” And that’s what happened with the caffeine.

Tea, another gorgeous psychoactive mind-altering plant, that is native to East Asia, and like coffee has spread around the entire world and has been appreciated by the peoples that lived in East Asia several thousand years ago for its stimulant effects, but it didn’t reach Europe until the 1500, around the same time coffee did. And there’s lots of ceremonial ritual aspects attached to the consumption of tea ranging from Japanese tea ceremonies to British tea ceremonies and so forth. There’s the plant Camellia sinensis. It’s Camellia. There is a tea plantation and northern India, here’s another. So the big three caffeinated or caffeine containing plants or Xanthine containing plants, would be coffee, tea and Theobroma cacao or cacao, the source of chocolate. The very name Theobroma, Theobroma means food of the gods. It was named by Linnaeus, back in the 1700s, who appreciated that in the ancient cultures of Central America where this plant is native, it was revered. It was used in many ritual contexts, the seeds were considered so valuable that they were used as currency.

So the cacao pods grow on trees. It’s a tropical plant, it grows on trees, it grows directly out of the limb as a pod following the flower. It’s very hard, but if you chop it open with a machete, there’s a white stuff inside, and embedded in the white stuff, is a bunch of seeds, maybe 25 or 30 of those seeds and those are the cacao seeds, and those are what become the beans to make what we call chocolates. When you first pull one of these things out of the pod and eat it, it doesn’t taste anything like chocolate. But as soon as it starts to oxidize after exposure to air and ferment a little bit because there’s organisms everywhere that will start changing the chemistry of it, then it very quickly starts to develop the qualities of what we call chocolate. It’s really quite interesting what happens over just a period of a few minutes, 30 minutes, and you can taste the flavor difference. I mean I have just removed those from the pod and there in my hand and they taste like a bitter, fruity flavor.

And different varieties of beans will taste slightly different, but they do not taste like chocolate, at least in my minimal experience of encountering the raw, or the freshly harvested cacao beans. There are many, many graphic depictions from ancient Central America, probably some available in the museum here somewhere, that show engagement in a ritualistic way around beverages and presumably made with cacao. And in the modern days, the beans, after they’re harvested and dried… Well, they’re fermented first, I mean. Most of these things are always fermented that it means you just let them marinade in their own moisture for a few days in the presence of the ambient microbial world, and those micro organisms start to change the flavor. They operate on molecules to make them into other molecules.

So, typically after the cacao beans are removed from the pod, they sit around in a pile for a few days and different farmers will have their different techniques of fermentation, and then they’ll dry them and then they can be shipped. They have some stability at that point, and they can be shipped to wherever the factory is, it’s going to make it into chocolate. So at that point, they’re roasted just in the same way coffee beans are. That’s a roaster. That roaster was at the Scharffen Berger factory in Berkeley, when there used to be a Scharffen Berger factory in Berkeley before it got bought by Hershey’s and turned into part of the machine, but it’s still good chocolate. Somehow they’ve maintained the quality. So, they’re roasted, they’re broken up, then they’re put into this thing called a melangeur, where there’s the big granite slabs that grind it into a paste and then sugar is added and then it’s heated up and tempered and cool down. And that’s what we call chocolate.

And then the sugar is usually a significant component of this ranging from inferior chocolates that may have 80 percent or 75 percent sugar and 20, 25 percent cacao to quality ones that have 70 percent and above, cacao in them. So again, in addition to the stimulant molecules up there in coffee, tea and chocolate, there are lots of flavonoid molecules that are antioxidants. There is many reasons to believe that consumption of all of these things that we’ve talked about here that’s not in excess actually is a healthy thing to do as long as it doesn’t have a lot of sugar in it. So if you’re eating dark chocolate or unsweetened tea and coffee, then that’s… Unless it’s excessive that it has not been shown to be unhealthy, and in part that presumably is due to these antioxidant molecules. There’s also this amino acid called Theanine, which is in green tea, it seems to act in some synergistic ways with the caffeine in there, but it’s not really clear exactly to me yet what’s going on with that. So molecules, lots of molecules.

So at the end of the 19th century, there was a commodification of the stimulant effects of the caffeinated plants in this beverage called Coca Cola, which started out as a competitor for alcohol beverages that contained cocaine. So there were some very, very popular wines, red wine that had marinaded coca leaf in it, and so they had cocaine in it, so people would drink this wine, would have a stimulant effect and chill effect to the wine. But there was also a big temperance movement beginning in the late 19th century, and a lot of people didn’t want the alcohol. So that provided an opportunity for an entrepreneurial pharmacist in Georgia to say, “Okay, well I’ll make a temperance stimulant beverage, won’t have any alcohol in it.” It’ll have coca leaf in it, get some cocaine, and it’ll also have kola nut from Africa, which has caffeine. And he called it Coca Cola.

And it was first marketed in the 1880s. It was called invigorating brain tonic and cure for all nervous afflictions and was a one of the early companies to really exploit advertising to put the product out there in some way. And the cocaine was eventually removed from the recipe. The caffeine was boosted by adding in addition to kola nut, adding a lot of just pure chemical caffeine, which is still the case, and so forth. And of course we’ve seen this whole world of these sorts of things evolve into all kinds of caffeinated soda pop sort of things, but also energy drinks that have way more… They’re basically sugar water with caffeine in them. That’s really what an energy drink is.

And then the ultimate deconstruction of the coffee plant or tea plants or cacao plant is just caffeine pills, stay awake bills, and there are any number of different brands of caffeine pills that are marketed for endurance or to just stay awake and have energy focus and blah, blah. With all of this happening and Frappuccinos and all this, at the same time, it’s very heartening to see that there’s a lot of interest in a return to the ritual artistic qualities of relationship with the plant. So these are only a fraction of local San Francisco Bay Area coffee roasters. Pete started it all, but Pete has now become a much bigger, but these are all relatively small local companies, some of them become bigger like Blue Bottle. But I like ritual even calls itself ritual. It’s honoring the name of this is a ritual engagement with a really awesome, profound, sacred psychoactive substance, the plant.

Okay, next plant. I better speed it up, we’ll never get through this. So Papaver somniferum, the opium poppy native to central and southern Europe and the Mediterranean area. There are written records that go back pretty much as old as we have written records, old Sumerian tablets and so forth that speak to the medicinal properties of opium. So 4,000, 5,000 years old. However, this is what we often currently see related to opium. This is the number of deaths from drug overdoses from 1999 to 2017 in the United States. You can see that in 2017, 72,000 people died in the United States from drug overdoses, 60,000 of them were from opioids, which are related to opium as we’ll see in a minute. So that’s almost 200 people a day dying from a drug overdose, most of which are opioids.

And then if you break that down by what kind of opioid, there’s a bunch from heroin, there’s a bunch from other opioids and by far the highest number is the fentanyl and other synthetics. And so a lot of these things are legally obtained as pills and so forth. Some are synthesized in elicits scenarios and so forth. Of course, we hear though about this a lot, the opioid crisis. It really is a crisis. So what happened? So first of all, what is opium and what are opioids? Poppy is a beautiful plant, people grow it in their yards even though technically it’s illegal because it’s a schedule two controlled substance, but when the petals fall off, you have a seed pod here, this green round thing, and then if it dries and then it deteriorates, then what falls out are poppy seeds. And these are the same poppy seeds we eat on bagels and muffins and whatnot. And you can buy them in seed stores in nurseries and so forth.

They never call him opium poppies. They have disguised names like bread seed poppy. But if you look at what the Latin name is, it’s Papaver somniferum, which is the opium poppy. So if you don’t let it dry and you sliced it open when it’s green, you’d see a bunch of immature seeds in there. But if you don’t slice it all the way open like that, but you just put some slits in it, then after just a few minutes, some gooey stuff begins to dribble out of those slits. And that is opium. Then, in the way that opium is harvested in places where it’s say, growing illicitly to eventually turn it into heroin like Afghanistan for the last 20 years since the United States went there or India, which has a lot of illegal opium poppy farms and so forth for growing medicinal opium from which morphine is made, this is all done by hand.

People are paid to actually walk through there and make the little slices and slicing. It’s only has cost effective because it’s being done in a part of the world where folks are paid very, very, very low wages. If you had to do that in the United States, it would never work to do it this way. But in any case it’s collected and then it can be refined but opium has been used in medicine for thousands of years. And if we go back, say 200 years or 220 years, and we look and see what’s in the pharmacy, there’s a few plants and there’s some weird minerals and stuff like that, and a lot of the stuff worked marginally or sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t, but opium always worked. It was the most effective medicine for a variety of things, pain relief mainly, Analgesia. Number one best pain reliever on the planet, is opium or derivatives that come from it. Analgesia-lytic, reducing anxiety, sedation, producing relaxation, and even sleep, cough suppression, decreased intestinal motility means slowing down the movement of the intestines, which means it’s a good treatment for diarrhea.

And then pupil constriction, which is not really a medical effect, but it’s a physiologic, I think, closing down the pupils of the eyes. So these were the medical uses that it was appreciated for. It was widely distributed as medicines of various kinds in the late 1800s in the United States. These were various things that were just basically alcohol solutions of opium and they were sold as a cough syrups and pain relief for children whom were crying when their teeth came in. This Winslow, soothing syrup for children’s teeth thing and for moms enjoyment at the same time. So this was the epic event of modern pharmacology, of modern natural products chemistry of neurochemistry, I would argue. And that was in 1803, the discovery was made by a young guy in Germany, Friedrich Wilhelm Sertürner, who was a pharmacist assistant 20 years old working in Germany. He was interested in like why opium worked.

Chemistry was beginning to come into its own as a subject. He knew some chemistry, so he was doing various kinds of extractions. And then he manages to purify out of a single molecular species, a single chemical species that he could purify and crystallize he could show it was a pure chemical by measuring its melting point and finding that it was very, very narrow. It wasn’t contaminated, we didn’t have a whole bunch of stuff in there that would melt at different temperatures. And then he ate it and then and gave it to a few of his friends to do a bigger study and determined that the mind-altering effects of opium were substantial captured in this purified substance, except this stuff was much stronger than the opium was. And so he figured he had discovered the active principle, the active chemical principle of opium. He called it morphine named after the Greek God, Morpheus of dreams.

And that was epic because prior to Sertürner’s identification of morphine, nobody had really done that. Nobody had even thought of doing that. I mean, the idea that you could take a plant that had magical medicinal properties to it or a psychoactive properties to it that were coming from who knows where and then show that it was due to some kind of purified crystal and substance in the plant, that was weird, to say the least. But it started a whole sort of movement in German chemistry during the 19th century. Well, it must be true for everything, for all plants, we just have to figure out like what the molecules are. Collectively, we call these molecules that have a substantially the same or similar activity to the opium substance, the opiate resin, they call them opiates or opioids, morphine, codeine and thebaine are the three structures that have been determined from opium.

Morphine is the most active. Codeine is somewhat less, thebaine is essentially not active just because of the small chemical differences in the molecule. So now we have the opium poppy, reduced to morphine and not that long after that, in 1820, a caffeine was isolated from coffee. So now we’ve got two down and a few hundred more to go. But the trend was going like we’ve been able to figure out how this plant does its magical stuff by isolating the molecule. I call this the profound reduction. It really changed everything about the way folks thought about a reverence for the plant, “It’s just a chemical.” Instead of this magical plant in some way, and it’s consistent with an idea which had been developing already in western science, western physical science and chemistry which is derivative from physics, that, you shouldn’t be able to reduce in order to understand something, some kind of phenomena. We can reduce it to some kind of fundamental building blocks in some way. And we still operate with that as a major theme in the way that we do science. And this was completely consistent with that.

Now, if we look at a DNA. DNA is a magnificent example of this because before DNA… The double helix structure of DNA was discovered in the early 1950s, and then in the 10 years after that, the genetic code was worked out that translated the DNA into proteins. The explanation or an understanding of how heredity worked, how cells stored information and passed it on to future generations was completely mysterious. It was just magic. And many esteemed scientists thought, we’ll never figure this out it’s too complicated and the cells are so small, what’s going on? Well, they figured this out. And not only that, within a few decades, by the late 70s, it had become possible to genetically modify bacteria to make other molecules then the first ones to be made we’re two human hormones, somatostatin and insulin. And that started the biotech industry — Genentech here in the Bay Area, became what they are first by their very first product, which was a GMO insulin, where you put the gene for making insulin into bacteria. And then just culture the bacteria in a big vat and have it crank out insulin.

And once that was done in the late 70s, it was really clear to anyone who was paying attention that this is going to work for anything anybody wants to do this for. I mean, it’ll take a while to figure out the genes and figuring out how to get them in there, but eventually we’ll do that, and sure enough, that’s what we’ve done. And with greater and greater precision now using all the tools of modern molecular biology, some of which have been invented here on campus, it’s possible to snip out genes and put them in where you want and basically with enough attention you can get these little micro organisms to make just about anything that’s a natural product, that’s being made somewhere in nature.

So if we take yeast as our micro organism of choice being a eukaryot and more kind of genetic similarity, to moving the genes around between say plants and yeast than bacteria. The first of these mind-altering substances to go down that path was in fact morphine. So, four years ago now, not that long ago, groups at Berkeley and at Stanford, came up with genetically modified yeast that they had inserted the genes into, the genes being taken from three different kinds of poppies and some other things including a rat, and got the yeast to make morphine or make thebaine from which morphine can easily be made. As far as I know, this hasn’t been fully developed yet to an industrial scale, it means that essentially all the growing of opium poppies to produce morphine for the manufacture then of pharmaceutical morphine and also all of the semi-synthetic opioids that get made from morphine or thebaine like oxycodone and hydromorphone and all that stuff can now be GMO-ed. This was a revolutionary step in this whole sort of a profound reductive scenario here.

Moving on. Here’s another one of the plants. Nicotiana tabacum or tobacco. I mentioned when I teach my Drugs in the Brain class, I have to like cut myself off on the tobacco because it can go on for days and there’s a lot of stuff to talk about in that class. But, I love tobacco and its history as a powerful shamanic plant. Really one of the most powerful plants in terms of its effect on the human psyche. And every time I see tobacco growing anywhere, I always take pictures of it. This is in George Washington’s backyard. George Washington grew some tobacco and his garden, and Cuba and Peru, those big giant tobacco things in Peru that are twice as tall as I am. This was in Palestine last summer. And this was in India last summer. We were driving through south Indian and all of a sudden we were completely surrounded by tobacco. I said, “Oh my God, let’s stop.”

And so then there was this guy here who was one of the tobacco farmers and he was drying the tobacco and curing it and aging it. So we hung out with him for a while. My wife, Christie, there, who’s there in the front row. And again, this is in Cuba, where they have a culture that values tobacco as a powerful, really revered plant and they pride themselves on making fine cigars and, and so forth. And I wandered around and all these cigar factories and took pictures of them making cigar. Nobody was… I mean, there wasn’t a tourist industry for doing this. So I had to talk my way in, bribe people to let me may go in a cigar factory, but it was really fine. Of course, this is one step along the path of tobacco here, the mass production of these much more, easy to use delivery devices called cigarettes, and a heavy use of those things, which has led to… I mean, if you go back to 1900 in the United States, cigarette consumption was essentially zero. I mean, they’d barely been invented.

And then as you go through the 20th century, it goes up and up and up, in times of stress, like wars and so forth, it goes up even more because one of the profound… the single most profound, medicinal aspect of tobacco is the relaxing effect. It really relaxes. It relaxes and stimulates at the same time, which is what people love about it. And they love it so much that several billion people are addicted to it. And it goes up and up and up. World War II was the best thing that ever happened to the tobacco industry because there are lots of free cigarettes distributed among military personnel during World War II, and they all came back as smokers. So went up and up and up and it only started to go down when there started to be attention, to the health consequences of smoking. But it took a while for that to happen.

If you look at the lung cancer deaths in the United States, you can see that it tracks the increase in per capita cigarette consumption, but it lags by about 25 years. So it took a while for folks to really get it, what the health with the negative health consequences were for tobacco. And it’s continuing to drop. But of course, we’ve seen a… This is worldwide as it’s going down in the United States, it’s going up in a lot of other countries. So, whereas the adult smoking prevalence in the United States is roughly 22 percent of the people, over the age of 12 in the United States are regular smokers. That is at least once a month. But if you look at Russia or China, 60 percent in Russia, 50 percent in the Ukraine, 53 percent in China, so forth. Again, just a few years after caffeine, nicotine was isolated from the tobacco plant. And, and folks could say, “Aha, it’s the nicotine that is doing, what tobacco does.”

And now, most recently, just in the last few years, we’ve seen the introduction of nicotine delivery devices, which are called vapes or e-cigarettes or something like that, which are basic for the most part just solutions of nicotine, with some propylene glycol or some other weird stuff in there to make all the smoke and stuff that looks like smoke, the aerosol. It’s a delivery device for a single chemical drug, nicotine. One of the reinforcing aspects of it in addition to the pharmacologic effects of nicotine is the fact that people get to connect with their breath, look at that. You can’t miss your breath when you’re doing that. It’s really widely appreciated by folks who are into traditions like yoga. That connecting with your breath is a very, very powerful process in meditation traditions and so forth. To connect with the breath is a deeply grounding process.

Okay. Next plant. Best Arabic khul, this is in Jordan. And so this is the Middle East, the Arabic, and khul eyeliner. Well, that’s the root of our word alcohol. So alcohol, Al-khul in Arabic means essence. Originally it meant eyeliner, I guess it’s still means eyeliner. But eyeliner, which originally… I don’t know what it’s made out of now, but originally it was made out of fine powdered molybdenum a certain metal. And it was thought to bring out the essence of someone’s eyes, which in some way represented the essence of the person in some deep way. So from that, we borrowed that word and used it to describe the carrier for the essence of a plant, the aromatic qualities of a plant. The alchemists of the Middle East a thousand years ago developed the process of distillation in order to concentrate the aromatic essences of plants to make perfumes and then from that we have derived alcoholic beverages and so forth.

So distillation, this is a book from the 1600s. There’s our buddy yeast. Now in this case it is the yeast that’s producing the alcohol, so it doesn’t have to be GMO-ed. This is a natural function of this particular yeast is it consumes the sugars that are in fruits like grapes or in grains that have been sprouted to break down some of the carbohydrates to simpler sugars, then you throw the yeast in, or you don’t have to throw it in because it’s everywhere, it just falls in. And then you let it sit around for a few days and you have wine or beer, and if you distill it, you have distilled things. So the yeast are the machines that make the alcohol, but there has been an additional twist and the GMO in here, again the local Berkeley group, same group that was involved with the morphine.

They said, “Look, okay. One of the things we add to beer is hops for its bitter flavor quality.” And originally hops was one of many different plants that were added to European beers to give them various sorts of, not only flavors, but psychoactive effects. Hops has a psychoactive effect. It’s a sedative. It synergizes with some of the sedative effects of the alcohol. And so here what they’ve done is they’ve GMO-ed the yeast to make these two molecules here, geraniol and linalool that are two of the dozens of different kinds of aromatic molecules that are found in hops. But there are two that are very important, is the high concentrations of those two. So if you taste those two by themselves, you say, “Oh, that tastes like an IPA,” or something like that. And so now, they’re proposing that the… In fact there, even a company now in Berkeley that’s selling beer that has the GMO-ed… the same yeast, make the beer, make the alcohol and also make the hops flavor because they have the gene stuck in. So again, part of the great reduction.

Okay. Next Cannabis, a very complicated plant to say the least. I think there’s going to be a number of lectures down the way on cannabis.

Lots of stuff with cannabis, lots of medicinal effects. You’ve heard about those. There’s a unique set of chemicals in the cannabis called cannabinoids and that’s one of them. Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol. They’re the two most famous ones, THC Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol and cannabidiol CBD, they’re made… THC is largely derived from to tetrahydrocannabinolic acid like, which is what’s found in the cannabis plant by heating. And then there’s a bunch of other turpenes that provide the aromatics qualities of the cannabis, but also have synergistic effects with cannabinoids and certainly account for some of the medicinal properties of cannabis in ways we don’t understand.

There’s been a whole new realm of neuroscience which is developed around this, following the discovery of receptors in the brain and body that cannabinoids interact with, they’re found all over the body that are indigenous neural transmitters that stick to those receptors that are called endo-cannabinoids. They’re involved in all kinds of stuff. So that speaks to the medicinal, and mind-altering complexity of the cannabis plant. And again, the Berkeley Group has GMO-ed yeast, this was just last month GMO yeast to produce cannabinoids again, so we know need to grow the cannabis plant anymore, we could just GMO the yeast and cook up all the CBD we want. What if the end product that you’re after is pure CBD, this is a really good way to get that high quality and lower cost. There’s the pathway.

The peyote cactus is represented in the exhibition here. This is a sacred cactus that’s native to central Mexico up into the very southern part of the Texas in the Rio Grande area. It a Sacramento substance of the rituals and then by migration, it has moved up into become the sacrament of the North American Native American church. But that didn’t happen until the 19th century, whereas the ritual use of it goes back several thousand years. And the molecule Mescalin was identified from the peyote cactus in 1897. It was the very first psychedelic substance to be found in nature. And it was again, part of this same trend of trying to find the most active molecule in a powerfully mind-altering plant of some kind.

The areca nut or sometimes called the betel nut from Southeast Asia, a palm tree. I’m going to just run through this very quickly. It’s used by hundreds of millions of people, even though we don’t hear about much about it here because it’s not our culture. It’s wrapped in a leaf piper beetle, that is a member of the pepper family that provides some kind of synergistic something that nobody understands, as well as some flavor qualities. There’s a product called paan, which contains the areca nut and the betel leaf, something called slaked lime, which is essentially a calcium hydroxide, which is essentially historically was made by taking limestone or a seashell and burning it and then mixing it with water. And then there are various optional flavors in there. Sometimes it has tobacco added as a different name. Tobacco paan, there’s a dessert version which is called sweet pawn, which is child friendly. It may or may not have the areca nut, and but it’s tasty, and again, all over India and, and in other parts of Southeast Asia, they serve this stuff.

Now the question is, what’s going on with his slaked lime? Because you’ll see in the exhibition here, there’s a lot of containers that were actually very ritual, beautiful elaborate metal containers that were made to hold the slaked lime, which has nothing to do with the fruit, lime. This is burnt limestone basically mixed with water. It’s a white pasty substance and folks would take the betel nut and put some of the ground-up or sliced-up betel nut in their mouth. There’re betel cutters in the exhibit. Betel nuts are very hard. They need to be shaved into something quite fine to be able to use. But somebody discovered at some point, if you took some limestone or seashell and burnt it and mixed it with water and then put that in your mouth at the same time, you’ve got more of a mind-altering effect from the areca nut. I don’t really know how they thought of that.

There has been a molecule, arecoline, which has been identified as the primary active ingredient. The mechanism for that slake lime. So, the calcium hydroxide is basic and our mouth is acidic, runs on the acid side. If you check the PH of your saliva, it’d be like four or five. When molecules like arecoline, which are called alkaloid bases are in an acidic environment, they pick up a hydrogen ion. And the fact that they have that charge on them makes them slower to absorb into the blood. And so if you can do something to increase the PH or decrease the acidicness and increase the basicness of your mouth, then it will get absorbed more quickly, and that’s what the slaked lime does, the calcium hydroxide. So it enhances absorption, and you could have a bigger effect.

This is coca tea from South America, that cup of cocoa tea which is stuffed full of cacao leaves, has way, way, way, way less of a stimulant effect to it than a small cup of coffee, that’s illegal, in the United States. The coca plant is a beautiful plant, Erythroxylum coca, it’s revered in South America. It’s traded freely. You can buy it in the street markets like a huge bag right there, those coca beans cost like 20 cents in Peru. And folks use it by putting it in their mouth and sucking on the leaf. But they also discovered sometime thousands of years ago that if they put some slaked lime in there at the same time, some burnt rock, then they get a bigger buzz from the coca leaf, I mean, amazing.

So there are shamans that practice ritually with the coca leaf as a sacred plant, like this mother and son pair that we hung out with for a day. And you can buy these coca products everywhere. I mean, in stores just full of like candies and cookies and juices and whatever. All kinds of, all kinds of coca product. In 1859, cocaine was isolated from the coca leaf, “Aha, okay, now we’ve got the molecule.” Nobody has a problem with coca leaves. Their life doesn’t like spin into oblivion, because they’re chewing too many coca leaves. However, almost everyone has a problem with cocaine if they mess around with that too long. So there’s something vastly different about having this purified, active substance, from cocaine. This white powder, which has been purified from the coca plant, has a very high potential for abuse and addiction. You’ve lost that ritual connection with the plant that’s there when one was ingesting the leaf rather than some chemical substance that looks like some other chemical substance.

And it becomes a real abuse problem and ruins people’s lives over and over again. And it’s very similar to this one. There’s another white powder, and it looks very similar to crack cocaine, but in fact it’s sucrose, and that’s the plant from which it comes sugarcane, which has been domesticated by humans for a few thousand years to have high concentrations of sugar in it. Now there’s lots of sugar in nature. Fruits are full of sugar, bananas and strawberries and peaches and apricots, but people don’t destroy their lives by eating too many bananas, but people destroy their health by eating too much sugar. And when we package, when we make the white powder available in high concentration and were able to put it in unlimited amounts into stuff like that, or stuff like that, then it becomes a real problem.

And not only do we have an opioid overdose crisis, we have a sugar overdose crisis, which is killing people more slowly. It’s not the rapid death of overdose, it’s like diabetes, metabolic diseases, cardiovascular disease and so forth that accumulates over decades. And this was in the news last month, at UC Berkeley, the soda tax, which was passed in Berkeley, the very first city in the United States to have a tax on sugary beverages three years ago. They finally did outcome, and found that it had a 52 percent a reduction in the consumption of sugary beverages in Berkeley, compared to before the tax, whereas in other neighboring cities, that did not change.

Kava, this may be the last one. So Piper methysticum is a piper… Piper Niagara is black pepper, piper betel is the leaf they wrap the areca nut in and that got the whole name betel nut because of that. Then Piper methysticum is another piper plant that grows in Southeast Asia and in the South Pacific islands. And there they harvest the root and they make a water slurry of the root and drink that, it has physiological activity. It produces a kind of euphoria, relaxed effect. And a number of molecules have been identified out of there. There’s dozens of different molecules in any plant. There are six that have been implicated as being the most physiologically active. In the kava it’s these guys here. What do they do? Well, they do all that. They enhance receptor activity, they inhibit reuptake of norepinephrine and dopamine.

They bind the cannabinoid receptors, they inhibit monoamine oxidase. They reduce the neuronal electrical excitability by messing with sodium and calcium channels. But how that translates into whatever the mind-altering effects are, we don’t have a clue. So basically I want to make one point here in closing, all these plants and some that I didn’t mention that you’ll hear about later. So psilocybin mushrooms, Ayahuasca, there are all these plants that have powerful effects on the mind and on the body, have been appreciated for centuries or millennia by human cultures, have been revered and respected and used ritualistically, that have been reduced to, thinking about them as chemicals in many cases, single chemical substances. And then the single chemical substances are often associated with single neurotransmitter systems, which is a whole another story that we don’t have time to go there now.

But the idea that, “Oh yeah. So I know how peyote he’s working. It’s just sticking to Serotonin, two way receptors and that’s why it’s psychedelic. Okay, next question.” Something like that. It’s this quest for over simplifying the complexity of life, in a way that makes us able to think we grasp it, that can also in some way interfere with our reverence for the power of what the substances are. There’s two things I think that have interfered with our ritual relationship historically with these plants. I mean, one of them is this reduction of thinking about them as just molecules sometimes. And the other is commodification, which happens everywhere, of course. It is our modern world, the commercialization and massive marketing of just about anything that can be so marketed. And so the task really is to stay connected, with the reverence in some way for the reverence of their Pharmacon, of their power as medicines and poisons, as substances of pleasure, poison, prescription and prayer.

So with that, I’ll end for tonight and… Thank you.