For centuries, herbs have been used for medication and even recreation. Whether they are used in a poultice, tea, smoke blend, tincture, or pill, herbs have a strong foothold in societies around the world. A list of all commonly used herbs and their uses could fill an encyclopedia. Herbs that have been used in smoking blends have been in use for centuries to produce various effects. Ancient Shaman used a variety of herbs to aid in visions while common people used others to ease the symptoms of colds or to relieve coughing. A few herbs have become so popular that the use of them has been made illegal such as Marijuana while others such as coffee have come close. Some may be concerned that the legal herbs used for smoking may serve as a “gateway” drug or may cause harm. It is the image of smoking that raises concerns among people because of the association with the use of harmful drugs. It is more likely that legal herbal smoking blends do not lead to increased drug use and may help to decrease the amount of people that start to use tobacco or other drugs.
Today, herbal blends are sold in cigarette form as tobacco alternatives and to help people quit smoking and for those who do not wish to use tobacco. Some might be concerned with the effects of these herbs as they may mimic the effects of Marijuana, which is illegal. Blends that are sold as “pot substitutes” make no claim of any effects of their products; however, with names such as Tokonut™ and Amsterdam Dreams™, one does wonder what the motives of the buyers are. This of course raises moral and health concerns among community members. Are these legal smoking blends the next “pot”? Are adolescents in danger of becoming addicted to these substitutes or moving on to harder substances? Is the average citizen in danger of having their house raided for herbs on their spice rack, or are people simply over-reacting? Is it the effects of the herbs that make them illegal or their perceived image they place on users?
Generally speaking, it is not the effects of the herbs that make them illegal but the image of their use they place on the user. This was the case in the 1600’s when the use of coffee was on the verge of being condemned by the Catholic Church. As the popularity of coffee grew, so did its reputation as being a “troublemaker’s social brew” (Pendergrast, 1999, p. 6-8). Leaders thought that people were having too much fun in the coffeehouses; however, Pope Clement VIII ruled in its favor making it acceptable to be consumed. The effects of coffee as a stimulant were negligible; however, the image of consumers of the “devils drink” was the main cause for alarm. Drinkers would go to the “Arabic Coffee Houses” and conduct in socially unacceptable practices such as speaking their minds.
Was it that coffee was harmful to people’s health or that it was in some way evil? It was most likely the vocal minority that was against the use of coffee. One can only speculate if they were truly concerned or if they had something to gain in its ban. In the end, the decision of one person in power chose the future for this popular drink. It would be interesting to speculate as to what it would be like if it had become illegal. Consumption or demand for coffee would not have gone away. It would have been sold on the black market and in underground coffee shops, putting money into the hands of “criminals” who would otherwise be law abiding, tax-paying citizens. Since nearly 50% of Americans drink coffee, the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) would also suffer from the lack of productivity in the workforce. Because coffee would be illegal, dealers would inevitably find a way to make it more powerful and less detectable in order to increase profits thereby causing a more harmful drug to appear and to be available to minors without restriction. Of course this did not happen and today, drinking coffee is not seen as something that is in a moral grey area and accepted throughout the world.
Smokeable items, among others, have been placed into this moral grey area as it is generally perceived that nothing good comes from smoking, especially not something that is supposed to be medicinal. There is much debate over medical Marijuana which will surely be used as a political tool for years to come; however, this is a concentration on currently legal herbs. There are many herbs that can be smoked but there are a few that are used in most smoking blends. A description and explanation of each is necessary to fully understand the effects, assumed or otherwise.
Mugwort belongs to Artemisia a large diverse genus with 200 to 400 species all belonging to the daisy family Asteraceae. Some common names used for species are sagewort, sagebrush, mugwort, wormwood, tarragon, and southernwood (The Plant Encyclopedia, 2011). The plants belonging to this genus are known for their volatile oils which make them a perfect candidate for tincture making, cooking, and even smoking. While not every plant in this genus is suitable for smoking, mugwort is commonly used for this purpose. These herbs have seen many uses over the centuries from making beer and wine (Wormwood Absinth) to a common pest repellant. Practitioners of religions such as Wicca use both Wormwood and Mugwort which is believed to enhance ones psychic abilities (The Plant Encyclopedia, 2011). This could be due to the association of the name of the genus (Artemisia) and the moon goddess Artemis. It could also be that it is thought to hold “enlightening” powers due to the effects it has on ones dreams. Mugwort is sometimes called the “dream plant” and its method of delivery can either be a tea, smoking mix, or a pillow which is stuffed with the herb. It is reported to make dreams seem more vivid. This could be either a good or bad experience depending on the person. If they are prone to having nightmares then they may be more likely to have “bad visions” causing them to prophesize doom. If they are prone to having good dreams, they may have “good visions” which may cause them to forecast a time of prosperity. The effects on society from the use of these herbs depend on the person’s position and influence. If they were a person that held power in the Church then they may be seen as having a divine vision. If they were a commoner, they may be burned at the stake for practicing witchcraft. This can (and has) have negative effects on the reputation of these types of plants as their use has been associated with the practice of witchcraft in the past and the use of harder drugs in the present.
Verbascum Thapsus or common Mullein is a light and tasteless herb used in almost every smoking mixture as a base. It is also used medicinally as an expectorant, cough suppressant, and even to ease many ailments such as bronchitis, hemorrhoids, croup, colic, earaches, frostbite, eczema, warts, boils, carbuncles, and chilblains. It is also used to make dyes and torches as well as for topical applications on various skin afflictions. Other names for it are Great Mullein, Cowboy Toilet Paper, Shepherd’s Club (or Staff), Ice-leaf, Velvet and Blanket Mullein, Aaron’s Rod (shared with other plants with similar looks) and many other names numbering over 40 in the 19th century (The Plant Encyclopedia, 2011).
It sounds strange to say that smoking an herb will have the effect of easing a cough but it can also be used as a tea for the same purpose. Mullein is usually rubbed before smoking which gives it a “fuzzy” appearance that enables it to hold smaller particles from other herbs in a smoke mixture and is said to be best when slightly moist. This can cause the appearance of a smoking mix to be similar to Marijuana, which may cause problems if used in the wrong place or if someone were to mistake it for Marijuana. Like many medicinal plants, Mullein has been linked to witchcraft and other superstitions such as holding the power to ward off curses or evil spirits.
Scutellaria baicalensis, Chinese or Baikal Skullcap (not to be confused with Scutellaria lateriflora or American skullcap) belongs to the Lamiaceae family and is one of the 50 fundamental herbs used in traditional Chinese medicine (huáng qín). This herb has been used to treat allergies, inflammation, infections, headaches, and even cancer. Antifungal and antiviral effects may also be possible; however, further studies are required. The usual form of this herb is an extract or powder (Skullcap, 2011). The more common Skullcap that is commercially available is Scutellaria lateriflora (American Skullcap); however, frequent users of herbal smoke state that Scutellaria galericulata (a more common plant found in the United States) is stronger with effects equivalent to medium grade Marijuana and Scutellaria nana (also known as Dwarf Skullcap, found in desert regions) is as strong as the highest quality Marijuana. It is also reported to make one tired and cloud the head which is unlike most other herbal smoke blends. Regardless of what type of Skullcap it may be, it is a very common herb used in herbal smoking blends and should be one to keep an eye on if intoxication is not a desired result (Brounstein, 2011).
These herbs may be unknown to most of the general population; however, the image they put on their users is easily associated with other commonly abused drugs in society. Illegal substances such as Marijuana and Crack Cocaine and even legal drugs such as tobacco can all be smoked. This is not the only method of delivery; however, it is the most common. The negative effects of these drugs have caused society to perceive anything that is smoked to be inherently bad. Although tobacco has never been illegal in the United States, it is restricted to persons aged 18 years or older. Through education, it has been well established that the use of tobacco is harmful to one’s health. It would be hard to find an individual that does not know the risks of using tobacco.
Although smoking is generally harmful to a person’s health; other methods of delivery of drugs can also be harmful. What would seem to be a more deviant behavior, smoking opium or taking a pill derived from opiates? Of course the almost preprogrammed response would be the person smoking the opium is more deviant. Before the pill and injectable medications were made mainstream, smoking was the delivery method of choice. Even today in some parts of the world, this is still a delivery method that is used. Either method has the risk for dependency and should be used in moderation under the supervision of a trained or experienced professional. Any substance has the potential for abuse; however, that does not mean every substance with that potential should be regulated to the point of creating a black market. Think of the market that would spring up if pork were to be suddenly banned. Ham sandwiches and bacon would be made and sold by people only concerned with profit and not health and safety. This is of course an extreme situation and pork is not addictive to our knowledge. Is such a situation really that unrealistic?
The closest illegal drug that can be compared to the previously mentioned herbs is Marijuana. In fact, many smoking blends are made to mimic the look, feel, smell, and taste of this substance. Marijuana or Cannabis is an extremely popular drug in North America. The U.S. Governments “Refer Madness” campaign of the 1930s changed society’s view from a useful drug commonly used in many homes across America to a morally wrong, extremely dangerous drug. The chemical that makes this herb illegal is Δ (delta) 9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), currently a schedule one drug – the most dangerous drug classification. Making Cannabis illegal also made another plant illegal which contains very little (less than 1%) THC - hemp.
Here again, it is not the actual effect of hemp that makes it illegal, it is because it looks almost identical to Marijuana. At several times in the history of the United States, hemp was extremely important in that it was used to make clothing, paper, and items used by the military. It was made illegal not to grow hemp for war efforts and once the war was over, cultivation was made illegal again. Without it, the U.S. might not be what it is today and the world may very well be in a different political climate. As more social support is gathered for the use of cannabis either in the form of hemp or medical marijuana, laws will eventually change (Fox, 2009, p. 47-49).
It is not a matter of the effects of a substance which makes it illegal. It is the image of smoking that raises concerns among people of the community. It is more likely that legal herbal smoking blends used recreationally or medicinally does not lead to increased drug use and may help to decrease the amount of people that start to use tobacco or other drugs. By keeping these herbs legal, one can have an outlet to experiment without having to place themselves in a situation of having to purchase these herbs from the black market. This will lessen the chance that the person will become exposed to a harder drug and remove the temptation of trying such a drug. These herbs do not have the chemicals that would create dependency and therefore are not addictive in nature. The most likely outcome of a person trying these smoking blends is that they will smoke them for a time and then stop, not moving onto tobacco or other smokeable items as they already have “tried smoking”.
Brounstein, H. (n.d.). Columbines School of Botanical Studies. Columbines School of Botanical
Studies. Retrieved November 25, 2011, from http://www.botanicalstudies.net/herbalism
Fox, S., Armentano, P., & Tvert, M. (2009). Marijuana is safer: so why are we driving people to
drink?. White River Junction, VT : Chelsea Green Pub. Co.
Pendergrast, M. (1999). Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed
Our World. New York, NY: Basic Books
Skullcap. (n.d.). University of Maryland Medical Center | Home. Retrieved November 25, 2011,
The Plant Encyclopedia - Main Page. (n.d.). The Plant Encyclopedia - Main Page. Retrieved
November 20, 2011, from http://theplantencyclopedia.org