Child Experimenting with Herbs: Safe to Ingest?
Answered by: Conrad Richter
Question from: Ann
Posted on: September 30, 2006

I have a foster child who is genuinely interested in herbs. Unfortunately he is also interested in smoking marijuana. My concern is that he may try experimenting with some herbs that apparently have a hallucinating effect. I have also heard that some herbs can be deadly if ingested. Problem is I have no idea which herbs may do this so I am hesitant to allow him to buy/collect any of them. Please let me know which herbs I should not allow him to have in his possession. Does catnip fall into this dangerous/hallucinatory category?

There is a common misconception that because herbs are natural they must be safe. Overall, herbs are much safer than drugs, but herbs have powerful effects on the body and can be dangerous if used incorrectly. So a child experimenting with herbs on his or her own is a recipe for potential serious harm. That said, it should be noted that many of today’s top practising herbalists experimented with non-medicinal uses of plants at one time in their lives. It is hard not to gain a lifelong respect for the power of herbs after experiencing the psychoactive effects of herbs such as cannabis, peyote, ayahuasca, mushrooms and others.

It is a tricky situation. As a parent I would be very concerned if my child were experimenting with hallucinatory plants. Among the first questions that I would ask is:

1) Is the child likely to become psychologically dependent on the escapism of induced euphoria, and are herbs merely a step on a path toward more harmful drugs?

2) Is the child’s interest selfless to some degree in that he or she wants to know more about herbs for the benefit of others? Or is the interest in herbs all about personal gratification?

3) Is there a broader level of interest in herbs that goes beyond recreational use? Is the child also interested in healing with herbs or cooking with herbs?

4) Is there a respect for herbs as serious subject of inquiry?

An important consideration is the level of trust and openness that exists between the parent and child. It sounds like you have a healthy, open relationship with your child which I think will help immensely.

Are there herbs that are more dangerous than others? Yes. But first it is important to point out that there are big differences between herbs that are used in in their natural whole forms and those that are purified or modified. Heroin and cocaine are extracted from plants and as such are far more dangerous than the natural form of the herbs they came from. Likewise, ephedrine (from /Ephedra sinica/ and others) salvinorin (from /Salvia divinorum/) and mescaline (from /Lophophora williamsii/ and /Echinopsis peruviana)/ are far more powerful than the raw form of the herbs. This important distinction is often overlooked by legislators who are intent in banning all forms of these herbs. North American herbalists recently lost access to one of the world’s most valuable medicinal herbs, ephedra, because of the abuses of the drug ephedrine found in ephedra. Purified ephedrine is dangerous; natural ephedra is much less so.

Does catnip fall in the dangerous or hallucinatory category? No. Catnip is reputed to have mild euphoric effects when smoked but I have never heard of anyone being harmed by it. Catnip does not have the same effects on humans as it does on cats. Cats, of course, fall into a drunken stupor or become manic when they consume catnip. In humans catnip has a calming effect and the tea made from its leaves has long been used as a nightcap to help go to sleep. In the past there have been attempts to market a concentrated form of catnip high in nepetene, the reputed active ingredient in catnip, as a legal ‘high’ but I have no information on its safety. However, following the premise that purified chemicals extracted from herbs are often more dangerous than the whole herb, I would avoid any concentrated catnip product.

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