Archive for the ‘South America’ Category

Humans have been ingesting mind-altering substances for a very long time. Hallucinogen-huffing bowls 2,500 years old (http://www.livescience.com/5240-ancient-family-heirlooms-snort-hallucinogens.html) have been found on islands in the Lesser Antilles, and traditional cultures from the Americas to Africa use hallucinogenic substances for spiritual purposes. Here are some notable substances that send the mind tripping.

LSD is commonly known as “acid,” but its scientific name is a mouthful: lysergic acid diethylamaide. The drug was first synthesized in 1938 from a chemical called ergotamine. Ergotamine, in turn, is produced by a grain fungus that grow on rye.

LSD was originally produced by a pharmaceutical company under the name Delysid, but it got a bad reputation in the 1950s when the CIA decided to research its effects on mind control. The test subjects of the CIA project MKULTRA proved very difficult to control indeed, and many, like counter-culture writer Ken Kesey, started taking the drug for fun (and for their own form of 1960s enlightenment).

ayahuasca-vine-110929

Ayahuasca is a hallucinatory mixture of Amazonian infusions centered around the Banisteriopsis caapi vine. The brew has long been used by native South American tribes for spiritual rituals and healing, and like other hallucinogens, ayahuasca often triggers very intense emotional experiences (vomiting is also common). In 2006, National Geographic writer Kira Salak described her experience with ayahuasca in Peru for the magazine.

” I will never forget what it was like. The overwhelming misery. The certainty of never-ending suffering. No one to help you, no way to escape. Everywhere I looked: darkness so thick that the idea of light seemed inconceivable,” Salak wrote. “Suddenly, I swirled down a tunnel of fire, wailing figures calling out to me in agony, begging me to save them. Others tried to terrorize me. ‘You will never leave here,’ they said. ‘Never. Never.'”

Nonetheless, Salak wrote, when she broke free of her hallucinations, her crippling depression was alleviated. It’s anecdotal experiences like this that have led researchers to investigate the uses of hallucinogens as therapy for mental disorders such as anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Peyote is a cactus that gets its hallucinatory power from mescaline. Like most hallucinogens, mescaline binds to serotonin receptors in the brain, producing heightened sensations and kaleidoscopic visions.

Native groups in Mexico have used peyote in ceremonies for thousands of years, and other mescaline-producing cacti have long been used by South American tribes for their rituals. Peyote has been the subject of many a court battle because of its role in religious practice; currently, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and Oregon allow some peyote possession, but only if linked to religious ceremonies, according to Arizona’s Peyote Way Church of God.

The “magic” ingredient in hallucinogenic mushrooms is psilocybin, a compound that breaks down into psilocin in the body. Psilocin bonds to serotonin receptors all over the brain, and can cause hallucinations as well as synesthesia, or the mixture of two senses. Under the influence, for example, a person might feel that they can smell colors.

In keeping with the human tradition of eating anything that might alter your mind, people have been ingesting psilocybin-continuing mushrooms for thousands of years. Synthetic psilocybin is now under study as a potential treatment for anxiety, depression and addiction.

Best known by its street name, “angel dust,” PCP stands for phencyclidine. The drug blocks receptors in the brain for the neurotransmitter glutamate. It’s more dangerous than other hallucinogens, with schizophrenia-like symptoms and nasty side effects.

Those side effects are why PCP has no medical uses. The drug was tested as an anesthetic in the 1950s and used briefly to knock out animals during veterinary surgeries. But by the 1960s, PCP had hit the streets and was being used as a recreation drug, famous for the feelings of euphoria and invincibility it bestowed on the user. Unfortunately, a side effect of all that euphoria is sometimes truly destructive behavior, including users trying to jump out of windows or otherwise self-mutilating. Not to mention that high enough doses can cause convulsions.

Derived from the African iboga plant, ibogaine is another hallucinogen with a long history of tribal use. More recently, the drug has shown promise in treating addiction, although mostly in Mexico and Europe where ibogaine treatment is not prohibited as it is in the U.S.

Using ibogaine as therapy is tricky, however. The drug can cause heart rhythm problems, and vomiting is a common side effect. The Massachusetts-based Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Research (MAPS) reports that an estimated 1 in 300 ibogaine users die due to the drug. The group is studying the long-term effects of ibogaine on patients in drug treatment programs in New Zealand and Mexico.

Salvia divinorum, also known as seer’s or diviner’s sage, grows in the cloud forest of Oaxaca, Mexico. The native Mazatec people have long used tea made out of the leaves in spiritual ceremonies, but the plant can also be smoked or chewed for its hallucinogenic effects.

Salvia is not currently a controlled substance, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, but it is under consideration to be made illegal and placed in the same drug class as marijuana.

Ecstasy, “E” or “X” are the street names for MDMA, or (get ready for a long one) 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine. The drug acts on serotonin in the brain, causing feelings of euphoria, energy and distortions of perception. It can also nudge body temperatures up, raising the risk of heat stroke. Animal studies suggest that MDMA causes long-term and potentially dangerous changes in the brain, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

MDMA was first synthesized by a chemist looking for substances to stop bleeding in 1912. No one paid the compound much mind for the next half-decade, but by the 1970s, MDMA had hit the streets. It was popular at raves and nightclubs and among those who liked their music psychedelic. Today, ecstasy is still a common street drug, but researchers are investigating whether MDMA could be used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder and cancer-related anxiety.

http://www.livescience.com/16286-hallucinogens-lsd-mushrooms-ecstasy-history.html

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pot

Uruguay’s Senate, on Tuesday, approved the legalization of marijuana in the country—including the growing, sale and smoking—making it the first nation to sanction all aspects of the pot industry. Previously, the use of marijuana was legal in the South American country, but cultivation and sale of the drug were not.

The newly passed, government-backed bill will now provide for government regulation of all aspects of the marijuana trade with an eye on “wresting the business from criminals,” according to Reuters. “The bill gives authorities 120 days to set up a drug control board that will regulate cultivation standards, fix the price and monitor consumption.” Uruguayan president Jose Mujica is a supporter of a legal national market for marijuana, but the measure has yet to win over a majority of the 3-plus million people in the country. A recent poll, Reuters reports, found that 58 percent of Uruguayans are opposed to legalization.

Here’s more from Reuters on what the law will look like on the ground once it goes into effect:

Cannabis consumers will be able to buy a maximum of 40 grams (1.4 ounces) each month from licensed pharmacies as long as they are Uruguayan residents over the age of 18 and registered on a government database that will monitor their monthly purchases. When the law is implemented in 120 days, Uruguayans will be able to grow six marijuana plants in their homes a year, or as much as 480 grams (about 17 ounces), and form smoking clubs of 15 to 45 members that can grow up to 99 plants per year. Registered drug users should be able to start buying marijuana over the counter from licensed pharmacies in April.

http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_slatest/2013/12/10/uruguay_sets_up_a_national_marketplace_for_marijuana_the_world_s_first.html

Thanks to Kebmodee for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community.

pygmy-three-toed-sloth

 

In May 2011, after months of preparation, Jakob Shockey and two fellow biology students from Evergreen State College in Washington State found themselves on a tiny Panamanian island staring at one of the rarest mammals in the world: the pygmy three-toed sloth (Bradypus pygmaeus). “I felt humbled to finally stand knee-deep in the mud of a mangrove thicket on Isla Escudo de Veraguas and watch this sloth move so comfortably through its world, entirely unconcerned by my presence or anticipation,” he says.

Shockey had originally planned to travel to Panama to study the local manatee population, but contacts with a local nongovernmental organization told him they were hearing reports of “imminent risk” to the pygmy sloths. “Little was known by the scientific community about the actual conditions on the island, and it was hard to separate fact and rumor, but the pygmy sloth seemed to be in trouble,” Shockey says. They decided to study the sloths instead.

Unfortunately the situation, as the students would soon learn, was much worse than anyone had feared.

A little-understood species
Isla Escudo de Veraguas sits in the Caribbean Sea seventeen kilometers off the coast of the Republic of Panama. The tiny island—less than five square kilometers—is home to the critically endangered solitary fruit-eating bat (Artibeus incomitatus), a few hundred fishermen and their families, dozens of coral species, and the rare pygmy sloths.

A typical case of island dwarfism, the pygmy sloths are about 40 percent smaller than brown-throated sloths (B. variegatus), which can be found across the water on the Panama Isthmus as well as throughout the southern half of Central America and the northern half of South America. Other than size, pygmy sloths look almost exactly like their mainland cousins—so much so, in fact, that the pygmies were only identified as a separate species in 2001. At that time scientists estimated the pygmy sloth population at about 300 to 500 animals, enough to consider them critically endangered, the only sloth species with that designation.

The ensuing decade has not been kind to the sloths. Families of indigenous fishermen from the Ngöbe–Buglé comarca (a semiautonomous region roughly equivalent to a Native American reservation) began moving to the island around 1995 and quickly started cutting down mangrove trees for firewood and lumber. Unfortunately, pygmy sloths depend on those mangroves for their food and habitat. As the trees disappeared, so did the sloths. Shockey and his fellow students spent three days counting the animals and found that just 79 remained. “We were all surprised to find such a low population,” he says. A paper detailing their census of the sloth population was published November 21 in PLoS One.

The young researchers also learned how little of the island constituted suitable habitat for the animals. “We had expected to find pygmy sloths using the interior forests of the Isla Escudo, but it seems they are completely reliant on mangroves for food and primary habitat,” Shockey says. “We found the intertidal mangrove thickets on only 0.024 percent of the already small island, and these were fragmented by upland forest and logging. This is a sobering reality for the pygmy sloth.”

pygmy sloth habitat
Known but unknown
The people living on the mainland and the island “were unaware that the sloths of Escudo were a unique species and endemic to Escudo or that they relied on the mangroves,” Shockey says.

In addition to their work counting the animals, the students also spent time communicating with locals about their rarity and importance. “We had many conversations with leaders in the mainland village of Kusapin, and we gave presentations in the local grade school,” Shockey says. “Our classmate, Miranda Ciotti, had illustrated coloring books of the endemic species on Escudo, and we gave these and crayons to the village children. All of this outreach was met with surprise and pride, and we began hearing the words ‘Kú dekú narobé’ around Kusapin, meaning ‘the sloths of Escudo are special’ in the local dialect. A local member of the indigenous congress pledged to put forward a bid for local protection of Escudo’s mangroves and the sloths, and we have shared a Spanish translation of our work and letter of recommendations for that effort.”

Shockey, who says he hopes to be a part of any future research to help protect the pygmy sloth, notes that the most important step to conserving the animals is preservation of their mangrove habitat. “Mangrove wood is favored for the cooking fires of a small transient fishing community on Escudo,” he says. “It is important that the Ngöbe act in protecting the mangroves from further cutting and that we do all we can to support that.” He suggests that economic incentives might help conservation efforts. “The Ngöbe community—especially those people who fish on Escudo—are relatively impoverished. But they are a proud people, and I believe they could be great allies in protecting the island if it was made economically viable.”

Shockey, who has now graduated, considers himself lucky to have seen and studied the rare pygmy three-toed sloths. “During my time on Escudo, I witnessed their daily routine of long afternoon naps, casual eating and climbing into the sunny branches to dry off after a downpour. Ultimately, I hope our work will help maintain that reality for the pygmy sloth.”

http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/extinction-countdown/2012/12/06/critically-endangered-pygmy-sloths-79-remain/