There’s a debate raging in households, on streets and in online forums around the world: Are plant-based drugs better than synthetic ones? “There’s a stigma in parts of the drug community about ‘man-made’ [drugs] and I don’t like it,” said redditor approvethegroove in a recent post about the argument. “I’m so tired of seeing people assume a drug is safer because it’s ‘natural.’”
So the discussion goes: Some people consider their drug of choice to be “better” because of its direct derivation from plants. Redditor Anon55446655 summed this up nicely in another thread. “Although weed is a cool drug that I enjoy, a lot of the people I smoke with think that it’s superior to literally any other substance,” they write. “You drink? Disgusting. Vaping nicotine? What a hopeless addict. They’re always down to talk about the health risks of literally every drug except their beloved THC.” Why? Well, weed is a plant. Those other drugs are not. Therefore, they’re on the shit end of the moral stick.
Most often, it’s plant drugs like weed or magic mushrooms that are presumed to be more natural and safer to take, therefore making them “superior” to their synthetic cousins. This is known as the “appeal to nature” fallacy, in which it’s proposed that something is good because it’s natural, or bad because it’s unnatural. It’s frequently used in advertising, to tap into “longing for natural connections” — for example, marketing a breakfast bar with an ad depicting happy, healthy people doing outdoor activities (the suggestion being that the snack, like the activity, is good for you).
This view is shared by 19-year-old Luke (a pseudonym) from Canada, who only does shrooms and smokes cannabis. “I see mushrooms and weed as more natural because the processing one has to do to get them to a usable drug is minimal and doesn’t change the overall look or effect of the drugs,” he tells me, explaining that he doesn’t include marijuana concentrates in this category.
Of course, not everything that’s natural is safe — both in drugs and life. Many mushrooms, berries and plants are poisonous, and even potentially deadly. Redditor approvethegroove cites LSA (a naturally-occurring psychedelic substance that’s found in morning glory seeds) as a prime example, calling it “the all-natural cousin of ‘nasty, man-made’ synthetic LSD that’s far more vasoconstrictive.” He continues: “It’s one thing to appreciate mushrooms for their more earthly origin while tripping, but I don’t think anyone should make any assumptions as to the safety of a substance based on whether we’ve found it in nature or not.”
Furthermore, how do you define “natural”? At what point does a plant-based substance become a synthetic, “human-made” drug? Both heroin and cocaine are derived from plants — cocaine from the coca leaf, and heroin from poppies — but become their final forms via a chemical process. The Emerald Magazine argues that cooking is also a chemical process that alters the natural state of raw food, “yet no one would assert that veggies are no longer natural because they’re sautéed.”
Based on this logic, continues The Emerald Magazine, weed shouldn’t be considered “natural,” as it has to be “cooked” in some way (typically heated, then smoked) to reap its psychoactive benefits. Luke acknowledges this, but still considers marijuana natural because the process isn’t “heavy and specially produced.”
Despite the prevalent view that natural equals good, some synthetic drugs actually have a wide range of benefits, and can often be safer to take — this is particularly true for pharmaceutical drugs, which go through rigorous research and testing before their release. What’s more, in recent years, certain illicit, “unnatural” drugs, such as ketamine and MDMA have been trialed in clinical settings as effective treatments for things like depression and PTSD. In these cases, and in the right setting, synthetic drugs can often be safer than plant-based options — though, of course, both still come with risks.
Nevertheless, the debate rages on. Ted, 31, a pseudonymous harm-reduction specialist, says he believes the natural versus human-made argument stems from the legality of the drugs. “Although I don’t see any difference between natural and synthetic, it’s pretty bullshit for something natural to be outlawed,” he explains. “It’s stupid [that] a government [can] tell its citizens that something that grows naturally on Earth is illegal.” This conclusion might make sense in a country like Canada, where weed is legal, but in most other countries, the so-called “natural” drugs are still illegal. In the U.K., for example, it’s illegal to pick psilocybin-containing Liberty Cap mushrooms, even though they grow all over the country.
Even though he does deem the likes of weed and shrooms to be more natural than other drugs, Luke says he doesn’t consider himself morally superior to other drug users. “After all, I’m still getting stoned and messed up the same way they are,” he explains. Luke puts some of the morality of plant drugs down to the stigma of addiction. “I’ve never gotten the idea that it’s the type of drugs people use that give them a moral high ground — it’s if it controls their lives, and the quantity that’s used.” It’s worth pointing out that some people believe weed can be addictive, and you can certainly smoke a lot of it.
The truth is, loads of drugs can be simultaneously safe and harmful, depending on how you use them — so being morally indignant about a certain group of them isn’t an especially effective use of your time. Instead, test your drugs, enjoy them safely and don’t worry about which are “superior.”