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Drug Addiction Helped Ancestors Survive

Anthropologists believe that so many people use drugs today because they helped our ancestors survive. Anthropologists Roger Sullivan of the University of Auckland and Edward Hagen of the University of California say our ancestors were exposed to plants containing narcotic substances for millions of years. They believe we are predisposed to take drugs because we evolved to seek out plants rich in alkaloids.

Consuming these plants could have been a basic survival strategy. ?Stimulant alkaloids like nicotine and cocaine could have been exploited by our human ancestors to help them endure harsh environmental conditions,? Sullivan says.

Drug use was widespread in ancient cultures. Until recently Australian Aborigines used the nicotine-rich plant pituri to help them endure desert travel without food. Andeans still chew coca leaves to help them work at high altitudes. Betel nut was chewed at least 13,000 years ago in Timor, to the north of Australia. Artifacts show coca was used in Ecuador 5,000 years ago.

Many of these substances were stronger than drugs used today. Pituri has five per cent nicotine, while today?s tobacco contains about 1.5 per cent. Ancient drug users sometimes ?freebased? drugs by chewing them together with an alkali such as lime or wood ash, which releases the free form of the drug and allows it to be directly absorbed into the bloodstream.

In Pacific cultures where chewing betel nut is still widespread, it?s used more as a source of food and energy than as a drug, Sullivan says. And some drugs do have real nutritional value. 100 grams of coca leaf contains more than the U.S. recommended daily dose of calcium, phosphorus, iron and vitamins A, B2 and E. In some harsh environments, diets may have been so poor that people?s brains struggled to produce enough neurotransmitters of their own. Plants containing substances that mimic neurotransmitters could have helped make up for this. This theory could be tested by depriving animals of certain neurotransmitters and then seeing if they choose to eat foods rich in substitutes.

Wayne Hall, who was head of the National Drug and Alcohol Research Center in Australia, says, ?There is certainly evidence that plants evolved to mimic the neurotransmitters of mammals, but the problem today is that we have much larger doses of much more purified drugs.?

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A Mexican herb called salvia divinorum that can send users on intense, brief hallucinogenic trips is being sold over the internet. Little is known about the drug, or how it works on the brain and what its longterm effects might be. But it has caught the attention of the Drug Enforcement Administration, which has included it on its list of ?Drugs and Chemicals of Concern? and may add it to its list of controlled substances.Some researchers who have studied it doubt the DEA needs to worry much, and say they don't believe the herb will live up to its internet hype.

Salvia is a perennial in the mint family that is native to parts of Oaxaca, Mexico, has been used by Indians there for centuries as a healing and divining tool. One website discusses the herb?s use by Indians in Mexico and explains how it works chemically on the brain. Daniel J. Siebert, an ethnobotanist who runs one salvia website, says, ?Salvinorin A is an extremely powerful consciousness altering compound. In fact, it is the most potent naturally occurring hallucinogen thus far isolated. But before would-be experimenters get too worked-up about it, it should be made clear that the effects are often extremely unnerving and there is a very real potential for physical danger with its use.?

To learn the amazing results of experiments with psychedelic drugs, read ?DMT: The Spirit Molecule? by Rick Strassman,click here.

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