The Washington Post takes another bad drug trip.

The Washington Post takes another bad drug trip.

The Washington Post takes another bad drug trip.

Media criticism.
May 4 2006 7:01 PM

What's the Story, Morning Glory?

The Washington Post takes another bad drug trip.

Are morning glory seeds the next crack? 
Click image to expand.
Are morning glory seeds the next crack?

In its recent coverage of illicit drugs, the Washington Post has oscillated between reefer madness and the cluelessness of a phys-ed instructor giving an anti-drug speech.

About six weeks ago, the reefer madness lobes in the Post's brain generated a piece about methamphetamine titled "The Next Crack Cocaine? As Meth Use Grows, Officials Fear Region Is Unprepared to Deal With It" (March 19). Positing an increase in meth use in the headline and body, the Post story ultimately conceded after its sensationalistic premise that no "reliable statistics" on the number of users existed. For this sin and many others, I drubbed the piece in this column.

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The Post extended its losing streak on the drug beat yesterday with a naive and poorly sourced piece about the psychedelic properties of morning glory seeds ("A '60s Buzz Recycled: Teens Rediscover Morning Glories Can Be Used as a Hallucinogen," May 3).

Writing from the secret Post formula for lame drug journalism, reporter Theresa Vargas brings a deficit of intellectual curiosity to her 1,300-word assemblage of anecdotes. A bad Washington Post drug piece usually interviews at least one person who has tried the substance—preferably an ex-user who has repudiated drugs. But the best Vargas can muster is the father of a teen who knows another teen who consumed morning glory seeds!

It's not that she made no attempt to report the story. She talked to the Drug Enforcement Administration, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the lead investigator behind the Monitoring the Future survey of teens and their drug use, and "many substance abuse counselors" who told her they knew nothing about the drug.

By presenting readers with the ignorance of the drug-abuse industrial complex as a substantive finding, Vargas implies that the morning glory high is some sort of arcane practice known only to '60s survivors and teenagers who have "rediscovered" it.

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Here's the back story that the Post neglected to include: Mesoamericans were using morning glory seeds (ololiuqui) as both intoxicants and hallucinogens when Spanish conquistadors arrived. According to the personal physician of the king of Spain, who worked in Mexico between 1570 and 1575, eating ololiuqui seeds caused "a thousand visions and satanic hallucinations" to Aztec natives, and their priests would use the substance "to commune with their gods."

The compound held an honored place in the Aztec pharmacopeia. In a 1969 Science magazine article about hallucinogenic plants, ethnobotanist Richard Evan Schultes reported that modern Indians still consumed ololiuqui. The active ingredient is d-lysergic acid amide, a chemical cousin of d-lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD, and scientists estimate its potency as 5 percent to 10 percent that of LSD.

Vargas' characterization of morning glory's psychoactivity as lost knowledge preserved only by Internet posters and teenage users is easily refuted. TheAnarchist Cookbook (1970), which is still in print, and other counterculture books and magazines have kept the fact in full view of stoners and enquiring minds for better than four decades. Perhaps she was misled by the results of a Nexis search of "morning glory and hallucinogen," which doesn't yield anything earlier than 1986.

Vargas asserts that use of "morning glory seed as a hallucinogen seem to have sprouted once again" based on very slim evidence: Calls to poison-control centers from hospitals that she doesn't bother to enumerate; stolen packages of morning glory seeds at hardware stores and gardening shops; drug rehab anecdotes; a morning glory seed panic in Ohio; and Louisiana legislation prohibiting consumption of 38 "hallucinogenic plants."

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Like other Posties ondrugs, Vargas expends almost as much effort letting the air out of her balloon as she does pumping it up: "Signs that teenagers are experimenting locally are for the most part anecdotal"; "It is difficult to say how many teenagers in the area are using the springtime seeds as a drug." Search the story for evidence of lasting harm done by morning glory seeds and you'll come up empty.

The very likely possibility that morning glory seeds never disappeared from the drug subculture—that kids have been stealing packets of seeds and getting blasted on them for four decadesrunning—doesn't occur to Vargas. Why? Perhaps because few editors would assign "Kids Still Experimenting With Morning Glory Seeds," and even fewer reporters would want to write it.

Morning glory seeds and other legal highs are so routinely consumed in our culture that the "Ads by Google" box on the first page of the Washingtonpost.com version of Vargas' story touts " Organic Morning Glories: Natural seeds, three varieties from the ethnobotanical superstore."

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If Post editors enjoyed the morning glory story, I encourage them to visit the ethnobotanical superstore and assign sequels about the rediscoveries of datura, nutmeg, kava, mushrooms, mescal beans, wormwood, woodrose seeds, and even phalaris grass. E-mail testimonials about your favorite sacred plants to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)