Stupid drug story of the week: The nutmeg scare.

Media criticism.
Dec. 14 2010 5:51 PM

Stupid Drug Story of the Week

The nutmeg scare.

(Continued from Page 1)

How dangerous is nutmeg use? It's hard to tell from reading the popular press. The only place in the medical literature where I found statistics on death by nutmeg intoxication was the March 2005 edition of Emergency Medicine Journal, which cited another journal: An 8-year-old died from nutmeg at the beginning of the 20th century and a 55-year-old died similarly at the beginning of the 21st century.

The authors of the Emergency Medicine Journal assume—correctly, I think—that nutmeg deaths have been underreported. So nobody should seize on these two lone deaths to prove the "safety" of nutmeg use. But at the same time, the recent wave of nutmeg reporting brings us no substantive study about the temporary or lasting damage it does to users. (I am, however, curious to know more about how nutmeg smokers are faring. Until the most recent reports surfaced, I had never heard of nutmeg smoking. When drugs that were previously swallowed or inhaled start to be smoked, catastrophe can occur. I see nothing on smoking nutmeg in the medical database PubMed. Editors: Please assign this piece!)

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Historically, the biggest brake on the use of nutmeg has been the overwhelming unpleasantness of the experience. As the July 1988 Journal of Accident & Emergency Medicine puts it, when nutmeg is taken in excess "a typical and unpleasant clinical syndrome ensues."

"This," the Journal authors conclude, "is why nutmeg abuse is virtually unheard of nowadays, with teenagers more likely to encounter it at the dinner table than on the street corner."

Addendum, Dec. 16: The Poison Review  correctly chides me for not finding and linking to this 2001 article  about the 55-year-old who died a nutmeg-related death. The deceased appears to have died from combining nutmeg and Rohypnol, not from nutmeg alone.

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Thanks to Joel Hruska and all the other readers who pelted me with cans of nutmeg encouraging me to write about this topic. Send your nutmeg confessionals to slate.pressbox@gmail.com and pour me an eggnog at my Twitter feed. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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