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.

Nutmeg.

Lock up your children! Incinerate the contents of your spice rack! A new drug menace is sweeping the land, and its name is nutmeg!

We know this because the press, which thinks its duty is to keep you cowering in fright, has discovered that teens and others are gleaning from the family's spice collection the wretched experience that is a nutmeg high. Newspapers ( Atlanta Journal-Constitution; New York Post), television broadcasters (CNN; ABC in Tampa; ABC in Miami), radio (WSB in Atlanta), and the Web have sounded the warning this month with their brief and frenetic pieces. The common theme in the pieces is that "kids" are doing the substance and that it's cheap and readily available, hence the end of the world has come.

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Can you reach an altered state of consciousness by eating, snorting, or smoking from a tin of nutmeg? You betcha. The medical literature ("Nutmeg Intoxication," New England Journal of Medicine, July 4, 1963; "Nutmeg as a Narcotic," Angewandte Chemie International Edition, June 1971) has long respected the psychoactive powers of this compound.

Peter Stafford's Psychedelics Encyclopedia uncovers an 1883 report from Mumbai noting that "the Hindus of West India take [nutmeg] as an intoxicant." Stafford continues, "Nutmeg has been used for centuries as a snuff in rural eastern Indonesia; in India, the same practice appears, but often the ground seed is first mixed with betel and other kinds of snuff." In 1829, a Czech physiologist named Jan Evangelista Purkinje washed down three ground nutmegs with a glass of wine and experienced headaches, nausea, euphoria, and hallucinations that lasted several days, which remain a good description of today's average nutmeg binge. One anecdotal report: A drug-savvy friend of mine compares his one nutmeg high to being keelhauled by a freight train on a transcontinental run. He didn't like it, but the substance has its enthusiasts.

Harvard ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes and chemist Albert Hofmann (father of LSD) wrote of nutmeg's ubiquity in Western culture in their 1980 book The Botany and Chemistry of Hallucinogens. "Confirmed reports of its use by students, prisoners, sailors, alcoholics, marijuana smokers, and other deprived of their preferred drugs are many and clear. Especially frequent is the taking of nutmeg in prisons, notwithstanding the usual denials by prison officials." (Malcolm X speaks of getting high on nutmeg "and the other semi-drugs" while serving time in prison in The Autobiography of Malcolm X.)  It has been used as medicine since at least the seventh century and was employed as an abortifacient at the end of the 19th century, which resulted in numerous cases of nutmeg poisoning, according to medical journals. Although used as a folk treatment for other ailments, nutmeg has no proven medicinal value today.

According to the Angewandte Chemie International Edition article, nutmeg became popular among young people, bohemians, and prisoners in the post-World War II period, "and this use was mainly, if not exclusively, confined to the USA." A 1966 New York Times piece (subscription required) named it along with morning glory seeds, diet aids, cleaning fluids, cough medicine, and other substances as alternative highs on college campuses.

As you skim your way through Nexis, nutmeg intoxication pops up again and again—not so much because users become reacquainted with its drug properties, but because the press does. Its current media bump probably has as much to do with the plethora of nutmeg testimonials now running on YouTube as anything. (The current press accounts usually mention the YouTube connection.) 

How prevalent is nutmeg use? This sensible if incomplete ABC News piece undercuts the idea that nutmeg use is rampant: Only 67 cases of nutmeg exposure have been recorded by the American Association of Poison Control Centers this year, compared with 5,000 phone calls for marijuana. Aside from the drumroll of nutmeg press reports, I can find no evidence that its use is actually increasing.

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!)

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.

******

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.)

Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word nutmeg in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send it to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

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Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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