Is the preference for natural over synthetic drugs ubiquitous? Photo credit: Envato.
There is a common error in reasoning called the naturalistic fallacy. It occurs when one conflates what is natural with what is good. The issue is that oftentimes, the one deploying this argument determines exactly what natural means.
One bigoted example is the homophobic argument used in the early 2000s (and earlier) that LGBTQIA+ couples should not be allowed to marry because it isn’t natural. Yet, this is a very narrow view of what natural means, since same-sex attraction has existed since the beginning of time across different species.
The preference for what may be natural is ubiquitous. Our food is organic; our meat is free-range; and our skin products are 100% natural. Even our deodorant is made out of salt, and our drugs have to be naturally occurring plants.
So, what distinguishes natural from synthetic, or human-made, substances? Furthermore, are natural substances better than artificial ones?
Benign Natural Substances
The sentiment that natural is better, or somehow inherently safer is also true for drugs. One can likely overhear someone say, “I only smoke weed and do shrooms, because they’re natural.”
There are obviously many non-psychoactive, natural things that are outright poisonous. Those include certain berries, plants, seeds, mushrooms, and leaves. So, just because something is natural, doesn’t mean that it’s a benign substance.
In the case of cannabis and psilocybin mushrooms, it does happen to be true that they’re both relatively safe and non-neurotoxic, according to Americans for Safe Access and numerous studies. However, this isn’t true for all naturally occurring psycho-active substances.
For example, other psycho-active mushrooms, such as Amanita Muscaria, are toxic although likely won’t kill you, according to the emergency medicine specialist at ACEP Now.
And other natural psychedelics, such as morning glory seeds (which contain a chemical very similar to LSD called LSA, are also toxic, according to Poison Control.
Even though people can use all of those substances (including the toxic ones) safely — they aren’t safe just because they’re natural. Rather, substances such as cannabis and magic mushrooms are relatively safe because of their chemical and pharmacological composition and their non-toxic interaction with the human body.
A Real Distinction?
Many psycho-active drugs blur the line between natural and synthetic, such as heroin and cocaine. Both are derived from organic sources — plants. Cocaine famously comes from the coca leaf, while heroin comes from poppies. Yet, not many consider these drugs natural or benign, since they can be addictive and toxic at certain levels.
One could say that heroin and cocaine are synthetic because they take a natural raw material — the plant material itself — and produce the final drug through a chemical process. There are certain synthetic chemicals that scientist can mix with the plant material to make drugs.
But cooking food is also a chemical process that alters the natural state of the raw food. Yet no one would assert that veggies are no longer natural because they’re sautéed.
The same is true of cannabis. One can’t just pluck the nugs from the plant and eat them. In order to reap its psycho-active benefits, consumers must either heat it, or extract it in fat or through another chemical process.
Alcohol is another example; it is the result of fermentation — another natural process. Although it is legal, regulated, and deeply embedded in our culture, it is also addictive, and fatal at high-doses. Additionally, it is neurotoxic, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
There are also many so-called artificial drugs that are relatively safe at certain doses. Those include acetaminophen (Tylenol), Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), and MDMA (ecstasy).
Further, chemists can synthesize many natural psycho-active chemicals in a lab, such as psilocybin and 5-MEO-DMT (more on that later).
The natural-synthetic distinction doesn’t seem to hold up. For some chemicals, it’s hard to distinguish between natural and artificial, especially when chemists can synthesize natural chemicals in a lab. Secondly, there are both natural and artificial drugs that are safe.
Another psycho-active chemical that further contests the clear difference between natural and synthetic is Delta-8-THC.
Delta-8-THC is one of more than a hundred naturally occuring chemicals in cannabis. The high it produces is extremely similar to ‘normal’ THC, aka delta-9-THC. But delta-8-THC is entirely federally legal and is also legal in most states, reports Leafly. Delta-8-THC is legal due to the 2018 Farm Bill, which allows for the sale and possession of hemp products with less than 0.3% delta-9-THC.
Delta-8-THC is found in hemp plants in low-amounts. Operators often extract it through a chemical process for human consumption.
Bentley Post, senior editor of Delta 8, an online resource center and supplier of Delta-8-THC, says that:
“Although occurring naturally in small quantities in the cannabis plant, the bulk of Delta 8-THC used for consumer products is produced from a cannabinol [CBD] conversion. This cannabinol conversation essentially involves converting naturally occurring CBD isolate or distillate (extracted from Hemp) into Delta 8-THC by a chemical process first patented in 2002.”
So, because the plant produces such low amounts of it, operators produce the Delta-8-THC that they provide to consumers through a synthetic process. Yet, the chemical that is ultimately produced is still Delta-8-THC.
As Post says, “the process that occurs to convert readably available CBD isolate/distillate into Delta 8-THC is simply speeding up what would have naturally occurred in the plant.”
Delta-8-THC clearly doesn’t fit into the natural-synthetic dichotomy that many have established for drugs.
On a recent episode of the Viceland show, Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia, host Hamilton Morris details how to synthesize 5-MEO-DMT. To do this, he shows himself producing it within a lab.
To Morris, the option to synthesize the substance is important.That’s because the only natural way to obtain 5-MEO-DMT is by extracting it from the Bufo alvarius toad, reports Forbes.
As such, Morris is concerned that over-harvesting these toads for the drug would eventually lead to their extinction. Currently, the toads are on California’s endangered list and New Mexico’s threatened list.
Morris then presents his findings at a psychedelic conference. He says that synthetic 5-MEO-DMT is the exact same chemical that the toad secretes. Additionally, use of the synthetic chemical could save the toads from extinction. However, the attendees are apprehensive to accept his proposal. Their reasoning: they prefer to use the natural version of the chemical that comes from the toad.
Even when Morris presents scientific evidence that proves both synthetic and natural versions of the substance are the exact same chemical, and that ceasing use of the natural version could save the toads, the audience still picks the natural version. There is even a study in the scientific journal ACS Omega that corroborates his claim. The study finds that the exact same psycho-active chemical that the toad secretes (5-MEO-DMT) can be synthesized.
The natural-synthetic distinction in drugs isn’t something that the public clearly defines. Nor is it something that determines the safety or potential use of a given chemical. There are both good and bad natural and synthetic substances; but chemicals are chemicals.