Legal, but inadvisable

A reader writes:

You can get high on nutmeg. You really definitely can, it's not like smoking banana peels or gum leaves or something.

So why isn't nutmeg illegal?


Yes, nutmeg is indeed a psychoactive drug. You need to eat a fair bit of the stuff, especially if it's not fresh, but it'll make the world look different all right.

Unfortunately for the hopeful supermarket trip-taker, though, being high on nutmeg is a rather unpleasant experience. The main active ingredient is "myristicin", which in the nutmeg plant serves to keep insects from eating it.

Like a number of other psychoactive compounds present in plants you can legally grow, myristicin is a "deliriant". It can cause pleasant effects - euphoria, interesting dreams while you're still awake - but it can also just stupefy and confuse the user, essentially giving you a preview of severe senile dementia. Effects of large doses of myristicin include headache, body pains, anxiety and vomiting, though usually not death. In this last respect myristicin is superior to the psychoactive compounds in other "legal" plants, like Echium plantagineum ("Paterson's Curse") and Datura stramonium ("jimson weed").

Myristicin also takes some hours to take effect, and can then last for a straight day before it even starts to wear off. The first quality results in overdoses, when after five hours of nothing much happening the user decides to knock back another bottle of nutmeg. The second can lock the user into a very lengthy tour of a place you'd much rather not be.

Psycho Science, as I have brilliantly decided to call it, is a new regular feature here. Ask me your science questions, and I'll answer them. Probably.

And then commenters will, I hope, correct at least the most obvious flaws in my answer.

4 Responses to “Legal, but inadvisable”

  1. Malcolm Says:

    A quick Pubmed search suggests that there have been perhaps a couple of fatalities associated with nutmeg use.

    However, in the more recent case, there was a second drug (Rohypnol/flunitrazepam) also involved.

    Previously I'd read that nutmeg/myristicin is toxic to the liver, but this may not be well founded.

    Anyway, I'd add "possibly dangerous" to the list of reasons not to try large doses of nutmeg.

  2. Anne Says:

    To answer the questioner's actual question: a drug gets made illegal/prescription not when it is found to be psychoactive, but when someone gets all worked up about people abusing it. Sometimes this makes very good sense — see the history of the Opium Wars — and sometimes it doesn't — LSD is classified as as dangerous as heroin, for some reason — but if nobody's excited about outlawing a drug, nobody bothers. So drugs that work but are no fun tend not to be controlled.

  3. Stark Says:

    I can vouch for the unpleasant nature of a nutmeg induced delirium. Way back in the dim distant days of 1990 (high school for me) I was witness to a friend, whom having just read that nutmeg was psychoactive, decided to try out the less common uses.

    He acquired a bottle full of whole nutmegs, set the family coffee grinder to extra fine, and proceeded to make a not terribly fine powder... then he tried to snort it like cocaine (note: he had no experience snorting anything - cocaine included). This resulted, predictably and hilariously, in a massive sneezing fit and a mildly bloody nose - the fact that he didn't clean coffee residue out of the grinder before beginning probably didn't help with the smoothness of the mixture to his sinuses.

    The snorting attempt being a failure he decided to try smoking it...alas, he had no ciggy papers... so... he decided a paper towel would suffice. By this point we had our entire usual gang of suspects convened to watch (7 of them) several of whom were regular marijuana users... but had mysteriously left their papers at home (which they never did). Needless to say nutmeg powder rolled into a bit of paper towel and lit on fire produces a smoke to which your lungs will not take a liking. Several minutes of coughing later (drowned out by the massive laughter of the onlookers of course) our intrepid experimentalist decides maybe he just ought to eat the nutmeg. So... he upends the entire little container of nutmeg (maybe 40ml) into his mouth... and realizes his mistake. He manages to get it down with copious water.... and then begins to wait.... for 3 hours, nothing at all. Then... well, it's all bad from there.

    Sudden anxiety, the shakes, vomiting, delirium, trying to rip out his own hair (believed it was on fire as I recall), massive sweats, and random searing pain. Basically the worst possible trip... for around 6 hours continuously. Looking back we should have taken him to the hospital... but at 16 that kind of thinking doesn't occur often. He survived it. Hates nutmeg.

    We're still friends all these years later and he was over for new years eve. Had some homemade eggnog out for the festivities which has a healthy shot of nutmeg in it... he wouldn't go near it even 22 years later. That experiment left an impression.

  4. Major Malfunction Says:

    A friend who tried it described the pain as having a box of 4" nails hammered into your stomach in the fashion of Pinhead from Hellraiser.

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