Amongst herbalists, there is a strong emphasis on working with herbs that are generally gentle with not a lot of potential side effects and contraindications. Think lavender, lemon balm, linden, burdock and dandelion. Even the stronger plants such as cramp bark, valerian and vervain are fairly benign when we compare them to strong drugs and pharmaceuticals.
There is a reason for mainly working with gentle plants. Often they are filled with nutrients that strengthen and nourish us. Gentle bitter herbs can improve our digestion and absorption Tonic herbs can help build our resiliency to stress. Anxiety reducing “nervines” can help strengthen our nervous system and help us to relax. Gentle herbs have slow subtle effects that can be profound over time. Just the act of slowing down to sip some tea, walk in the woods, soak in a tub with lavender bath salts or get a massage with rose infused massage oil can be deeply healing.
But when I look at the wider world of herbalism, I see an entirely different picture. We as humans love strong plants; plants that are potent in effect and can strongly change how we feel- today. Right now. This moment. Think of coffee and tea- Coffea arabica and Camelia sinensis. These are the two most popular plants in the world. In America we drink 400 million cups of coffee a day; 146 billion cups a year. We drink coffee because it gets the job done- it is strongly stimulating and energizing- perfect for a society that is focused intensely on productivity. In other parts of the world, herbs such as khat and bettel nut are equally popular stimulants that are strongly energizing.
If we look to the underground market for illegal plants, poppy and coca leaf are extraordinarily popular. As the precursors to opiate drugs and cocaine, one could argue that they should not be praised and instead labeled very dangerous. And sadly perhaps that is true, because we have learned how to extract and potentiate their constituents to make them into very addictive and potentially lethal drugs. But as plants by themselves, they have a long history of being used traditionally in a good way for medicine and healing.
And finally when we look to some of the most popular strong plants that are legally available to many people, cannabis and kratom top the list. Cannabis itself was a 6.7 billion dollar industry in 2016 and is estimated to capture over 20 billion dollar in sales by 2020. That’s a lot of weed. Because of its recent legalization in many states, many people are turning towards pot not only for a recreational high but as a way to manage pain, anxiety, symptoms of trauma and sleep issues. Marijuana growers are hybridizing plants to increase more of the anxiety and pain relieving compounds such as CBD.
Kratom comes from the leaves of a South-East Asian tree and while many people are not aware of its benefits yet, it has become enormously popular amongst opiate addicts who are looking for a way to come off of strong pharmaceutical opiates and heroin. Because it has opiate like effects, it can act as a replacement for those drugs without having the potential for causing a lethal overdose.
Opiate drugs are enormous problem in our country right now with many people starting their addiction after being prescribed them by a doctor and then going on to obtain them illegally when a doctor cuts them off. More than 50,000 deaths were reported last year alone due to opiate drugs.
The reasons plants like marijuana and kratom are so popular are many fold. Though they can lead to dependence and can cause strong negative side effects (try eating a whole pot brownie and then head to work), they offer the ability for the consumer to control the dosage, the method of administration (smoke, vape, eat) and how often to dose. This puts the decision of how to manage one’s health outside in one’s own hands and out of the hands of a doctor or medical professional.
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Using strong plants to gain greater autonomy and control over one’s own health is an enormous change happening right now. People are not seeing plants like cannabis and kratom as drugs that should be illegal but instead as plants that can have benefit and healing potential. With increasing knowledge of the dangers of pharmaceutical drugs such as opiates and benzodiazapenes, people are searching for plants that can have similar effect without the potential for severe addiction and potential overdose.
This shift towards increasingly embracing strong plants is also due to the problems with the medical system. It can be increasingly difficult for people to get good insurance without large copays and deductibles. These act as firewalls to people accessing healthcare and that is leading people to search for alternatives that they have more control over.
Strong plants are not always benign. Unlike the gentle plants mentioned earlier, they can lead to dependence or cause extremes in mood that can be deeply challenging for some people. Think of drinking a whole pot of coffee or smoking really strong weed when you aren’t ready for it. But even if we look at strong plants through a “Harm Reduction” lens, these plants present a gentler alternative to very strong and potentially lethal synthetic drugs. Certainly there is a need for these potent drugs but the severe crisis with prescribed medication dependence and overdose is cause for serious alarm.
As an herbalist I am always pointing to gentle nourishing and strengthening plants to help people heal at a deep level. Nourishing herbs like nettles, milky oats, hawthorn and skullcap can profoundly improve our wellbeing when taken over time. They are deeply restorative and can heal underlying imbalances and health concerns.
But I also understand that in this day and age, many people don’t have the desire or capacity to take that slow approach to health. Strong plants provide that immediate benefit of relaxation, stimulation, pain relief and improved mood that many people are searching for. They also can be obtained easily and act as alternatives to stronger potent drugs that can cause far worse side effects and health complications. My hope is that as people explore these strong plants, they act as a doorway to exploring working with other plants that are gentler and more restorative. Perhaps plants like kratom and cannabis can be “gateway herbs”- not to hard drugs- but to the gentler healing plants- and they can be used in conjunction with a wide array of herbs.