By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 3, 2006
They have such whimsical names as heavenly blue, crimson rambler and pearly gates, and delicate blooms that crawl quickly up trellises.
But when morning glory seeds aren't planted -- when they are instead ingested -- whimsical thoughts can crawl through altered minds with kaleidoscope-like visions.
And teenagers know this.
Once popular in the hippie era of the 1960s, morning glory seeds as a hallucinogen seem to have sprouted once again. Local gardening shops have noticed their seed stocks depleted by adolescent hands, and poison control centers in the District and its suburbs have received calls from hospitals with patients experiencing adverse reactions, or bad trips, from the seeds.
"They are certainly being used," said Chris Holstege, a doctor who runs Virginia's Blue Ridge Poison Center. "Kids are getting brighter. Between the Internet and magazines like High Times, they are learning about this."
Just a few weeks ago, he said, a mother called the center after finding seed packets in her teenage son's bedroom. She wanted to know what they were used for, Holstege said. A more serious call came from hospital emergency officials who needed to know how to treat an 18-year-old who had taken the seeds along with an antidepressant and cough syrup. His heart rate spiked to 150, his body went rigid and his mind reeled with hallucinations.
"These kids have a misconception that it's natural, that it's more safe" than other drugs, Holstege said. "They are not. It alters your perception, and that puts you at risk."
The seeds contain lysergic acid amide and give an LSD-like high when swallowed by the hundreds. A simple Internet search reveals a slew of Web sites offering dosages and tips.
Signs that teenagers are experimenting locally are for the most part anecdotal: Drug rehabilitation center staff members say they sometimes hear about the seeds from adolescents receiving help for other addictions, and some gardening centers have stated taking notice.
In Arlington County, the owners of Ayers Variety and Hardware learned about the seeds' hallucinogenic effects when they caught two teenage boys stealing their supply.
"They had 13 or 14 packs of these seeds. You think, 'Hmm,' " said Kristy Peterkin, whose family owns the store. "We then started asking around, and our teenage employees informed us that if you checked the Web that it was an easy way to alter themselves."
The store owners have taken some precautions, such as changing the bar code on the seeds so the supply can be monitored and noticing whether a teenager is buying them in bulk. The owners have stopped short, however, of putting the seeds behind the counter with the compressed gas that can be used for huffing, or carding every customer buying seeds who looks young.
"We don't sell pocketknives to children under 16, but can I keep them from buying morning glory seeds?" Peterkin asked. "We struggle with this."
Owen Ryan, 23, who works at Meadows Farms Nursery in Falls Church, said he knows about the seeds because of incidents at the nursery. In particular, he remembered a teenage boy whom employees called Shaggy because he was a dead ringer for the scruffy-haired hippie in the "Scooby-Doo" cartoon.
"He would just come in and buy a few packs at a time," Ryan said. "I found out from a guy who used to work here what people were buying them for, other than planting.
"It was sort of a shock to us all," he said.
It is difficult to say how many teenagers in the area are using the springtime seeds as a drug. Since it is legal to buy them, there are no police reports to track. And law enforcement officials across the region said they weren't aware that the seeds produced effects similar to those produced by LSD. Neither were many substance abuse counselors or organizations charged with monitoring the drug industry.
The Drug Enforcement Administration, citing ignorance about the seeds, referred an inquiry to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, where a spokeswoman, Sara Rosario Wilson, said, "We really don't have enough information on it to make comments." She referred calls to Lloyd Johnston, a research professor at the University of Michigan and the principal investigator of Monitoring the Future, a study of drug abuse among adolescents.
Johnston spoke with well-researched authority about drugs ranging from cocaine to methamphetamines, but he, too, admitted ignorance when it came to morning glories.
"I am afraid kids are ahead of me in that case," he said, adding that drug trends emerge every decade. "Over time, the regulatory agencies and Congress begin to catch up with these things, but there's usually a pretty long lag."
The use of morning glory seeds as a recreational drug is just beginning to register nationally. After hearing in March about use among teenagers, the Ohio Early Warning Network issued an alert to school, health and law enforcement officials. Louisiana passed legislation that made morning glories and 38 other plants containing hallucinogenic compounds illegal when intended for human consumption. State Rep. Michael G. Strain (R), who proposed the legislation, said a number of youths had been hospitalized after abusing such plants. "Some tried to literally fly," he said.
Drug counselor Mary Ellen Ruff said she believes the issue has remained under the radar for several reasons: Drug tests don't detect such plants; they're legal; and their use appears to be an adolescent phenomenon that doesn't extend into adult drug use.
"It is more for kids that want to be druggies but aren't really," she said. "It is sort of them dipping their toe into the waters of drug use with something that is legal and easily accessible."
When she asked the adolescents she works with at the Inova Keller Center in Fairfax City about the seeds, she said, they explained nonchalantly how kids soak them in water and make a tea out of them.
"These are bright kids. They are getting information and they are like, 'Ooh, I could do that,' " she said, adding that on the Internet, one site that talks about morning glories and other drugs has garnered a loyal following. "That's a one-stop shop for anything you want to know: how to beat your drug tests and testimony as to why everything is so great. Every kid in treatment knows about that Web site."
The fear among professionals, Ruff said, is not that a teenager will die from using morning glory seeds but that the teenager has chosen a lifestyle that could lead to use of more serious drugs.
"It's sad that there is something so not right that they need to go to these lengths to feel better," she said.
But drug abuse counselor George Swanberg said that kid will always exist: "That kid who will find something. He will find something under the sink or on a walk through the woods."
Swanberg, executive director of Life Line Counseling Center in Fairfax, said he hears sporadic reports of morning glory abuse. He believes, however, what he once read in the popular 1970s book "Licit and Illicit Drugs": The surest way to start an epidemic is to talk about a drug.
Jeff Davis, whose 16-year-old daughter knows of at least one boy in her Manassas high school who has tried morning glory seeds, said talking is the only way to stop the problem.
"I've never met a kid that is not more intelligent than their parents on the Internet," he said. "How can I prepare my kids for what they're going to face if I don't have a clue what they're facing?"
A few feet away, wearing all black on a sunny day, Matt Edelblute, 16, slouched with three friends on a bench near a skate park. Music from the punk band Morning Glory ripped through his headphones.
Without pause, Edelblute explained how the seeds are used. "You have to eat a lot of them," he said. "I know it lasts between six and eight hours." A friend of his had done it, he said, but he hasn't.
"I never felt I had enough time to sit there and eat 500 seeds," he explained.