The dangers of jimson weed and its abuse by teenagers in the Kanawha Valley of West Virginia
Jimson weed (Datura stramonium, a member of the Belladonna alkyloid family) is a plant growing naturally in West Virginia and has been used as a home remedy since colonial times. Due to its easy availability and strong anticholinergic properties, teens are using Jimson weed as a drug. Plant parts can be brewed as a tea or chewed, and seed pods, commonly known as “pods” or “thorn apples,” can be eaten. Side effects from ingesting jimson weed include tachycardia, dry mouth, dilated pupils, blurred vision, hallucinations, confusion, combative behavior, and difficulty urinating. Severe toxicity has been associated with coma and seizures, although death is rare. Treatment consists of activated charcoal and gastric lavage. Esmolol or other beta-blocker may be indicated to reduce severe sinus tachycardia. Seizures, severe hypertension, severe hallucinations, and life-threatening arrhythmias are indicators for the use of the anticholinesterase inhibitor, Physostigmine. This article reviews the cases of nine teenagers who were treated in hospitals in the Kanawha Valley after ingesting jimson weed. We hope this article will help alert primary care physicians about the abuse of jimson weed and inform health officials about the need to educate teens about the dangers of this plant.
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Smoking jimson weed seeds
Jamestown weed*, Mad apple, Moon flower, Sacred datura, Stramonium, Thorn Apple (Quattrocchi, 2012; White, 2003).
* Two of the plant’s common names, “Jamestown weed” and “Jimsonweed” originated from an event that occurred in Jamestown, Virginia, where a group of British soldiers was intoxicated with this plant in 1676.
Common names in Spanish:
Berenjena del Diablo, Chamico, Higuera del Diablo, Toloátzin, Estramonio (Quattrocchi, 2012; White, 2003; Berdonces, 2015)..
Where is it found?
This plant is probably native to Eastern North America, but is now found, along with other species of the genus Datura, in many countries around the world (Schultes et al., 2001; Ma et al., 2015; Mabberley, 2008).
Jimsonweed is an annual plant that inhabits waste places and abandoned fields, usually near streams or “arroyos” (Kanchan and Atreya, 2016; Valverde et al., 2003).
Parts of the plant used:
The whole plant, especially the leaves, flowers, and seeds (Ratsch, 2005).
How is it used?
The leaves can be dried and rolled to make cigarettes. The leaves and seeds are sometimes dried, pulverized, and ignited in order to breathe the fumes for the treatment of asthma. The leaves and seeds are decocted in water to make a tea, but this practice is very dangerous (Ratsch, 2005; Berdonces, 2015).
What is it used for?
Cigarettes made from this plant and other herbs have been smoked to treat bronchial asthma, but the risks of intoxication far outweigh any benefits. Despite their known toxicity, various Datura species have been employed in the traditional healing practices in many countries, including China and Tibet, for the treatment of bronchial asthma, rheumatism, inflammation, and to diminish pain (Mai et al., 2017; Ma et al., 2015; Ratsch, 2005; Berdonces, 2015).
Additionally, these plants have been used for centuries in complex religious rituals and witchcraft, due to their hallucinogenic properties, especially by various indigenous tribes in North America (Schultes et al., 2001). Unfortunately, many people are unaware of the inherent dangers related to these practices (Ratsch, 2005; Alhaj, 2006; Krenzelok, 2010; Berdonces, 2015; Kanchan and Atreya, 2016; Fu et al., 2017; Graziano et al., 2017).
Experiments undertaken in animals with various species of Datura have shown that these plants have medicinal properties for the prospective treatment of diabetes and other diseases (Krishna Murthy et al., 2004), as well as a source of atropine, an alkaloid that is used in the treatment of organophosphate insecticide toxicity (Mittal et al., 2016). Certain Datura species produce compounds known as withanolides, that have shown anti-proliferative (impede cell division), as well as anti-inflammatory activities that could be useful for the treatment of cancer and other diseases (Yang et al., 2014; Zhang et al., 2014).
Even though certain medicinal uses have been reported for Jimson weed, there are also certain serious neurological effects including hallucinations, memory loss, and anxiety, associated with its ingestion. A study found that alkaloid extracts from the leaves and fruits induced alterations of activities of critical enzymes of purinergic signaling, which suggested this could be one the mechanisms responsible for its neurological effects (Ademiluyi et al., 2016).
Two closely related genera within the Solanaceae (nightshade) family, Datura (“Jimson weed”, “Toloache”, and “Tornaloco”), as well as Brugmansia (“Trumpetflower”, “Borrachero”, “Floripondio”) may possess potential medicinal value, but should never be used for home remedies or for inebriation as “recreational drugs”, since both of these practices can prove to be lethal (Schultes et al., 2001; Ratsch, 2005; Alhaj, 2006; Graziani et al., 2017).
Safety / Precautions
- Jimson weed or Toloache (D. stramonium) and other related species have been used as a “recreational” drug for their hallucinogenic properties, a practice that is very dangerous and could be deadly (De Witt et al., 1997; Alhaj, 2006; Krenzelok, 2010; Berdonces, 2015; Kanchan and Atreya, 2016).
- All parts of the plant are dangerous due to their content of tropane alkaloids such as atropine, hyoscyamine and scopolamine (hyoscine). However, the seeds constitute the most toxic part (Boumba et al., 2004; Ratsch, 2005; Krenzelok, 2010; Berdonces, 2015).
- There is a case on record of a patient exhibiting acute anticholinergic syndrome (dry mouth, rapid heartbeat, hyperthermia, and dilation of the pupil) from ingestion of lime tea accidentally mixed with another Datura species (D. innoxia), which contains some of the same alkaloids as jimsonweed (Pekdemir et al., 2004).
- Several cases of severe and sometimes fatal intoxications have been recorded throughout the world in both humans and animals, due to voluntary or accidental ingestion of various species belonging of Datura (Berdonces, 2015; Cortinovis and Caloni, 2015; Wagstaff, 2008).
- Some of the symptoms in affected individuals include hallucinations and confusion, dilation of the pupil, flushing, dry mouth, tachycardia (rapid heartbeat), and elevated body temperature (Özkaya et al., 2015; Krenzelok, 2010; Alhaj, 2006).
- This and other mind-altering plants should be suspected in patients presenting altered mental status, agitation and hallucinations, as well as the anticholinergic symptoms mentoned above (DeWitt et al., 1997; Kanchan and Atreya, 2016; Özkaya et al., 2015; Glatstein et al., 2012; Krenzelok, 2010; Alhaj, 2006; Pekdemir et al., 2004).
- The treatment for Jimsonweed intoxication is mainly supportive, including gastrointestinal decontamination with activated charcoal. Benzodiazepines may be use to control agitation. Physostigmine is usually applied as an antidote (Glatstein et al., 2012; Salen et al., 2013), but it should be used with caution, as it may cause secondary effects such as hypotension (low blood pressure), bradycardia, and convulsions, among other effects (Kanchan and Atreya, 2016; Krenzelok, 2010).
- Each species of Datura varies in the concentrations of alkaloids and other active substances. For this reason, it is very important for individuals, especially young people, to be aware of the toxicity and potential risks associated with the “recreational” use of these plants (Alhaj, 2006; Krenzelok, 2010; Glatstein et al., 2012; Melvin and Hourani, 2014).
Before you decide to take any medicinal herb or herbal supplement, be sure to consult with your health care professional first. Avoid self-diagnosis and self-medication: Always be on the safe side!