5 of the Most Overrated Legal Highs -- An Attack on Everyday Drugs (and a Few You've Never Heard of)

Have you ever noticed that a lot of the legal drugs out there -- including the popular ones like alcohol -- are wildly overrated? As in, they don't match their reputations, and have negative side effects that are often far stronger than the drug itself?

I take all kinds of drugs, but these five, even though they are perfectly legal in all 50 states, I'm pretty sure I'm never going to touch again.


For good reason people have abandoned much of our old caveman ways of life. If you have, say, a tumor the size of a football in your stomach, you'd rightly turn to a surgeon who could take it out with great precision, and you've got a shot at life afterward. Automatically, we know to laugh out loud, good and proper, at the shaman who would propose to cure us by smearing mouse blood and blueberries on the protruding lump.

Yet alcohol, a Neolithic-era drug, is still very much with us. In 10,000 ways, alcohol is locked into this culture, like granite. We sit around in bars, wasting our precious time and money. We empty out our wallets to buy a handful of vodka bottles on the way to some party guaranteed to degenerate into sentimental babble and mindless groping within a few hours.

Sure, booze gets you nice and sloppy, and it can take you away from your life. But the costs are huge -- a good, solid, drunken state usually costs a person a day of agonizing recovery when you come down. Pour alcohol into the body, and it hits the brain and nervous system in a great way, to be sure, but this crude drug also splashes like Drano all over the rest of the vital organs, sapping them.

All that wasted time, multiplied by the millions of booze guzzlers, every Saturday and Sunday morning-plus-afternoon-plus-sometimes evening, every week for thousands of years. Addiction to alcohol is also usually debilitating -- it typically gets you fired from work very quickly -- and it's the cause of all sorts of morning-after regrets. It makes me sick, just thinking about it.

Wonderful researchers and pharmacologists in clean white coats have come up with all kinds of wonderful things that approximate the sensations that alcohol offers. If you need to overcome your social insecurities to go on the dance floor or go up to a good-looking stranger, try amphetamines -- they'll make you as bubbly and social as any glass of champagne. And speed won't lower your sex standards or make you say something you'll regret for the rest of your life. You'll be in control.

Do you just want to knock yourself out from the grim realities of your existence? Try 100 milligrams of codeine and relax as your nervous system turns into Cloud Nine. To be sure, there's some payback the next day -- but you don't have to worry about the quivering, retching, deep nausea and splitting headaches. Just a little vagueness, and a mild sense of disassociation from your loved ones.

I'll take that trade any day. (Getting a prescription for codeine and amphetamines is a relative breeze: ADHD plus chronic-back-pain complaints will get you a juicy prescription with the visit to the right M.D. -- and you don't even have to seek out a sleazy doctor to do it.)

Apologies to those who love teasing out the rich, subtle weave of flavors like California live oaks, lilacs and whatever else from their $50 bottles of Chardonnay. That's just a sideshow attraction to the effect of the drug; a cultural Band-Aid to conceal the true purpose of why it's sitting on the dinner table -- it's sitting there to get you high, and deep down, we all know it. I don't see any oak-flavored bubble gum for sale.

Nuclear-Powered Coffee Products

I'm not quibbling with caffeine here, just the dosage intake the culture thinks is normal.

At some point, I think in the mid-1990s, the idea of a straightforward, wake-me-up, strong coffee wasn't enough for us -- we went over some kind of caffeine edge, and now we're at a place where millions of us are dumping two or three 16-ounce, tar-thick, TNT-like concoctions down our throats every day, pasting the best brown-toothed smile we can on our faces while we do it.

Hybrid coffee beans unload overwhelming amounts of caffeine into the system. When people take too many painkillers and pass out in a pool of vomit, it's called "tragic overdose." Those rules don't seem to apply with coffee overload, maybe because you can conceal the worst of its effects in the toilet.

Take a look at the people gulping that stuff in Starbucks -- are they really waking up, or are they reeling on the inside? Or maybe it's that they crave that cranky, grumpy mood that comes on about two hours after drinking that Starbucks product. Do we really need a triple espresso? Look at their ashen faces as they leave the place.

My local coffee shop has started selling little bags of concentrated coffee solution in mini ketchup-style packages that taste like those chemical puddles you see in junkyards.

And now the otherwise praiseworthy subculture of long-distance road bicyclists supports multiple product lines of caffeine concentrates -- they swallow them in gel form, syrups, chews and bars.

It’s all pretty pointless, when the maximum utility of caffeine is that it can mildly stimulate you for about 45 minutes. Attempts to go beyond that  are like the disappointment of seeing a movie set in real life, which is pretty much how I feel about the explosion of carbonated energy drinks. 

Rockstar and the Rest of the Energy Drink Industry

They come in many fake fruity flavors and spiffy decorated aluminum cans that look like Pete Wentz's favorite T-shirt. They have grown in popularity beyond the younger X Games, trash-rock crowd that was the original target market.

The heaving, boozing post-frat/sorority-house young professionals are guzzling these now, too. It's part of the buzz-booze fusion in the culture: They drink it to potentiate the alcohol and stay awake hours longer while all those shots of Jack swirl around inside the belly. Proven to reduce drunken staggering by 30 percent.

It contains roughly 160 milligrams of that rather ubiquitous drug, caffeine, in every 16-ounce can (average normal coffee contains 75 milligrams). To be clear, these drinks are pretty much caffeinated sugar water, with some additional marketed chemicals, like Red Bull’s much touted taurine. There’s no scientific proof whatsoever that taurine stimulates or gives energy at all. So really, it’s just coffee under another name and flavor.

Rockstar, along with the rest of the glorified energy drink market, which is littered with names that sound like Sarah Palin's children -- Amp, Full Throttle, SoBe, No Fear, Red Bull and BooKoo -- is a hateful enterprise.

But what separates Rockstar from the pack is that the product was launched by the offspring of someone even more detestable than Sarah Palin: shock-jock radio host Michael Savage (whose real last name is Weiner).

Savage's son, Russell Goldencloud Weiner, founded Rockstar, which has now gone global. Savage's wife, Janet Weiner, is the chief financial officer of the company.

When Savage isn't out there mocking homosexuals, or making racist jabs at Arabs and the Obama family, he's out there pushing his son's drink -- maybe it's just fatherly pride. Savage couldn't even take his Rockstar cap off to pose for a photo with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., at an election rally from last year:


Departing rather starkly from the world of mainstream highs to obscure ones, kava is one of the more popular ethno-botanical legal "highs."

High is a very relative word, because I suppose you couldn't deny experiencing some sensatory high if you ate enough cardboard. It's just the art of poisoning yourself that we're talking about here.

The cardboard high would probably be obscured by digestive poisoning, a bloody nose and tremors from the bleaching agents, but deep down you'd be able to detect some kind of high.

Anyway, kava. Herbal pharmacies sell low doses of kava as a product to relieve stress and anxiety, a mild tranquilizer in gel caps or extracts. 

When I first read about kava on the drug resource Erowid, I popped down to my local health food store, bought a bottle of gel caps and popped 10 of them in the store. I get a little relaxed after drinking a glass of grapefruit juice, and this was roughly the same experience.

But still -- there's so much damn hype about kava, and rather impressive tribal worship of the drug in the South Pacific, that I thought I'd give it a second chance. So I ordered a bag of it from an online supplier

In places like Polynesia and Vanuatu, the roots of the kava plant are crushed into a fine powder and then stuffed into the anus with a device resembling a musket loader. Just kidding. They make a frothy cold beverage out of it.

The bag of kava I ordered came with a small sack of lecithin to help blend the active ingredient with water, which the instructions told me to dump in a blender with the root powder. It got really frothy. I strained the pulpy juice and poured 20 ounces of it into a glass.

The taste of the kava froth drink is unbearably bad -- gag inducing; soapy. Better said, like very soapy dishwater, because there was something else in that taste, but it's hard to put a finger on exactly what it was -- kind of like when you drink dishwater. It's recommended to mix the kava solution with fruit juice, but I don't see how any flavor could override the soap taste -- maybe tweak it at best; turn it into flavored soap.

Something that tastes this bad has to be consumed as quickly as possible, but there's no way to avoid paying the piper, because what's quickly drunk comes bubbling back up soon after.

Nasty, soapy burps ensued. I crawled into bed and hugged a pillow and burped every so often as I waited for the effects, and big whoopee-do. I felt chilled out for about an hour or so. There I was, lying there with a bloated stomach, chilled out.

There are a lot of ways to chill out -- I don't recommend kava as the best entry point. My wife tried it out, and reported roughly the same non-event event.

Drugs have different effects on different people of course. Maybe kava will grant you the desire to wander around "outside a fair bit just marveling at the beauty of mother earth and her myriad facets," and have "several focused thoughts about the nature of mankind," as one user reported on Erowid after drinking the froth. But I suspect its popularity is akin to the Niagara Falls -- popular because it goes against the nature of mankind to admit it sucked since you spent all that time going out there.


This "drug" just has me perplexed and bewildered. How the hell did this weak, ineffectual plant ever crawl out of nature's backyard and into my rolling papers?

It has a reputation for providing aural hallucinations -- sounds you hear that aren't real. Sinicuichi, as the plant is nicknamed (its real name is Heimia salicifolia), is for sale by many online vendors as a rockin' great time.

The smoke was thick, visibly yellowish from tar, and had absolutely no effect on me whatsoever. I've read a lot of negative accounts of aching joints, soreness -- but you can never be sure. People lie and exaggerate about the bad trips they have on drugs as often as they claim that smoking some random plant is like hearing Hendrix on an invisible iPod.

You can prepare this pointless drug in a variety of ways, but really, take a page out of Nancy Reagan and just say no. Here's the Wikipedia take. I wish I had read this before buying at $20 bag of it off the Net:

"This controversial attribution of psychoactive effects appears to be traceable back to a publication by J.B. Calderon in 1896, who wrote that it was said to possess a 'curious and unique physiological action … people drinking either a decoction or the juice of the plant have a pleasant drunkenness … all objects appear yellow and the sounds of bells, human voices or any other reach their ears as if coming from a long distance.' Calderon actually tested the plant and did not experience any noticeable effects. Through a series of exaggerating and dramatizing citations, especially by Victor A. Reko in the first half of the last century, the plant became known as a hallucinogen, despite that psychoactive properties of the plant have never been demonstrated."

Here's an experience I read that approximated mine:

"I have tried about 12 grams and gone through the whole fermentation process of boiling it and leaving it out in the sun for a day, to make one of the foulest tasting concoctions I have ever tried. I boiled it down to a shot-glass worth and swallowed it at once. There was a bit of nausea (maybe associated with the taste), but apart from that, all I noticed was a small mood lift and reflection on childhood school memories. Don't know if this was the drug or merely just a coincidence. But my reflections and feeling happy about my memories seemed somewhat inspired by the drug. Apart from that though, it seemed like a fairly useless herb, and the taste is something I don't have a desire to repeat."

It was definitely a coincidence. That's what you call wishful thinking and an attempt to justify having pissed away $20 for a bag of weeds.

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