I N   V I T R O    Issue 2.09 - September 1996

Food of the Gods

By Matthew Collin

A friend of mine gave me some drugs last week. Only they weren't drugs; they were food, he insisted, although they would, he promised, "get you high". Six little capsules full of greenish powder, professionally packaged like health supplements from Holland & Barratt and sold (at around £30 a pop) under the snappy title "Nova".

Nova, a product that will shortly be marketed to tap into the fall-out from Ecstasy culture, isn't a new phenethylamine from the Alexander Shulgin canon, like the 2CB and MBDB that have begun to appear on the European nightclub market in recent years. It's actually a "nutraceutical". Nutraceuticals, also called phytochemicals, phytonutrients or "functional foods" (the best-known example of which is beta-carotene), are nutrition-rich organics that claim health benefits. Halfway between food and drug, they constitute an increasingly lucrative industry, and their advent blurs still further the already hazy cultural boundaries between the things we put into our bodies for health, and those we use for pleasure.

The search for a new chemical thrill to match the euphoria of Ecstasy has given rise not only to the sharp increase in cocaine seizures in the '90s, but also to a host of "natural highs", products like Herbal Ecstacy [sic] that claim to provide a safe, legal trip without the comedown. The promise of circumventing the rush/crash cycle of MDMA - ecstatic on Saturday, miserable by Tuesday - is attractive, but the active constituent in most of these products is generally ephedrine or caffeine. They might keep you awake, but they're not exactly mind-expanding. As one drugs professional pointed out to me, where psychopharmaceuticals are concerned, there's no such thing as a free ride.

Enter Nova. Its promoter Mark Heley, a former UK correspondent for Mondo 2000 and prominent San Francisco rave organiser, suggests that it won't just alter your mindstate, but that its blend of ginseng, gotu kola, vitamins and amino acids is actually good for you, replenishing nutrients lost during a drug trip. Although Nova also contains the stimulant ephedra, its primary components, stresses Heley, are the nutraceuticals: blends of nutrient-packed marine algae, and in particular a biotechnologically-cultured strain of spirulina. The manufacturers are deliberately vague about the exact details of the biotechnological process, claiming that it is proprietary information; all they will reveal is that certain substances are fed to the spirulina to render it psychoactive (or, as Heley prefers to say, to create a "nootropic nutraceutical").

If the claims are true, Nova could point the way to a new world of biotechnologically-enhanced substances that are at once nutritional and psychedelic. Which begs the questions, what exactly is a drug? What is a food? When is a drug a food, and vice versa? The picture is far less clear than the "just say no" demonology would suggest. Mushrooms can be both food and drug. So can sugar. Even chemicals like LSD and MDMA are only a few steps removed from the organic. And certain foods display similar actions to drugs, as ethno-botanist and psychonaut Terence McKenna notes in Food of the Gods: "Eating some foods makes us happy, eating others sleepy, and still others alert. We are jovial, restless, aroused, or depressed depending on what we have eaten."

There has already been a breakdown in the border between drugs and medicine, not least in the scares over Temazepam abuse. The antidepressant Prozac (fluoxetine) was hyped using terminology that could just as easily have been coined by Ecstasy users. Referred to as "bottled sunshine", the pill that will make you feel "better than well", its commercial success has encouraged pharmaceutical companies to develop more bespoke mood-enhancers that are targeted at specific neurotransmitters within the brain. As this happens, the distinctions between therapy and hedonism may begin to dissolve.

As Malcolm Lader of London's Institute of Psychiatry observes, "It's not impossible that you could have a pill you could take to make you feel more excited, more alert, euphoric maybe, another to heighten perception. This is not science fiction." The claims to beneficence of "smart drugs" like hydergine and vasopressin, although no longer in the media spotlight, also question the political imperatives of the drug debate: if this stuff can be good for you, how can selling it be a crime? The application of biotechnological methods to the recreational drug market and the predicted expansion of the nutraceuticals business into a multi-billion-dollar concern could confuse matters yet further, not least by suggesting ways to circumvent current drug legislation.

Prohibitionist drug laws are predicated on the potential for abuse and on assessment of substances' medical usefulness, and this inevitably involves a measure of hypocrisy - or as Noam Chomsky, who estimates that 99% of deaths from substance abuse are attributable to tobacco and alcohol, puts it, "sheer fraud". Continued blurring of the lines between food and drugs has the potential to raise such huge questions for prohibitionism that the institutionalised demonology of psychoactive substances will crumble under the weight of its own contradictions. Then again, perhaps not, judging by the double standards that already surround international drug policy.

However, any progress rests on the capacity of new products to deliver on their claims. I took a couple of caps of Nova, as instructed, on an empty stomach, and waited. What ensued was not a full-blown psychedelic experience, but was nonetheless pleasant: colour intensification, mood elevation, subtle disorientation of the senses. And when I woke up the next morning I felt fine.

Matthew Collin is the author of Altered State, a forthcoming book on drugs and the dance culture.