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Herbal Ecstasy trial

I was given 50 samples of 'Herbal Ecstasy' (with a butterfly logo) to try out at Glastonbury festival in 1994, complete with instructions:

"Open your heart and allow yourself to become overwhelmed, because then and only then can you feel the true force of this experience... All six senses may become intensified. Things may seem crisper and clearer. Sounds may sound louder and feel more intense. Touch becomes more enhanced, things just simply feel better to touch, tastes, see, smell, and feel. Imagination will flow more rapidly, thoughts may become clearer and new ideas may appear at a more rapid pace."

I handed out 100 samples as herbal Ecstasy on a deposit which was refunded in exchange for a completed questionnaire, but 50 were herbal vitamin pills. Some people compared their pill with others, deduced they had a placebo and reported no effect, but among the rest the results were similar. Experiences reported varied from nothing to the best ever with no hangover - yet as many were wildly enthusiastic about vitamin pills as herbal Ecstasy. I asked each user to say how much they would have paid for the pill, and the average for vitamin pills was £4.12 while for herbal Ecstasy was £3.98.

The company with the butterfly logo has quoted me out of context to make false claims: "Enjoy Natural Euphoric Sensations From an Herbal Dietary Supplement...People reported all kinds of effects. Some even saying that it was the best ecstacy experience they'd ever had. - Nicholas Saunders, U.K.; E for Ecstacy, 1992."

In November 1995, I visited the maker's stall on Venice Beach in LA, and sure enough found myself quoted as above. I complained to the man behind the stall (who I believe was Norris Preston), but he insisted that he had quoted me word for word; said he was "very disappointed" in the article I wrote and then suggested that I take a walk, but ran away when I tried to photograph him. Later I heard that he had made several million dollars from selling his product.

Later, in San Francisco, I was introduced to an expert in psychotropic plants who had offered to formulate a mixture of herbal extracts that really would have an emotional effect. But the company decided that a truly effective product would soon be outlawed. From a business viewpoint it made more sense to sell a mixture which caused its effect by the active placebo principle: by giving users a drug that produces similar physical effects and building up their expectations of an emotional effect, many people induced the expected response.

In 1997, I was visited by a British man who told me he distributed the product in Britain. He had had some analysed and the only active ingredient was caffiene, although it had a trace of ephedrine. Presumably the manufacturers have changed the content in response to the law.


Because something is natural and legal does not mean it is safe. Herbal Ecstasy without Ephedra will have no greater direct effect than coffee or caffeine drinks such as Red Bull, while Ephedra may well be more dangerous than MDMA. Remember that poisoned darts are tipped with natural herbal extracts!

A large part of the effect of any drug depends on expectations, and someone who knows and expects the mood produced by ecstasy is likely to experience that, especially when prompted by some familiar physical reaction. Expectations can trigger moods by releasing neurotransmitters in the brain, just as happens when someone takes a drug.

©Nicholas Saunders 1994, revised 1997 index
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