Deadly Search For A New High
In one of the most dramatic moves to combat the problem, the city council in Maitland, Fla., a suburb of Orlando, voted unanimously in January to ban the cultivation of the plant.
Both angel's trumpet and jimsonweed have large trumpet-shaped flowers that range in color from white to pink to violet. Plants can grow to more than 6 feet tall and produce large, spiny, seed-filled fruits. Adolescents in search of a hallucinogenic high turn to the toxic plant--also known as "poor man's peyote''--because it is readily available and legal.
"Youngsters who are abusing it with the intent of getting high don't realize it's impossible to get high without being poisoned,'' says Rose Ann Soloway, a clinical toxicologist and the administrator of the American Association of Poison Control Centers in Washington, D.C. Every part of the plant is poisonous, she says, and ingesting it can cause a very high heart rate; flushed, hot, dry skin; hallucinations; seizures; coma; and even death.
In 1993, eight cases of poisoning from angel's trumpet were reported to the Florida Poison Information and Toxicology Resource Center in Tampa. By 1994, that number had increased to more than 85, with teenagers making up the majority of the victims. There have been no reported deaths in Florida.
"This was spreading like wildfire, by word of mouth through the schools,'' says Sgt. Steven Hougland of the Orange County, Fla., sheriff's office. "The kids knew it was not illegal, and they would go out and find the plant and take it.''
The late summer and early fall are peak times for such poisonings because that is when the plant flowers. But poisonings have been reported as recently as February in Florida. And in January, several teenagers in Alton and Bethalto, Ill., near St. Louis, became ill after eating jimsonweed seeds that were passed around at parties.