Alkaloids, Phenolds, Terpenoids, and Glycosides, Oh My! (Learning About The Psychopharmacology of Plants)

Camille Summers

“The idea that I’m trying to get across is that these plants are producing chemicals and it’s part of their survival."

It’s not uncommon to talk about drugs at Lovett. How to avoid them. How to say no. What they can do to your body. What it can do to your life. What the punishments are. Drug testing. Drug seminars. Even the well-known “Substance Abuse Prevention Week.” It’s a part of the Lovett package.

However, one of the things we don’t often get to consider is “what are drugs?” Chemically. If you choose to take Botany as part of your 4-year plan (which I highly suggest you do), you’ll get to find out. It’s quite fascinating.

Mr. Reynolds, the Lovett Botany teacher, spends a unit in the 2nd semester teaching his students about drugs and their origins. It tends to be one of the more intriguing subjects. 

When Mr. Reynolds first started teaching at Lovett about 14 years ago, he was not necessarily planning to teach about the history of drugs. He made sure that it was ok to talk about in class, and it was. It’s a part of nature. 

During the unit, Mr. Reynolds explains the various types of drugs and their scientific phytochemical categories (alkaloids, phenolds, terpenoids, and glycosides). The class deep dives into the various types of drugs and from which plants they are derived. 

“The idea that I’m trying to get across is that these plants are producing chemicals and it’s part of their survival,” Mr. Reynolds says, “These drugs are byproducts of the plants’ metabolic pathways. It’s not the plant's fault. It’s us that found these plants, and it's us who can't deal with it.”

Mr. Reynolds continues in his lesson by explaining the reasoning behind certain categories, and the historical context of these drugs. “To me, I would put coffee and cocaine in the same breath,” he says. “They are both considered alkaloids. You look at apples, and you think of them being so healthy, but in reality, they were the ultimate cause of prohibition.” Hard apple cider began to be consumed as much as water because, due to the fermentation of the apples, it destroyed all harmful bacteria (another fun fact you can learn from taking Botany). 

Not only does the class look at different plants’ scientific histories, but also how they have taken on cultural significance. One of the videos that the class watches is “Shaman’s Apprentice,” which explains the usage of certain drugs in native tribes. “I like to give a lot of historical context,” he says. “This is part of my global awareness portion of the lessons. When you go to the Amazon, you see the shamans. What they can do with plants is amazing; sometimes laboratory chemists can’t even replicate it. They use it for disease and medicine. For example, dart poison like curare is used as a muscle relaxant.”

The historical context continues, but transitions more into cultural analysis. The students learn about different tribes that use plants for medicine. It’s quite astonishing to see how plants can create such remarkable treatments as just part of their survival. “We talk about all of these uses for plants, but the bottom line is every culture has their drug of choice. Over the history of mankind, it’s always been plant-based. Medicine and religious practices. Only recently can you synthesize it in a laboratory,” he says.

When transitioning to more modern Western cultures, the class also learns of LSD and the effects it had on the ’60s. One of the larger societal issues that the class learns about is the decriminalization of marijuana. “We talk about things like marijuana and cannabis. It’s a good chapter to look at. Like why do we treat marijuana the way we treat it. If you look at it from that sense, decriminalization makes more sense. However, there are multiple sides that we get into dealing with social issues.”

One of the major takeaways that Mr. Reynolds teaches is that “the dose makes the poison.” This question allows students to evaluate the societal and scientific aspects to plants. The class is able to further their discussion based on this understanding. “The rhetorical question that I ask my class after is ‘what if we criminalized opioids 100 years ago instead of marijuana. What would our society look like?’ It hits our identity and makes us think about our society. You can tell a lot about a society based on what drugs they use.”

Mr. Reynolds covers all topics during this discussion. Since drugs are such a huge part of our society (whether medicinal or recreational), it’s an important conversation, and I’m glad to learn about it. Mr. Reynolds compares it to when he teaches sex ed to his freshman class. “I’m certainly not promoting drug use, but it’s to be responsible if that’s the choice you make. It’s the same thing I teach my freshmen. Be responsible.”

As we’ve heard in other Lovett-sponsored seminars, drugs can be a slippery slope to addiction. Addiction is what most people tend to correlate with the word “drugs.” Mr. Reynolds discusses the effects of addiction, but also the science behind it and how it occurs. Why are some plants more addictive than others? The idea of the “dose makes the poison” resurfaces during this part of the unit. “Addiction is a huge thing,” says Reynolds. “This unit is a good way for me to address these issues. They are societal issues, and the plant brings me the opportunity to bring that up.”

Drugs also have a large impact on our economic lifestyle. The economy gains money from the cannabis market along with other drug plants like caffeine and sugar; both legal and illegal, it still impacts the economy. As a part of the unit, the economic effects of drugs are discussed. “When the drug war took on marijuana in the ’60s, it caused an economic shift. Profit margins are so huge that it’s worth the input. Taxes go down. How will it affect the market incentives? It’s interesting to discuss and get the students’ take on it,” he says.

Mr. Reynolds tends to touch on the economic changes that plants cause whether in drugs or other areas (such as the Tulip Mania which caused an economic crash in the Netherlands). “I like looking at the economics of it and teaching the students,” says Mr. Reynolds. “It shows how much plants really affect us in every aspect. It exposes the students to a lot more than they would typically get. It also blends in with environmental issues like conservation, peyote, and the Native American church.”

To conclude the class, each student is required to submit a semester project about a plant of their choice. Options include apples, stevia, coffee, spices, quinine, marijuana, and more. Each plant has made its own impact on our culture and our overall humanity. The students weave these plants into a story and present a video on it. It’s the culmination of the year and allows the students to really dive in on something they’re interested in. (I researched stevia. Another fun fact: The reason why there are so few calories in one of those little packets is that it’s so much sweeter than sugar.)

Botany is definitely one of my favorite classes of the year, and I continue to promote it to the underclassmen. I’ve learned a lot about each aspect of a plant, not just its psychopharmacological elements.

The Lovett School is an independent, coeducational day school where children from Kindergarten through Grade 12 find the courage to explore and the drive to discover.

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