Time for a Wake-up Call

An historical and ethnographic approach to the Regulation of Plant-based Stimulants
Anthony Henman* Pien Metaal
Series on Legislative Reform of Drug Policies No. 27
December 2014

The chemically-based frame of reference adopted by the UN Single Convention is mistaken in the culturally loaded and falsely “scientific” manner in which it was applied to different plants. With the proliferation of new stimulant substances – many of them based on plants used in “traditional” cultural settings in different parts of the world – a need has arisen to monitor not just the substances themselves, but also the social contexts in which they are being used.

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Most national legislations take their cue from the 1961 United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, and thus categorize “drugs” by means of an essentially pharmacological frame of reference. This means that coca leaves, for example, are usually banned under the same provisions that apply to their principle active alkaloid, cocaine, whereas other plants, with different active ingredients, remain in licit commerce until specific measures are taken against them in particular national contexts.

This has recently been the case with regard to khat, kratom, ephedra species, and – though it is not correctly a stimulant at all – kava-kava. It also means that stimulants containing other, purportedly “non-problematic” alkaloids such as caffeine, theobromine, capsicine or arecoline, remain completely outside the scope of legal controls, and are treated to all intents and purposes as “nondrugs”.


  • The current legal dispositions regarding plant-based stimulants, as enshrined in the UN Conventions, are devoid of a clear scientific basis, and need to be revised.
  • The treatment of the coca leaf is the clearest example of a confused, ethnocentric and value-laden approach to plant-based stimulants.
  • A better understanding of the traditional uses of plant-based stimulants could prevent the spread of problematic patterns of consumption of their more concentrated, chemical derivatives.

* Anthony Henman is a Brazilian-British anthropologist, expert on psychoactive substances in the Western Hemisphere.