It Has Come To This, That Americans Are Smoking And Injecting Lettuce
This morning, there was a new kind of spam in my daily dawn deluge of junk email. Clicking to delete as fast as I could, I paused at a new message promising “opioid” effects from a “driveway weed” known as “wild lettuce”. The image of the plant was one that I immediately recognized as a weed I routinely pull from my own garden.
It seemed a ridiculous that people might be convinced to try taking a wild relative of a salad green as a psychoactive drug, but then I did a bit of research, and it seems that yes, trying to get high from wild lettuce is actually becoming a thing. People are selling wild lettuce extract and dried wild lettuce leaf to people looking for a new route to intoxication.
One thing that differentiates wild lettuce from heroin and other opiates is that it isn’t illegal. The USDA doesn’t regulate it. So, some people who have become addicted to prescription narcotics are turning to the idea of wild lettuce as an alternative to getting involved with criminal drug gangs.
But, what exactly is wild lettuce, anyway?
There are actually three species that could be found as “wild lettuce”, growing as a weed in American ditches and other neglected niches:
Lactuca sativa, cultivated lettuce – the salad greens you’ll find for sale at the grocery store
Lactuca serriola, prickly lettuce – a rougher, tougher kind of lettuce, with spines growing on the central vein of the leaves and a more bitter taste, with a milky sap running through the mature plant’s stems
Lactuca virosa, bitter lettuce – an even more bitter kind of lettuce, with an even thicker kind of milky sap in its stems, growing larger than serriola
All three species grow as naturalized non-native species in the United States. Apparently, there is some disagreement about whether Lactuca sativa is really a different species from Lactuca serriola. It is presumed that cultivated lettuce was domesticated from prickly lettuce, and scientists are trying crossbreeding serriola with sativa in order to create varieties of salad greens capable of growing in difficult conditions.
Trying to distinguish between sativa, serriola, and virosa lettuces is tricky even when you’re looking at the living plants. Telling the difference between dried leaves or extracts could be impossible without lab tests. So, it’s possible that some of the people selling “wild lettuce” to desperate addicts could just be selling dried salad greens.
One thing to note is that virosa is the Latin adjective describing something that smells or tastes awful. Many of those who have tried to get high from wild lettuce say that it tastes and smells disgusting, whether taken as a tea or smoked.
Even putting the unappetizing aroma aside, wild lettuce doesn’t seem like a pleasant substance to mess around with recreationally. One medical case reported nasty symptoms from injection of wild lettuce including “fevers, chills, abdominal pain, flank and back pain, neck stiffness, headache”. A group of hikers who ate Lactuca virosa experienced symptoms including loss of consciousness, hallucinations, anxiety, abdominal cramps, urinary retention, sweating, red eyes, and “hypoactive bowel sounds”.
What kind of psychoactive benefit do you get for the trouble? Not much. Effects of wild lettuce are generally described as “mild”, with a bit of sedation, a bit of heartburn, and a great big stink. One user reports, “It doesn’t do jack shit. Total waste of money. Probably a good for people who are into smoking things just for the fixation.”