Neil deGrasse Tyson might be best known as an astrophysicist whose expertise lies in the cosmos beyond. But he says there may be mysteries yet to be unraveled here on earth when it comes to undiscovered plant life with psychedelic potential.
On an episode of his podcast StarTalk, Tyson and Harvard University neuroscientist Staci Gruber talked about marijuana has been used for its psychoactive properties for thousands of years. It got Tyson thinking: what kind of plants and fungi might still be out there with untapped psychedelic potential?
“How many plants out there remain undiscovered simply because we don’t have enough people saying, ‘now, let’s smoke that, let’s smoke this, let’s smoke this?'” he mused. “I mean, there’s gotta be.”
Gruber entertained the question, agreeing that there’s “huge potential in botanicals, and I think that we see that with some other things—primarily these days, we hear about it in the hallucinogenic space like ayahuasca or these other sort of natural things, mushrooms.”
“There’s tremendous interest in terms of therapeutic application,” she said, adding that such interest has been evident for millennia.
Of course, while cannabis has survived throughout human civilization, it stands to reason that many species that might have contained psychoactive have gone extinct. A study from 2019 estimated that nearly 600 species of plants have been lost in the past 250 years alone.
Even so, more plants with potential therapeutic or psychoactive applications could still be out there, going undiscovered without a trepidatious human to consume them, Tyson half-joked. (The better course of action for undiscovered plants would be to subject them to significant phytochemical analysis before even considering clinical trials, but the point of the podcast conversation was to explore an entertaining hypothetical.)
Tyson has made drug policy and science a consistent theme of his podcast. Late last year, for example, he also spoke with Gruber about the intersection of cannabis science, policy and sports. And he said that he wasn’t surprised about President Joe Biden’s opposition to marijuana legalization because he’s from the “Reefer Madness generation.”
Also last year, he wondered aloud on his podcast whether non-human animals willingly take psychedelic mushrooms and whether eating enough cicadas infected by hallucinogenic fungi would create a psychoactive effect.
Tyson also told TMZ in 2018 that he doesn’t think people should smoke marijuana in space.
The popular scientific figure first publicly endorsed cannabis legalization in 2017 in response to a question submitted by Marijuana Moment’s editor, arguing that “relative to other things that are legal, there’s no reason for [cannabis] to ever have been made illegal in the system of laws.”
However, Tyson has also said that he doesn’t partake in recreational use himself.
Image element courtesy of NASA Goddard.