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Psychedelic Plant Quest Sends Teens to Hospital

Friday August 08, 2003

Two teenagers in search of a psychedelic high got more than they bargained for Sunday after dining on flowers from a plant growing in People’s Park—three days in the hospital, some of it in drug-induced comas, according to police and UC officials. 

The pair had come to Berkeley to attend a college preparatory program at the university. 

According to UC Berkeley police, the teenagers consumed the flowers when “a local guy” at People’s Park told them the “angel’s trumpet” plant possessed hallucinogenic properties. 

The two 17-year-old boys each downed four of the yellow six- to 24-inch flowers. Another participant, a 16-year-old girl, ate just one and was not hospitalized. 

All three students were participating in Summer Focus at Berkeley, a program run by Education Unlimited, a 10-year-old Berkeley-based company which runs academic camps for about 1,000 students per summer at UC Berkeley, UCLA, UC Davis, the University of San Diego and Stanford University. 

Education Unlimited’s Executive Director Matthew Fraser defended the company’s supervision of the students and commended Summer Focus staff for taking appropriate steps when they discovered one of the boys in a “dazed” and “incoherent” state around 11 p.m. Sunday night after he returned from the park to the program’s on-campus dormitory. 

“Our normal policies were followed and the action our organization took was very prompt,” he said. 

Fraser said the Summer Focus camp director took the student to the hospital, while staff searched for other participants who exhibited similar symptoms. When staff found the second male student, showing signs of “delirium” and “confusion,” Fraser said, they called campus authorities. 

UC Berkeley Police Lieutenant Adan Tejada said two officers responded to an 11:20 p.m. call. Shortly after arriving, they summoned an ambulance, operated by the Berkeley Fire Department. Both were taken to Alta Bates Medical Center. Deputy Fire Chief David Orth said the student was “delusional” and “very combative” on the way to the hospital. 

Fraser said both boys were placed in drug-induced comas, to help them recover, for about 24 hours. Orth said the procedure is common when patients are convulsing. The were released Wednesday morning with no evidence of long-term damage, according to a program official. 

Summer Focus staff insisted that the 16 year-old girl go to the hospital Sunday night, according to Fraser, but doctors said she did not need to be hospitalized. 

UC Berkeley police confirmed that at least one of the three teenagers was from out-of-state. Fraser said the parents of the two boys came from “out-of-town” to see to their children’s medical care. He would not comment on the parents’ reaction to the incident. 

Fraser said he didn’t think the incident would do long-term damage to Education Unlimited’s reputation, arguing that teenagers are going to take risks and cannot always be protected. 

“People are going to do things—kids get in cars and get in accidents,” he said. 

UC Berkeley, which owns People’s Park—an icon of the political protest and counterculture of the 1960s—removed the troublesome bush from the northwest corner of the park Wednesday morning, said university spokesperson Marie Felde, replacing it with a non-toxic trumpet vine plant bearing smaller, yellow-white flowers. 

Felde said the university owns “several hundred” acres of land and does the best it can to make sure all its landscaping is safe. 

“We take every effort we possibly can to make sure there’s nothing dangerous out there and as soon as we find something, we remove it,” she said. 

A commonplace feature in East Bay landscaping, angel’s trumpet—also known as Brugmansia—has played a significant role in many cultures. The flowers, roots, and seeds of the plant have been used by Native Americans and in India for religious ceremonies and by thrill-seekers hoping for psychedelic highs. 

Dr. Kent Olson, medical director of the San Francisco division of the California Poison Control System, which covers counties from Marin in the north to Santa Barbara in the south, said his agency gets about 20 reports a year of people using angel’s trumpet and related plants as hallucinogens, most from Sonoma and Santa Cruz counties, with an occasional call from Berkeley. 

Olson said symptoms can include a rapid heartbeat, high body temperatures, combativeness, coma, and death. 

One of the more painful symptoms, he said, is an inability to urinate. “People feel like they’re going to explode,” he said. 

Long time People’s Park activist Lisa Stephens said she was concerned about the students’ health, but objected to the university’s decision to pull out the angel’s trumpet, which she says was planted by a community gardener about 13 years ago. 

“There’s all kinds of things that are poisonous in public gardens and all over Berkeley,” she said, arguing that the university should have erected a sign next to the plant warning of its dangers rather than replace it altogether.