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Ingesting Plants Risky, CDC Warns

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Teens trying to get high on a garden plant called the moonflower are ending up in the hospital instead, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Thursday in its weekly report on disease.

The new approach to flower power landed 14 Ohio teens in an emergency room last fall after they ate seeds or drank tea from the seeds of the plant, which blooms at dusk. The teens had dilated pupils, a rapid heart rate, hallucinations and an inability to urinate. They had no long-term effects.

In the past four years, there have been 4,240 reports of poisonings nationwide from a group of toxic plants including the moonflower, said Dr. Martin Belson, a CDC medical toxicologist. That included seven deaths. About 200 of the national total were in Georgia, where officials couldn't say if any involved moonflowers.

Roughly two-thirds of the cases nationwide are likely from intentional ingestion of the plants among teens, Belson said. Many of the incidents involve jimson weed, another plant in the toxic group, which has been known for several years to be abused.

At least 68 of the reports were from moonflower, only recently recognized as a recreational substance. It has large, fragrant flowers and prickly seed pods.

"There may be a perception that if kids abuse a plant instead of a hard-core drug like heroin or cocaine, they'll get a high but that not many problems will come from it," Belson said. "But you can certainly have very undesirable effects, and some may cause hospitalization or potentially death."

At least three plant species are referred to as moonflowers, and two can produce hallucinations.

The Ohio teens, most of them boys, used one called Datura inoxia, which has effects similar to marijuana. The Akron (Ohio) Beacon-Journal reported last fall that one of the teens saw imaginary fire ants crawling on his skin, and another was "talking to a tree, playing cards with it."

Two teens in Georgia, including one found naked in the middle of a street, were taken to the emergency room at Fayette Community Hospital in 1998 after they smoked jimson weed.

Copyright 2003 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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