This article originally appeared on VICE US.
When I signed up for a retreat in LA involving a psychoactive plant called kanna, I didn’t know what to expect. All the leader told me was that it was a “heart opener” and might make me feel “warm and fuzzy.”
So, it took me by surprise that about an hour into the ceremony, I was full-on rolling. I felt elated and full of ideas, I wanted to shower everyone with words of affection, and I couldn’t help but share my revelations with anyone who’d listen, nor could I stop grinding my jaw. When I told the leader how familiar this was feeling, she said, “yes, it’s natural MDMA.”
Though it’s just now gaining attention in North America, kanna (also known as channa or sceletium tortuosum) has been used for centuries in South Africa. While I was introduced to it in capsule form, South Africans sometimes chew, smoke, and snuff the flower of the succulent plant or make it into a tea. Some Europeans give kanna to cats and dogs to prevent separation anxiety, said James Giordano, professor of neurology and biochemistry at Georgetown University Medical Center.
Kanna is legal to possess in the U.S., though you have to adhere to FDA standards to distribute it, and some manufacturers sell it as a supplement. Purelife sells “kanna bliss” supplements with a mixture of kanna and other herbs, and PLT Health sells kanna extract as Zembrin. Zembrin contains 25 mg of kanna, which would theoretically be enough for some people to feel high like I did, according to Giordano. “25-50 mg is an intoxicating dose,” he said.
JC Ways, a 26-year-old sex educator in Manchester, England, snorted kanna from a smartshop in Amsterdam. “I felt quite smiley and euphoric,” he recalled. “I kind of had a lot of energy, yet I kind of really just wanted to relax and chill out.”
Two psychoactive alkaloids are responsible for kanna’s psychotropic effects: mesembrine and tortuosamine, according to Giordano, and most people will start to feel a mild effect after taking 5 to 10 mg.
Like MDMA, kanna has mood-elevating and anti-anxiety effects, Giordano said. “You’re going to get euphoric, you’re going to feel really happy and really loving and really chill.” Some say kanna also helps them think more clearly, Giordano said.
Peter Barsoom, CEO of 1906, which sells cannabis edibles, said that customers have reported that BLISS, an edible containing 20 mg of kanna, reduces their social anxiety and makes them more talkative. When Barsoom first took kanna in capsule form, it made him feel “like the world is a really happy place,” he said.
Even kanna’s sexual effects are comparable to those of MDMA: Some say it enhances sex by making sensations more pleasurable, while others find that it impedes erection and orgasm, Giordano said. Ways describes sex on kanna as “incredibly intense and relaxing,” like sex in “HD mode.”
Researchers have been testing kanna in small proof-of-concept studies because of its promise to improve cognitive abilities as well as mood and sleep; as such, it could hold promise for people with Alzheimer's and other cognitive decline. Some research also suggests it could reduce anxiety.
Though its effects are similar to MDMA’s, the mechanism by which kanna produces them is different. While MDMA makes your brain release more of the neurotransmitter serotonin, a brain chemical that can confer happiness and calm, kanna binds to and inactivates your serotonin transporters, preventing your cells from reabsorbing serotonin, which means the serotonin you’re already producing stays available longer. This is the same mechanism used by SSRI antidepressants like Prozac and Zoloft.
Kanna also activates cannabinoid receptors, particularly if it’s smoked, which may be responsible for some of its sedative and euphoric effects, Giordano said. In addition, it may inhibit the breakdown of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which could enhance cognition.
Despite its similarity to MDMA, kanna is relatively safe as long as there’s nothing else mixed into it, Giordano said. In order for it to become neurotoxic, you’d have to severely overdose (which would mean taking around 100 mg or more), and when it’s ground up—which it usually is—much of the potentially toxic compounds degrade. Even if you did overdose, he said, you’d most likely just get sick to your stomach.
Using kanna can be dangerous if you’re mixing it with other substances, particularly MDMA, SSRI antidepressants, MAO inhibitors, or 5HTP, Giordano said. This puts you at risk for serotonin syndrome, an excess of serotonin in your brain that can lead to overheating, rapid heartbeat, shaking, and in extreme cases, death.
As long as users take proper precautions, Giordano believes kanna has the potential to be used as a less-risky alternative to MDMA. “Although it produces a similar effect, it produces it by virtue of a different mechanism,” he said. “For euphorigenic effects, for reduction of anxiety, for mood stabilization, it’s a safe compound.”