“From Everyday to Class A”: Intoxication Season at Kew Gardens

Intoxication season (or simply ‘drug festival’ as some newspaper headlines are calling it) is a three week event at London’s very own botanical garden and research centre, Kew Gardens. Not just an exhibition, the intoxication season explores a range of toxic, dangerous and some downright deadly plants, through films, workshops, talks and more. Each weekend the gardens focus on different ‘intoxicating’ organisms, from alcohol and cannabis to coffee and magic mushrooms.

I was lucky enough to attend on the last weekend of September, which focused on the question: ‘cannabis: drug, herb, medicine or sacrament?’ As well as visiting all the permanent fixtures at Kew Gardens, such as boiling greenhouses practically overflowing with cacti, ferns and ginormous lilypads; a mini underground aquarium and browsing the gift shop, there were numerous cannabis themed events dotted around the huge grounds.

Firstly, I attended a talk at the School of Horticulture and had no idea what to expect. Although simply titled ‘UK cannabis-based medicine development’, the talk was far more entertaining than I expected. The speaker, David Potter, works for GW Pharmaceuticals, who have grown around 2 million cannabis plants since its conception in the late 1990s. We were shown various types of cannabis plant, and at the end of the talk, were encouraged to touch, smell and take photos of (and some people took a selfie with) each plant.

Outdoors there was a hemp knitting tent, a bar that sold autumnal botanical beverages, and an opinion wall, where the question ‘cannabis: harmful or helpful?’ was written down and visitors were encouraged write down and share their answer. Indoors there was a mini cinema showing a loop of short films surrounding the subject, and an exhibition of mind-altering plants, from the everyday tea, coffee and tobacco, to the lesser known, exotic khat, ayahuasca and the lethal Peyote cactus. The majority of these were locked up in cages with accompanying ‘toxic’ signs, apart from coca, which is not legally allowed to be grown in this country and so illustrations were shown instead.

Every weekend, for just £5 extra, you can be welcomed into the Plant Connoisseurs’ Club. This is where you have the chance to eat an unusual plant, and learn what it is used for and where it is grown (after signing a disclaimer form of course!).

The main attraction to the intoxication season is perhaps the controversy of such a subject being so openly displayed. What is fascinating is that these ‘taboo’ drugs such as cannabis and magic mushrooms are treated no differently and explored just as equally as substances such as alcohol and coffee beans. The history, science, politics and social aspects of all these mind-altering plants are explored, with talks named ‘alcohol doesn’t get you drunk’ and ‘did coffee make modern politics?’. With our views about illegal highs being so regularly distorted by governments and the media, it’s refreshing to learn about various aspects of these plants from informed researchers and professionals.

After returning home from my busy day, my sister asked, ‘so, what kind of people were there?’. Interestingly enough, everyone was there. Children, adults, families, couples – intoxication season certainly isn’t limited to rebellious teenagers or marijuana enthusiasts, although I imagine that there will be flocks of coffee lovers attending this weekend for the ‘coffee: the world’s favourite legal high?’ events!

Photo credits to David Stanley.

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