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I'm creating a city in a fantasy setting that has no magic in a medieval earth-like world. The city is located near a huge mountain range. It used to be a small city but grew large with relative success in the mining industry.

The psychoactive substance or drug was discovered in the mountains by chance and grew popular within the city slums and subsequently it became a huge and frowned upon trade export.

However I'm not sure how to physically manifest the substance in terms of material or how it has obtained.

I initially thought of the substance as a by-product of the ore extraction/refining process, so it goes hand in hand with the cities industrial growth. But I'm not too keen on that now. I thought of fungus too but I want something on a larger scale than just mushroom picking in a cave.

The substance will also have some religious impact later on in the story too i.e. forgotten tribes of the mountain who originally discovered the substance centuries earlier.

Thanks guys, this is my first post so take it easy :)

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    $\begingroup$ related $\endgroup$ – Kepotx Nov 17 '17 at 13:23
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    $\begingroup$ There are many plants on our planet that are (ab-)used as drugs. Maybe you should clarify why for example cannabis and "magic" mushrooms don't qualify. $\endgroup$ – Burki Nov 17 '17 at 13:41
  • $\begingroup$ Do you want it to be ore? Or are you asking general "what can be psychoactive in mountains plausibly"? $\endgroup$ – Mołot Nov 17 '17 at 13:55
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    $\begingroup$ Pick anything from the wikipedia list of psychoactive plants, fungi, and animals. This question is pretty broad. Perhaps you could narrow it's scope to make it a better fit for this site. $\endgroup$ – sphennings Nov 17 '17 at 15:04
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    $\begingroup$ Since no one has said so yet, welcome to Worldbuilding SE! $\endgroup$ – automaton Nov 17 '17 at 17:12

17 Answers 17

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Psychoactive drugs are very unlikely to originate from mining and minerals. They are very likely to originate from plants or fungi. Your idea of a fungus was a good one and psilocybin mushrooms (magic mushrooms) in particular would be a good choice.

Archaeological evidence suggests that psilocybin-containing mushrooms have been used by humans since prehistoric times including in religious rituals and there are over 100 species of Psilocybe mushrooms distributed across Europe Asia and the Americas.

Effects include euphoria, altered thinking processes, closed and open-eye visual synesthesia, an altered sense of time, and spiritual experiences.

Cannabis and Opium Poppy could also be used along with many other possibilities.

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    $\begingroup$ As an addition, the reason you're unlikely to find it in minerals is that minerals tend to be simple structures, which we evolved to deal with long ago (or are rare and terribly toxic, like mercury). Once you get into organics, you can have complex compounds which are tailored with the intent of having effects on other living organisms. Nicotine, for example, was "designed" as a pesticide by the tobacco plant. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Nov 18 '17 at 4:31
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If it doesn't have to be a real Earth plant, then there are quite a few possibilities, tea being one of the more promising.

tea trees

Traditional tea is made from the leaves of Tea bushes. The leaves are picked, dried, boiled, and then the liquid is drunk.

Lots of other plants and herbs are prepared this way for medicinal purposes, and this could be the source of the drug.

A miner in the mountians notices a plant that he hasn't seen grow anywhere else. He has a bit of a botany background from helping his healer grandma in her medicinal herb garden, and decides to see if this plant has any useful properties.
He makes a tea, and then follows her instructions on how to safely test a plant to make sure it's not deadly. And then it gets trippy.

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    $\begingroup$ Qat falls into this category too. $\endgroup$ – Willk Nov 17 '17 at 14:17
  • $\begingroup$ I learned about Qat from the Barenaked Ladies children's album. $\endgroup$ – Wayne Werner Nov 18 '17 at 15:56
  • $\begingroup$ Tea comes from bushes. Tea tree oil or melaleuca comes from tea trees and is poisonous. $\endgroup$ – Chloe Nov 18 '17 at 18:49
  • $\begingroup$ @Chloe Thanks! I updated my answer. $\endgroup$ – AndyD273 Nov 20 '17 at 16:30
  • $\begingroup$ @WayneWerner An album for children about recreational drugs? Sounds iffy. $\endgroup$ – AndyD273 Nov 20 '17 at 16:33
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Model your drug on coffee

As explained by the most excellent CGP Grey:

Caffeine is the world's most used psychoactive drug.

The fact that caffeine is available this was is not immediately obvious to the eye. As explained in the video: the process to get caffeine is to harvest the berry when it is just ripe, extract the seed, dry it, roast it, grind it, and brew it. I honestly wonder how someone thought of this in the first place.

The coffee industry in the world is substantial.

Coffee has been used in religious/occult contexts.

With this you have everything you need:

  • A psychoactive drug
  • Complex and forgettable knowledge needed to extract it
  • Industrial production once known
  • Occult/religious use

So model your drug on coffee, make changes as you see fit, and there you are.

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    $\begingroup$ About the how someone can think of this: if a fire burns the bush of coffee at the right time, you just need a nose to smell the aroma. Then it's just a matter of improving the recipe $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch Nov 17 '17 at 13:36
  • $\begingroup$ A story I read had the discovery as such; a goat herder is out with his flock, and notices that his goats start to get really frisky after eating the coffee berries. He is in the middle of nowhere with only a lot of goats to keep him entertained, and so he decides to investigate why these berries affect his goats like this. So he begins to experiment, first eating the berries but not the seeds, and nothing. So he tries the seeds and there is something, but it's not a good experience. He tries boiling the seeds in a tea, but it's not great. He roasts them, and grinds them, and coffee is born. $\endgroup$ – AndyD273 Nov 17 '17 at 14:00
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    $\begingroup$ Considering the place where the coffee bush originated, it can very well be that "roasted berries" (read berries remaining after a fire) would be readily available. And those smell really good $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch Nov 17 '17 at 16:33
  • $\begingroup$ And they're miners so they sweeten it with lead and become demented which is frowned upon. $\endgroup$ – Mazura Nov 17 '17 at 18:09
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    $\begingroup$ ACTUALLY I was once served 'green coffee', which was obtained by soaking green (unroasted) unground coffee beans in cold water for awhile. A roasting business did that to remove some of the caffeine from the beans and later roasted the beans as decaf. The soak water actually wasn't that bad (didn't taste like coffee. It tasted just like Mate) and was loaded with caffeine. So early coffee users didn't really need to roast or grind the beans. $\endgroup$ – user11599 Nov 18 '17 at 6:43
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Going with your "industrialization" idea. There are some things that grow well underground and you could have the origin being a fungus that grows rapidly in the conditions created by mining, which isn't far-fetched at all.

In Colorado, for example, Bats, have taken up residence in abandoned mines. They leave their droppings on the floor of the mines, and various insects and bacteria feed on the droppings.

Come up with a way for the organism to get introduced to the mines, such as a nearby cave, maybe a cave utilized to get to the ore more quickly.... (the deposits are into the mountain several Kilometers, and going through the cave got them there more quickly.) Then, when introduced to the mine, there is something in the mine (the ore or tailings) that makes the organism grow much more quickly. (maybe the cave's proximity to the ore made for the right environment for it to grow at all, then when actually put in the midst of the nutrient which makes it grow faster, it's growth increases to the point where it can be gathered in more than just small quantities in the cave?

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Opium

Its long history allows it to be referred to at just about any technological level also it can to be something known rather than having to discover it along your story line. You can discover the plant growing rather than having to discover knowledge about it.

Opium has been actively collected since prehistoric times. Though western scholars typically estimate this to be around 1500 BCE. Indian scholars maintain that the verses and the history contained in them have been orally transmitted thousands of years before.

Opium was used with poison hemlock to put people quickly and painlessly to death, but it was also used in medicine. The Ebers Papyrus, c. 1500 BCE, describes a way to "stop a crying child" using grains of the poppy plant strained to a pulp.

Poppies grow easily on any disturbed ground, they're not particularly climate dependent so you can just have it springing up on the heaps of disturbed soil from your mining operations.

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TL;DR: A plant or fungus-based narcotic is probably the most realistic, but you can also consider crystal-like or liquid-based substances as well. Or even a naturally-occuring gas.


If you don't want to go the plants/fungus route, you can also consider a crystallized substance. An excellent example would be glitterstim or spice from the Star Wars universe. There are actually two variants of the drug, but the more potent of the two is a by-product of the energy spiders on Kessel digesting ore found in the rock.

Following the discovery of how it's produced, the owners of Kessel (primarily Lando Calrissian) undertook vast conservation efforts, understanding that the spiders could no longer survive and/or produce spice once the ore veins had been mined out.

The weaker variation, called ryll, is a naturally-occurring substance scattered throughout the subterranean caverns of the planet Ryloth.

The spice melange of the Dune franchise would be another example of this.


Another possibility is a naturally-occurring liquid substance like alcohol - perhaps one found underground in well-like springs. It's not beyond the realm of reality that underground water could be laced with minerals while travelling underground, only to emerge in certain spots as a liquid with psychoactive and/or narcotic properties. Or maybe the substance gets created when microscopic organisms rot in the water over time causing fermentation.


Lastly, you could go the route of a gaseous substance - something along the lines of natural gas, but used as a narcotic rather than an energy source. As an example, nitrous oxide (laughing gas) can be found in the atmosphere here on Earth, albeit in small quantities.

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It doesn't need to be a plant: some toads (notably the cane toad in Australia) produce venom in their skin which has psychoactive effects. Maybe the local analogue of the rat does something similar. Not only is this creature a pest in a city because it eats and spoils food, but it also produces a venom with psychoactive properties. Raw venom is seriously toxic of course, but it turns out that if you boil it with the juice of a local berry the poison is neutralized leaving just the psychoactive component. Or if you want to go weird you could have a variant on this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amanita_muscaria#Siberia

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Just for completeness... if you really want a mineral drug, such does exist. Bromide salts (which are obtained from ocean salt and also side products of potash production) are sedatives and anti-seizure medications (thought not the safest medicines out there...). There is even a saying about a phrase being a 'bromide', meaning that it's boring (puts you to sleep).

I don't think lithium is entertaining enough to be addictive (it is, of course, found in minerals, too), but a fun fact is that the soft drink 7-up was originally Bib-Label Lithiated Lemon-Lime Soda and contained lithium citrate.

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How about a lichen or moss that only grows on mineral exposed through excavation? This way you can build a moral conflict between prosperity through mineral trade and misery through drug abuse.

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Silphium? Ergot?

They grow some plants/trees and the ergot grows on the plants when the plants are stored in (mighty) faggots in the caves?

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  • $\begingroup$ I was thinking silphium as well. It would probably be a good model for what the OP wants anyway. $\endgroup$ – Ville Niemi Nov 22 '17 at 3:15
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In environmental studies, very often the reasons for a specie thriving is a result of mixed reasons (see https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/09/11/cancers-invasion-equation). You can pretty much invent any kind of organism that contains a psychoactive substance, that is thriving in your environment by the mixed means of:

  • abundant nutrition
  • lack of predators
  • perfect temperature / light conditions.

each one of these parameters hold a potentialy juicy backstory:

  • how the mining led to use chemicals that allowed eg some fungi to overgrow
  • how the first settlers of the city came with pets who killed local species.
  • how the darkness of the mines created space for a formerly restrained process.
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Because you specifically mentioned mountains as the geographic origin of your psychoactive agent, this is one of my favorites, based on Earth's Himalayan honey bees. I highly recommend watching the video.

http://awesci.com/the-hallucinogenic-honey-from-the-himalayan-bees/

https://youtu.be/Y_b2i_FvYPw?t=14m30s

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You say you'd be dissatisfied with the scale of "mushroom picking", but mushrooms aren't the only psychoactive organisms around, and they certainly aren't the only ones possible. Imagine a psychoactive species of mold that thrives on the surface of exposed, moist [choose a mineral ore that is economically important in the region]. Someone discovers (maybe even by accident) that if your finely pulverized [whatever] ore gets damp, you will soon have a big, gritty pile of this psychoactive mold. Suddenly mining sites are being robbed of entire carts full of ore to be ground into powder for growing party mold. Maybe even the legitimate mining companies get in on it if there's no moral panic associated with the drug. That would scale up nicely.

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It sounds like you want something plausible but unexpected, outside the common substances in the real world? How about an invasive insect (body, eggs, secretions?) that either thrives on the waste of the city (starving beggar eats it and becomes a mystic; waste workers cleaning things start to see things; kids who like to pick up bugs because thats how kids are start having vivid imaginary friends, lots of possibilities) or on some mineral in the mine tailings. The insect could have been introduced as the city became a hub for commerce, rather like the reintroduction of bedbugs to american cities.

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If it's OK for your hallucinogen to be fictional then some variety of mineral, such as "handwavium crystals", perhaps also known as "crystal wave", might be used. If you "need" it to be "real" in "the real world" (and which one is that, might I ask? :-) then I think you'll find that rocks and minerals aren't particularly hallucinogenic. For that you'll need to turn to the ever-popular worlds of plants and fungi. Poppies, cannabis, various fungi, and the leaves of numerous plants are all hallucinogenic to some degree or another.

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What you need to think is that it doesn't HAVE to be made from a single source. It can be a cocktail-type drug, manufactured from multiple ingredients.

Since you're keen to the industrialization background, you can maybe factor in some by-products from the manufacturing industry (salts, effluents and the like), which are deadly in original concentrations, but have a pleasant intoxicating feeling when diluted adequately.

Combine this with some plant extracts to act as the diluting agent or something, some naturally-occurring seeds to give another pleasant caffeine-like buzz, and you've got your super-drug.

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Bacteria,

You could have some kind of subterranean bacteria that lives in the mines and your psychoactive chemical could be a secretion of this biological goo as it eats at the ore that is mined here.

Medieval peoples didn't really know what a bacteria was, so it could just seem to them to be some kind of slime that grows on exposed ore, or it could bioluminescence on the mineshaft walls. This would make it seem magical or fit in with your religious requirement. The only real sticky point here is that even though you know it's bacteria for someone of that era they would not necessarily know that. So I would be careful on how I describe this within their worldview as they may not understand how it works on a fundamental level. For them it could be just "soul fire" or some other quasi mystic stuff, like "faerie dust".

I wouldn't be a stretch to say they found it originally in a natural tunnel, that was used by these previous peoples as a place of worship. It could be a naturally occurring bacteria.

This stuff could be easily killed by UV radiation so that it's hard to transport the live bacteria (which is harmless / non-infectious if ingested) the point is to control where it can be produced.

If it's just a plant growing on the side of the mountain, it would be easy to cultivate and "steal" it from them. But if it only grows on a particular type of ore and needs care when transporting it to "seed" a new mineshaft it's much harder for someone to do that. This way they could maintain a monopoly on it. This would make the environment/area it grows in more valuable.

For example: Maybe it would have to be shielded from the harsh light when transported. Perhaps it could be transported only short distances or even require an environment that matches the original tunnels it came from while being transported. Which may not be an easy feat with their tech level, but could allow them to scale up production by transplanting it to new mine shafts locally.

There could be some special ways to collect and process the stuff it produces, but I cant think of anything else that's creative in that regard.

Just an idea I didn't see posted

Cheers.

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