The enduring myth of bananadine
Late one night in the early aughts, as my college roommates and I draped our drowsy bodies over the threadbare furniture in a living room clouded with smoke, I briefly opened my mind to the psychoactive potential of banana peels. Someone must have insisted that you really could get high on “banana joints.” Someone else must have called bullshit. All I can remember for sure is that I came away from the conversation neither certain there was no such drug as “bananadine” nor sanguine enough about its existence to investigate the matter further.
That was before everyone had a smartphone, when stoners too lazy to get off the couch and consult Wikipedia had to settle disagreements through argument. These days, it would’ve taken us a fraction of a second to confirm that the theory that you can get high off of smoking banana peels is just a 50-year-old hippie hoax. Which is why it’s so crazy that half a century’s worth of debunking, not to mention the more recent proliferation of devices that make fact-checking as easy as reaching into your pocket, still hasn’t entirely killed off this tenacious urban legend.
Released in the fall of 1966, the Scottish folk singer Donovan’s hit single “Mellow Yellow” is often credited with kicking off banana mania. In fact, the song was inspired by a magazine ad for a yellow vibrator, and the bananadine myth, which didn’t emerge until early the next year, is actually a vintage example of what we now call “fake news.” Its perpetrators could never have anticipated that, in the decades that followed, their prank would become so indelibly inscribed in the annals of counter-cultural lore that no number of facts could dislodge it.
“[I]n Vancouver, I was turned on to bananas, and Emily Carr the painter,” ED Denson announced in the March 3, 1967 edition of “Folk Scene,” his column in the underground newspaper Berkeley Barb, which Brooke Kroeger and Cary Abrams dug up in their thorough investigation into the hoax’s origins. “Take a banana and eat it, now take the peel and scrape the inside of it until you have a pile of banana pith. Cure the pith in the oven, like grass, (i.e. heat it until it crumbles easily) roll it into joints and smoke,” he instructed readers. “[T]he high is thought to be something like an opium high.”
Denson managed the psych-folk act Country Joe & the Fish, who really did “turn on” to banana peels, on a tip from drummer Gary “Chicken” Hirsh. “He said that the peelings had the same stuff as marijuana in them,” Country Joe McDonald recalled decades later. In his book Smoking Typewriters: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media in America, John McMillian surmises that “a certain naïveté about drugs, along with a giddy sense of awe and wonder at their possibilities, probably fueled the first experiments in banana smoking.” But Denson knew by the time he committed the recipe to print that he was perpetuating a hoax.
The column’s impact was immediate, thanks in part to the Underground Press Syndicate, which enabled alternative newspapers across the country to republish each other’s content at no cost. “Once [an article] appeared in one place, every other place could pick up the same story,” McMillian, an Associate Professor of History at Georgia State, tells me. “It would have a much larger impact than you’d expect one local story to have.” Within weeks, the counter-culture-obsessed mainstream media had caught on, as outlets like Time and Newsweek breathlessly reported on the craze. By early May, the FDA had investigated the rumor and, of course, issued a release proclaiming it had no basis in fact.
Meanwhile, the hoax became an underground meme. In the months before the Summer of Love, hippies had themselves a Banana Spring. “It was a ‘fake news’ story,” says McMillian, but “as it was first getting going, some people did actually think it was true.” As with fake political news, some readers likely believed the rumor simply because it was so convenient. Jesse Jarnow, the author of Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America, points out that LSD and mushrooms had just become illegal in 1966. “In the late ‘60s, there was this real hunt for other stuff to get high on,” he says. “Lots of underground papers had drug columns that would say, ‘This is bunk,’ or not—trying to create a trustworthy network of information for people who existed in the counterculture.”
Soon enough, McMillian says, “people realized that the rumor was false and continued to circulate it, out of an impish sense of humor.” As the straight world fretted about teens buying psychedelics in the produce section, hippies made banana-themed art, held banana rallies and even founded scam businesses selling banana powder at a heavy markup. “A lot of people who were repeating, ‘Oh, you can get high off banana peels,’ and knew it was false were probably staking their claim as part of the counterculture,” says Jarnow. “You were pranking people who were too square to know what’s true and what’s false drug lore.” There were political implications to the prank, too. Maybe the Establishment could take away the kids’ acid, but at least the kids could humiliate them by stoking hysteria over something as innocuous as fruit.
The banana peel myth might’ve faded away as the relatively carefree mid-’60s youth culture gave way to political turmoil and a darker, speedier drug underworld towards the end of the decade, if William Powell hadn’t included a recipe for banana joints in The Anarchist Cookbook. Published in 1971, this compendium of counter cultural knowledge has sold over two million copies and remains easily available in print and online, against its contrite author’s wishes. It really has, unfortunately, taught readers how to build bombs—but, probably because Powell never actually participated in the activities he detailed, it also helped transform a hippie prank into an enduring urban legend. And it’s easy to see how the bogus recipe’s inclusion alongside subversive, but genuinely reliable, information could have lent the rumor a veneer of authority.
Since the ‘70s, bananadine has persisted as both playground gossip and underground in-joke, occasionally resurfacing at the fringes of mainstream culture. In 1988, punk pranksters the Dead Milkmen released a song called “Smokin’ Banana Peels.” According to Jarnow, there’s a good reason why bad drug intel (including plenty of rumors more harmful than this one) was so prevalent in the pre-internet era. “Until the ‘90s, when sites like Erowid and the Lycaeum came along on the early web,” he says, “real, trustworthy information on drugs was hard to come by for people who were experimenting with them—especially in the midst of the ‘80s Drug War.”
Of course, as debacles like Pizzagate prove, the rise of internet culture didn’t exactly halt the spread of misinformation. Pamela Donovan, a sociology and criminology researcher and the author of the book No Way of Knowing: Crime, Urban Legends and the Internet, offers a hypothetical contemporary scenario: “Let’s say a teenager hears an older teen who they look up to [mention] the banana peel thing. Some teens might just passively assume it’s true without seeking out other information. But a lot of people, when they’re curious or unsure about something, will seek more information. We tend to assume that’s good—that they’re going to be discerning and weigh the evidence. But that’s really not what happens, particularly on the internet.”
Donovan explains that some people are fooled by the “visual structure of search engines,” which “render every [result] so that they all look relatively similar,” or algorithms that sort for popularity rather than authenticity. The longer they spend poring over discussions about bananadine on sites like Reddit and Yahoo! Answers, the more misinformation they absorb.
A 2002 message to venerable debunker Cecil Adams of The Straight Dope begins, “I've seen a lot of contrasting information about this all over the Web, but that doesn't tell me anything, except that the druggies at school aren't the only guys in on the concept: getting high off of banana joints.” Adams quickly (and a bit irritably) burst his young reader’s bubble. And now, when you search Google for “smoking banana peel,” his article appears on the first page—just below a heated discussion on shroomery.org that begins with the Anarchist Cookbook recipe.