Peanut butter and mayonnaise may not sound like an appetizing food combination to most people, but in some regions of the United States PB and mayo sandwiches have long been quite popular. In the late 1960s, however, fears arose that these two ingredients were being used for a purpose much more nefarious than making sandwiches. Drug experts warned that young people were injecting themselves with peanut butter and mayonnaise as a way to get high.
The media fanned the fears, printing alarmist headlines about the bizarre new trend that was said to be sweeping the nation’s youth. Concern quickly reached the highest levels of the government. References to kids shooting up PB and mayo can be found in both a Senate Committee report from October 1969, as well as in the Presidential papers of Richard Nixon from the same month.
Was there any substance to these fears? Were any teenagers really doing this? Or was the entire panic an example of an unfounded, drug-scare hysteria?
The PB and mayo panic burst onto the national scene in October 1969. The American Academy of Pediatrics held its annual meeting that month in Chicago, and in attendance were two government drug experts: Ernest A. Carabillo Jr., a lawyer-pharmacist in the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, and Frank Gulich, a Chicago narcotics bureau official. They had come to talk about the problem of drug use among young people.
These two officials held a press conference together at which they dropped the bombshell about the worrying new trend they were seeing among America’s youth — of kids shooting up PB and mayo. They attributed the fad to an “underground recipe book” that was circulating among young people, selling for about $1. The book, they said, purported to describe various “culinary escapes from reality,” one of which was the injection of PB and mayo. Doing so, the book promised, would send a user “on a little trip.”
Of course, putting these substances directly in your veins can send you on a trip straight to the grave, and Carabillo warned that the dangerous practice had already caused “several documented cases” of fatalities.
The media lost no time spreading the word about this latest crazy drug fad. Headlines about the danger of shooting up PB and mayo appeared in newspapers throughout the United States.
In subsequent months, other drug experts echoed Carabillo and Gulich’s warning. Albert Cook, director of narcotics for the Ohio Attorney General’s office, claimed in a November 1969 article in Ohio Schools magazine that he personally knew of a case where a youth had injected peanut butter.
In May 1970, Capt R. B. Jenkinson, commander of the criminal division of the Missouri Highway Patrol, warned lawmakers that, “Some Missouri youngsters have become severely ill from shooting peanut butter but none have died yet.”
And in August 1970, Rupert Salisury, associate dean of the Ohio State University College of Pharmacy, claimed during a panel discussion on drugs at a medical conference that in Franklin County, Ohio five young people had died after injecting PB and mayo. “How unhappy they must be to do such ridiculous things,” he noted.
However, by the end of 1970, the panic had subsided. The fear that this was a widespread trend among young people simply faded away. It was hardly ever mentioned again by drug officials.
A mystery lurked at the heart of the PB and mayo panic. Could peanut butter and mayonnaise actually cause a high if injected? Or was the practice (assuming that young people were, in fact, doing this) absolutely pointless, achieving nothing but to risk death?
It was difficult for the experts to answer this because they had no research to guide them. So, they tried to guess as best they could, and some reasoned that perhaps the fad had caught on because a teenager somewhere had discovered that intravenous PB and mayo really did produce a high.
One speculation was that, as the peanut oil broke down in the body, the fat globules triggered hallucinations. Or, at least, they caused an altered state of consciousness.
Another theory, detailed in a November, 1969 Chicago Tribune article, was that the gooey substances, once injected into the bloodstream, reduced circulation to the brain and thereby caused a sensation of light-headedness, or a high.
But other experts dismissed the possibility out of hand that PB and mayo would produce any kind of high. They insisted that the only ‘kick’ a user would experience would be that of a heart attack.
Another mystery was why the fad featured both PB and mayo? Were both ingredients required to get a high? Did the mayonnaise perhaps help to emulsify the peanut butter? Or was the combination simply inspired by the sandwich?
Contemporary commentators never addressed this question. However, after 1970, references to people dying by injecting peanut butter still, on occasion, cropped up in the media, but the combination with mayonnaise disappeared. Nor are there any references to people injecting mayonnaise alone. So, we have to conclude that peanut butter was the most important ingredient. The role played by the mayonnaise is unknown.
The PB and mayo panic was part of a much larger cultural phenomenon. This was the fear that young people, finding it difficult to obtain drugs such as marijuana and LSD, were seeking out alternative ways to get high… ways that were technically legal, but which nevertheless might produce the desired effect, even if the risks associated with such experimentation were very high.
Newspaper articles from the 1960s and 70s regularly detailed a whole laundry list of methods that young people were said to be using to escape reality. Some were well known, such as inhaling gasoline or glue. But there many other, more exotic techniques. These included smoking periwinkle leaves, eating morning glory seeds, smoking cigarettes sprayed with underarm deodorant, spraying Black Flag Roach Killer directly into their nostrils, and inhaling furniture polish.
And then there was the Great Banana Peel hoax. In 1967, a rumor had swept the nation alleging that bananas could be used to get high. The technique, it was said, was to scrape the inside of a banana peel, boil the residue, dry it out, and then roll it into a joint and smoke it.
The claim that this was possible was a joke started, most likely, by the staff of the East Village Other magazine. But quite a few people were fooled into thinking that it might be true, including federal authorities who decided that they needed to study bananas to check if they actually did have any psychedelic properties.
The memory of the banana peel hoax hung heavily over the PB and mayo panic. The authors of that hoax had probably intended it to spoof what they considered to be the irrational hysteria among authority figures about drug use. But drug officials had interpreted it quite differently. From their point of view, the lesson of the hoax was that teenagers were stupid enough to be fooled into trying just about anything to get high, and they repeatedly made this point (specifically invoking the banana-peel hoax) when warning about the danger of intravenous PB and mayo.
Smoking banana peels, of course, was harmless. Injecting peanut butter and mayonnais, however, could be fatal. Drug officials feared that teenagers wouldn’t recognize that difference.
In hindsight, the PB and mayo panic seems absurd. It’s difficult to believe that anyone would ever have seriously believed that injecting these substances could get them high. So, surely this was never a fad among teenagers. The drug officials must have been mistaken.
That’s the conclusion of the staff at the Erowid organization. (Wikipedia describes Erowid as “a non-profit educational organization that provides information about psychoactive plants and chemicals as well as activities and technologies that can produce altered states of consciousness.”) In a September 2018 blog post, an Erowid crew member (username ‘earth’) argued that the PB and mayo panic was “a good example of false and essentially baseless Drug War hysteria.”
The Erowid article notes that there’s absolutely no documentation in the medical literature about anyone shooting up peanut butter and mayonnaise. A search of PubMed yields no references to such cases. If there really had been a trend among teenagers of abusing PB and mayo, it seems odd that this would never have been mentioned in medical journals.
The Erowid blogger speculated that the entire panic was probably a case of misunderstanding. “Peanut butter” and “mayonnaise” are apparently slang terms for other drugs. For instance, ‘peanut butter’ has, at times, been used as a name for brown-colored methamphetamine, while ‘mayonnaise’ has been used to refer to heroin and cocaine. So perhaps, back in 1969, drug officials heard teens using these terms and took them literally. They imagined that kids were shooting up PB and mayo, whereas the kids were actually talking about more traditional drugs.
Erowid’s analysis makes a lot of sense. To extend it further, one could note that although some officials back in 1969 and ’70 claimed to know about cases of kids dying after injecting peanut butter and mayo, they never offered specific details. All discussion of the trend was wrapped in a shroud of vagueness. And what was the “underground recipe book” that Carabillo and Gulich referred to? That’s never been identified.
Furthermore, a search of newspaper archives similarly yields no reported cases of death by PB and mayo. Or even from PB alone. There are, however, plenty of news reports about people either choking to death on peanut butter or having severe allergic reactions to it. Death by peanut butter injection seems unusual enough that, if it had been regularly occurring, it should have produced at least one news report.
However, the newspaper search did turn up several references to injecting PB and mayo from the months before October 1969, when Carabillo and Gulich gave their press conference, and these complicate Erowid’s speculation that the entire panic was based on a misunderstanding.
In March 1969, LaVerne G. Stordock, a narcotics agent for the Wisconsin attorney general’s office, gave a talk at the University of Wisconsin during which he mentioned that, while speaking at high schools, he had twice been asked by students whether it was possible to get high by injecting peanut butter. He confessed that he didn’t know. He had never heard of such a thing.
There’s no reason to doubt Stordock. He was simply reporting what he had heard from high school students. And the fact that students were asking this question suggests that some kind of crazy rumor must have been circulating among them. Perhaps it was students who heard ‘peanut butter’ and ‘mayonnaise’ used as drug slang and took the terms literally.
Another early reference to intravenous peanut butter can be found in an April 1969 article about the Arizona Ranch School, located in Tucson, Arizona. The school housed boys with histories of behavioral problems. Its director, Marshall Chazen, noted that drugs were an ongoing problem among the students. “They sniff glue,” he said, “and they sniff gasoline and they take cough syrup. Some of them even inject peanut butter–the fat globules can make them high. They’ll do anything.”
Chazen’s remark seems more credible than the later claims about PB and mayo abuse made by drug officials. He wasn’t making a vague assertion about unspecified cases. Nor was he asserting that there was a national trend of shooting up peanut butter. He was simply saying that, at his own school, he had seen examples of this odd (and desperate) way of trying to get high. This same article was reprinted in a newspaper in September 1969, with Chazen’s remark highlighted as a pull-quote.
Finally, in July 1969 the Washington Post ran an article about teen drug use in which they interviewed Dr. Donald Luria, president of the New York State Council on Drug Addiction. Luria stated that there was a trend among young people toward “more bizarre and combinations of drugs.” He then added, “Kids have injected peanut butter and mayonnaise into their veins. This can kill them.” This appears to have been the earliest reference, in print, to the combination of PB and mayo as intravenous drugs.
So, what appears to have happened is that there may have been a few, isolated cases of young people suffering from drug addiction who injected themselves with peanut butter. Why they would have done this is a mystery, but then people with drug problems are known to make some spectacularly bad decisions. There may also have been a rumor circulating among young people alleging that intravenous peanut butter had hallucinogenic properties.
Word of these cases and of the rumor evidently began to circulate within the drug-enforcement community, and the scope of the problem steadily grew with each retelling. By October 1969, when Carabillo and Gulich gave their press conference, the abuse of PB and mayo had expanded in the minds of officials to become a worrying, national trend.
So, yes. It’s possible that a few kids once injected themselves with peanut butter. Was mayonnaise also used? Again, it’s possible, though there’s no evidence of that. However, the idea that there was a widespread problem with kids shooting up PB and mayo seems to have been an exaggerated fantasy dreamed up by drug officials.
- Gill, Donna. (Nov 15, 1969). “Why U.S. Turns On with Pot or Anything.” Chicago Tribune.
- Kleiner, Dick .(Apr 23, 1969). “Ranch Haven For Disturbed Youths.” The Port Huron Times Herald.
- MacPherson, Myra. (July 7, 1969). “Parents, Children and Pot.” The Washington Post.
- Schroeder, John. (Mar 19, 1969). “Young Know About Drugs, But Not About Their Harm.” Waukesha Daily Freeman.
- Wolf, Jacob. (May 6, 1970). “State Urged To Delay New Drug Control Law.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch.