Only a longtime resident of this town can fully grasp the meaning of the slogan “Keep Santa Cruz Weird.” There was a time when the Pacific Garden Mall teemed with eccentric characters, bohemian shops and offbeat events. For every Average Joe, there was an unusual street performer, a hippie harlequin wielding devil sticks or a flamboyant hipster in A Clockwork Orange-like apparel.
Santa Cruz’s quirk factor has taken a significant plunge in the past decade or so, but lately there have been some encouraging signs that our town is getting its weird back. One example is the pair of gentlemen whom your narrator recently saw reclining on the lawn of the Capitola New Leaf in sleeping bags. Another is an unambiguously psychedelic shop on Pacific Avenue called Truthlab, which proclaims itself an “antidote to the ordinary.”
And then, of course, there’s the new Happy High Herbs Shop (227 Cathcart St., Santa Cruz; 469-4372; happyhighherbs.com) right next to Hula’s Island Grill. The cheerful, flowery logo above the building’s entrance is a tip-off to the store’s unorthodox nature. Venture inside, and you’ll find a wide array of herbal concoctions designed to make you mellow, energized, horny, healthy, happy and—yes—high. Various Happy High products are said to approximate the effects of Ecstasy, Viagra and even speed.
Cynthia Nelson, co-owner of the shop, says business has been booming so far. “I can’t tell you how happy I am if it stays this way,” she enthuses. “The success is off the chart. People have come in and have started purchasing every day. I would say a third of our business is repeat already in one month.”
An affable fellow named Ray Thorpe founded Happy High Herbs 15 years ago in his native Nimbin, a hippie area in the Australian state of New South Wales. Since then, the business has expanded to include 24 different shops in Australia as well as four in America. (Along with the Santa Cruz store, there are Happy High shops in Berkeley, San Diego and Tempe, Ariz.) In addition to their all-natural mood enhancers, the stores offer such items as essential oils, natural cosmetics and Burning Man-friendly toys.
When Thorpe greets me shortly before the Grand Opening of the Santa Cruz shop, he’s decked out in the space-age-tribal attire that is the fashion of modern psychedelia. His Hare Krishna-esque hairdo (shaven in the front, a gray tuft in the back) matches that of his partner Elizabeth Rix.
Easing into a chair, the muscular shop owner explains that while natural herbs are available at health food stores, his stores are unique in that they offer herbs to counter addictions to chemical drugs both legal and illegal. As opposed to a pharmacy or a doctor’s office, Happy High is a place where people can come and talk human-being-to-human-being about their problems or addictions.
Thorpe recounts a particularly dramatic moment at his store in Ocean Beach, where a customer told him that one of Happy High’s products, a Southeast Asian medicinal leaf called Kratom, had helped him get off heroin. “This is not public knowledge, because people generally say that nothing can get you off heroin,” the shop owner notes, adding that Kratom can also help cure speed addiction.
Similarly, passion flower can be used to help people quit smoking cigarettes, and Happy High’s keystone herb, Damiana, serves as an alternative not only to marijuana, but also to Prozac: According to Thorpe, it can be used as a cure for mild depression. “The biggest disease in modern society is depression, and it’s actually linked to the kidneys,” he states. He explains that unlike pharmaceutical antidepressants, Damiana is a kidney tonic. “I really feel that offering a chemical drug for depression is missing the point, because even the chemical drugs are polluting our kidneys.”
Thorpe, who says he himself quit smoking pot with the aid of Damiana, admits that most of Happy High’s herbs are not as potent as the drugs of addiction that they aim to replace. They will, however, relax the user and help him or her get through the period of withdrawal. “Likewise, the party herbs that we’ve got won’t be as strong as Ecstasy and all that,” he notes. “If they were, they’d probably be banned. But they’re good enough to have a good time without looking for an illegal drug.”
GT decides to put that statement to the test by trying out a Happy High party elixir called Cherry Pop, whose ingredients include Guarana, citrus extract, Pelargonium quercifolium, chocolate extract and 50 mg of caffeine. Thorpe has warned me that it’s not the tastiest stuff, and darned if he isn’t right. (Think cough medicine.) But hoo-wee! Yes indeedy, friends, it really works. There’s a warm bodily hum, a pleasant tingly headed sensation and a feeling of being elated yet calm. I also seem to find myself a wee bit rubber-legged. It’s perfect fuel for a night of dancing and partying. All told, I’m happily high for four hours or so. I’m slightly grouchy on the comedown, and my stomach is mildly upset, but the negatives are minor compared to the aftermath of alcohol or various other well-known recreational substances.
Well, I can thoroughly vouch for the efficacy of at least one Happy High party product. But is this stuff safe? Though you’ll find some online chat forum posts from customers who report feeling ill after ingesting these herbs, Thorpe claims that none of Happy High’s products are harmful whatsoever, even in overdose. He acquiesces that when combined with alcohol, some of his party herbs can make their users feel queasy. “But it’s the alcohol that’s the problem. And we warn people about that.”
Nonetheless, in 2009, the Australian Crime Commission conducted a simultaneous raid of all 20 Happy High shops that existed at the time. Thorpe discusses the raid in an online video: youtube.com/watch?v=CWFyFfxoW00.
In Thorpe’s view, herbal pharmacology presents a threat to the pharmaceutical companies’ profit-oriented agenda: Rather than purchasing a large quantity of high-priced pills, a customer can buy a $10 packet of herbs at Happy High that will last three to six months. “I think we’re supposed to have been here for 40,000 years,” Thorpe states. “Only in the last 100 or 200 years has the pharmaceutical industry become involved in our health. And more than ever, our society has sickened.”
The entrepreneur adds that several potentially beneficial herbs are currently restricted. “For instance, Ephedra, which grows here in America, is restricted in most states and restricted mostly around the world, except in China. It’s the best thing ever for asthma, sinus and hay fever, and yet it’s not available. Our point is that herbalists should be able to prescribe Ephedra, but they’re not able to.”
Elizabeth Rix chimes in: “Our ancestors who got us here didn’t just walk into a K-Mart or a Wal-Mart. We didn’t get here because of the pharmaceutical companies or supermarkets. Our ancestors got us here by browsing in nature. There’s a place for doctors, hospitals and pharmaceuticals, but we also need to be able to choose if we want to go and get a natural product. There are hundreds of herbs that are often more powerful [than their pharmaceutical counterparts]. We’d like to bring people’s awareness ’round to them.”