Sunday, August 12, 2007


Meet the New Drug
Controversial yet legal, the herbal psychedelic salvia is readily available in Connecticut. But does it work?
By Adam Bulger
Hartford Advocate, August 2, 2007

The cluster of kids gathered by the counter mentioned salvia when I walked into the head shop. The four college-age rocker-looking kids and the store's owner were discussing legal highs, like herbal ecstasy and various smokable herbs. Those were good, they said, but none of them produced as intense an experience as salvia.

By a strange coincidence, I was there to buy salvia divinorum, a legal herbal drug with alleged hallucinogenic properties. A member of the sage family of plants and native to Mexico, salvia is sold as a leaf or an extract that can be smoked or chewed. The potency of extracts increase as the cost goes up. Salvia graded as 10X contains 10 times more Salvinorum A, the active ingredient of salvia, then the same amount of salvia leaves, is generally the cheapest. Salvia graded as 50x is more expensive. Salvia experts told me that the labelling system is misleading, as the potency of salvia varies widely.

Once I said I was a reporter and interested in buying salvia, advice was dispensed rapidly and haphazardly, from both the customers and the store's owner. I was handed a pamphlet about the herbal drug that included a short history and a long list of instructions, which emphasized in all capital letters that I should not drive or operate any type of machinery while under the influence of salvia.

I was told I shouldn't take it alone. I was warned that I would most certainly drool while I was on the drug. The smoke from the cured leaves was harsh, they said, and I couldn't just roll it up and smoke it; a water pipe was needed to cool the smoke. The high lasts about 20 minutes, but would seem like an hour.

Cautionary stories about friends and peers were shared. This one guy who smoked salvia thought a glass coffee table was a well and tried to swim in it. A girl took the drug and believed her body was made out of Lego pieces.

According to Bryan Roth, a director for the National Institute of Mental Health, those experiences illustrate the dissociative experiences salvia users typically have.
"For most people it's pretty overwhelming because they're more or less instantaneously transported to an alternative universe," Roth said.

I walked out of the store with a plastic lid filled with 20X grade salvia (the highest grade available at the store) and a small red water pipe. I felt pretty spooked. I had assumed salvia's effects were going to be as negligible as smoking banana peels. As anxious as I was, I decided not to enlist the aid of a sitter. I was first of all a grown man who hasn't required tending by a babysitter in the last quarter century or so, and secondly averse to having people watch me drool. Thirdly, my girlfriend was out of town, and she is the only person I think I'd really trust in such a situation.

I went home and struggled to remember how to load screens into a bong (it's been a while) and spilled the contents of the salvia container onto my coffee table. I made a Rhapsody play list, including "Comfortably Numb" by Pink Floyd, a song I planned on using as a ripcord I could pull if I started freaking out, and poured myself a glass of water and opened a can of beer and put them on the kitchen counter.

I pulled two hits from the bong and, as instructed, held the smoke in as long as I could. The effects of the salvia kicked in almost immediately. The music I was playing — Spiritualized's Live at Royal Albert Hall album — suddenly seemed extremely intense. My computer was nearby, and I typed out the sentence "If I knew it was going to do this to the music, I would have done it to the whole apartment."

When I looked up from the typo-ridden sentence, the air seemed like it was streaked with waves, and the walls seemed to pulsate. I stood up to get closer to the music, which seemed to be capable of taking me on an intense journey.

I was both elated because the drug worked and panicked because the drug worked. I was down the rabbit hole, and wondered if I should have heeded the warnings of the head-shop kids.
Then, two songs into the play list, the rush subsided, leaving behind an unpleasant lightheadedness. I felt over-heated and ripped off. For the next couple of hours I was tired, mellow and stupid. I felt hung over the following day.

Judging from the dozens of videos of salvia trips uploaded to the video-sharing website YouTube, my mild experience with salvia was not the norm (or maybe I can just handle my shit better than most, or my self-administered dosage was too low). The salvia users on the internet videos freak out like crazy in trips that last nearly a half an hour.

The videos straddle the line between hilarity and deeply disturbing — a mix the Internet was made for. Reactions range from giddiness to seeming regressions into atavistic states. The salvia-takers, who are mostly white males who appear to be in their early 20s, remove their pants, babble like idiots and, yes, drool.

Thanks to media reports, governmental action and maybe even those YouTube videos, salvia divinorum has snowballed into a topic of concern nationwide. It's illegal in Delaware, Missouri and Louisiana. Other states, including New Jersey and Louisiana, have proposed banning it, and two proposals have been forwarded to prohibit it at the national level. Currently, the federal Drug Enforcement Agency classifies salvia as a drug of concern, but has not yet defined it as a scheduled narcotic.

Salvia isn't some recently-created designer drug. Native to the Oaxaca region of Mexico, salvia has been used in shamanistic rituals and as a healing agent for centuries. It's been known to the industrialized world since the 1930s and sold commercially since the mid 1990s.

Interest in salvia seems to have spiked in the last two years. In the past two months alone, newspapers across the United States and Canada have run editorials and articles with headlines like "Hallucinogenic Salvia a Growing Threat" (San Bernardino County Sun), "Salvia: Harmless Recreation or a Dangerous Drug?" (Wisconsin State Journal) and "Herb Poses Dangers to Users" (The Calgary Herald).

The headlines imply salvia is causing some sort of an international drug apocalypse. A reader could easily infer that the streets of San Bernardino, Wisconsin and Calgary are piled high with strung-out salvia heads, and the city emergency rooms and morgues are clogged by the shattered bodies and tattered corpses of salvia users. Evidently, that inference would be incorrect.

"There's not a single documented case of overdose. There's not a single documented case of an emergency room visit. There's not a single documented case of addiction," salvia researcher John Mendelson said.

Why all the fuss and why now, then? Jag Davies, the director of communications for the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, an organization that studies the possible medicinal and therapeutic benefits of drugs like MDMA and LSD, said salvia is following a familiar trajectory for naturally-occurring controlled substances.

"It's a very similar pattern, and we've seen it happen over and over again throughout history. Salvia, for example, is a plant that's been used for thousands of years in Mexico by indigenous people with relatively little side effects when used in a safe context that's part of the social order of the society," Davies said. "Then it starts getting spread in underground circles. Once it gets to a critical mass, the media goes into hysteria mode."

The arguable critical mass event for salvia was the 2006 suicide of Delaware teenager Brett Chidester. Sometime before taking his own life, the 17-year-old honors student told his mother he had experimented with salvia. Reportedly, in his conversations with his mother, Chidester said he didn't like the drug. In his suicide note, Chidester reportedly wrote that he couldn't go on living after he "learned the secrets of life." The rest of the note hasn't been made public. Pro-salvia websites and sources have contended that the line wasn't in reference to Chidester's salvia use, and speculated that other factors — divorced parents, acne medication, drinking, etc, — led to his decision to take his own life. Chidester's mother has maintained that salvia, along with depression, were the major contributing factors in her son's suicide.

The Delaware state legislature, led by Democratic state senator Karen E. Peterson, passed Senate Bill # 259, nicknamed "Brett's Law" in the spring of 2006. The bill made salvia divinorum a schedule-one controlled substance in the state, which prohibited its sale and use.

The precise way salvia divinorum acts in the human mind isn't yet known. Articles about how the drug affects mice, chimpanzees and other animals have appeared in scientific and medical journals for years. The first human study with controlled conditions is only now currently underway. John Mendelson, senior scientist at the Research Institute at California Pacific Medical Center, is operating the study, and he told me that the neurochemical makeup of salvia is unique.

"It really represents something completely new in medicine. Basically, salvinorum A [salvia divinorum's active ingredient], what kids are using now and is available on the net, activates a unique set of receptors," Mendelson said.

Mendelson and others believe the potential medical applications for such a substance are great.
"They appear to mediate some effects of bipolar disease, some forms of mania and possibly HIV," Mendelson said. "There's a lot of excitement around something that specifically and potently activates kappa receptors."

Mendelson said he's worried that the pressure in many quarters to make salvia illegal would have a negative impact on the scientific study of the plant. If the drug were classed as a controlled narcotic, obtaining salvia would become exponentially more difficult for researchers.
"I think the politicians who are pushing control here are just idiots. They're ignorant. They hear that some kids have gotten high and they want to make it illegal. They don't consider the consequences of that," Mendelson said.

The possible consequences extend beyond the scientific community. The most dramatic consequence, Mendelson feared, would be on the drug's recreational users.

"Some people will go to jail for it and have their lives completely ruined. And right now there's no underground commerce in this drug, and there will be," Mendelson said. "How stupid can you get — to actually ask for a new drug abuse problem? With scheduling, it'll actually make kids say 'This stuff is good and it really gets you loaded.' It's like the government seal of approval."

Salvia is available in several stores in the Hartford area that sell paraphernalia — an employee at one store told me it was popular. According to state police public information officer Trooper William Tate, Connecticut hasn't encountered problems relating to salvia.

"If there's no law that's applicable to the substance, there's no action that can be taken," Tate said.

A search of the Connecticut Legislature's website for salvia didn't return anything.
However, some local merchants are hesitant to sell salvia. The Trading Post in Canton, which sells water pipes and legal purported psychoactive substances, for example, does not sell it. Trading Post owner Bill Buell said that while he recognized salvia would sell, he didn't want to be responsible for its possible consequences.

"I just, I don't know. I don't see how any good can come out of it. I'm not comfortable with it. I'm just not comfortable with what it can do and the potential problems it can cause," Buell said.
A store owner who does sell salvia said he had his reservations about the drug.

"It really shouldn't be legal," the store owner, who asked not to be identified, said. He worried that someone would take salvia and drive a car or otherwise cause an accident.