- The Washington Times - Friday, March 28, 2003

A hallucinogenic herb traditionally used by Mexico's Mazatec Indians is being touted as a legal alternative to marijuana on numerous Web sites, attracting attention from teenagers seeking a psychedelic experience and parents concerned about their children's well-being.
Salvia divinorum, a member of the sage family, has been used quietly by soul-searching drug users for years but only recently seems to have caught the attention of the school-age crowd, said Dr. John Halpern, a professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School at McLean Hospital in Massachusetts.
Only a few specialists at drug institutes reached for comment by The Washington Times knew about salvia, also known as Mexican mint, magic mint or diviner's sage, but Web site vendors such as www.herbsmoke.com call the Mexican-grown herb a legal alternative to marijuana.
Others, such as www.sagewisdom.org, say it should be used solely for meditation and self-discovery: "Salvia divinorum is an extraordinary herb used in shamanism, divination, healing and the exploration of conscious," the Web site reads.
"The fact is, it's out there and kids are learning about it," Detective George Chavez of the Dane County (Wis.) Narcotics and Gang Task Force told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
The Drug Enforcement Administration is investigating salvia to decide whether it will classify it as a controlled substance like marijuana or heroin, says DEA spokesman Rusty Payne. Salvia can be smoked, chewed or made into a tincture.
The DEA investigation is based on the drug's availability, its potential for abuse and its physical effects. There is no timetable for the investigation, and Mr. Payne could not comment on any findings.
The lack of a DEA timetable and dearth of knowledge about the drug is a cause for concern, says Gayle Engles, education coordinator of the American Botanical Council.
"We don't know anything about what salvia really does, and not knowing more about it than we do, who knows what it might do?" she says.
Concerned parents don't have much information, making it all the more difficult for them to know how to guard against their children getting into salvia.
Sharon, a Milwaukee resident who asked for her last name to be withheld, told the Portland Oregonian she found a bag of salvia leaves in her son's car. After doing some Web research, she called her son's high school counselor, who had never heard of it even after returning from a recent drug seminar class.
"Somebody needs to get this out to adults," Sharon says. "Trust me most of the high school kids know about it. Their parents need to know there is a new drug in town."
Dr. Ethan Russo, a neurologist and researcher of psychotropic herbs at Montana Neurobehavioral Specialists in Missoula, says the active ingredient in salvia, salvinorin A, is the most potent natural hallucinogenic discovered. He said it does not produce any known toxic effects and is not addictive.
Salvia users write on www.erowid.org that their trip experiences include visions of the past, intense fits of laughter and the feeling of electricity flowing throughout the body.
One user writes: "I have never been so totally 'lost,' not even on the potent LSD available during the '60s. I am accustomed to thinking and traveling outside the box, but salvia put me in a place where there is no box and never was a box."
At the Gas Pipe, a head shop in Albuquerque, N.M., that sells salvia, employees recommend that all users take the drug in a secluded, safe atmosphere with only one or two other persons, manager Carrie Phelps said.
Miss Phelps says the drug is not conducive to a party atmosphere and emphasized the need for a "sitter," someone who watches over users during the experience to ensure they do not harm themselves.
Dr. Halpern says the drug will not be swept into mainstream culture because the effects are not physically addicting or pleasurable and habit-forming. He has spoken with former salvia users who describe the experience as "very unsettling and terrifying, and they wind up never trying it again."
The most high-profile incident involving salvia was in Rhode Island, where a 15-year-old boy stabbed another youth after reportedly using the drug.
"It doesn't matter if there are five Web sites or 500 Web sites. The same limited number of people are going to be interested," said Dr. Halpern, who wrote about salvia in a 2001 report he published in the American Journal of Psychiatry on different hallucinogenic drugs available on the Internet.
Salvia is being taken seriously, and legal action is being taken, in some parts of America. In St. Peters, Mo., an age restriction of 18 was enacted in January for those who wish to buy the herb.
The law was a response to increased calls to the police department concerning strange behavior in adolescents.
"We were beginning to see high amounts of abuse with the substance among youths high school age and younger," says Jeff Finkelstein, captain of the St. Peters Police Department.
In October, Rep. Joe Baca, California Democrat, introduced the Hallucinogen Control Act of 2002 in an attempt to classify salvia. The legislation died in committee.
One strong salvia advocate is Daniel Siebert, who as an ethnobotanist studies how plants are used in particular cultures. Mr. Siebert runs the salvia information site www.sagewisdom.org. He says the drug's effects are so intense that he has used it only once in the last year.
The true spirit of the plant, Mr. Siebert says, is reflected by serious users today and is rooted in the plant's historical use by the Mazatec Indians in Oaxaca, Mexico. Salvia was used as a sacred plant by the shamans for spiritual meditation, healing and solving problems.
"It is important to recognize that this is not just a drug that some crazy hippie concocted and is trying to turn on America to," he says.
Fear that the government will move to control the substance angers advocacy groups, who view it as another area where the government's war on drugs encroaches on an individual's freedom, says Richard Glen Boire, co-director and legal counsel for the Center for Cognitive Liberty and Ethics, a civil-liberties think tank in Davis, Calif.
"We need to acknowledge that people have always entered into altered states of consciousness," Mr. Glen Boire says, noting that popular anti-depressant medications can change a person's outlook.
"Paxil and Prozac are drugs that people can take to alter the way they view their environment," he says. "The government needs to come to terms with the fact that there is a distinction between drug abuse and drug use."
Some doctors acknowledge that the Mazatec users may not have experienced any known negative effects, but their intentions may have been different from the teenagers' today.
"This is a compound that was taken out of the shaman's medicine bag," Dr. Halpern says. "But that is probably where it should remain."
What should concerned parents tell their children about something that is still so obscure?
Dr. Halpern recommends they acknowledge the scarcity of information about salvia's effects on body and emphasize the fear of the unknown. They can say something like: "Are you willing to take the risk to experiment with your brain and health like that?"

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