Wednesday, January 16, 2008

RICHMOND — Virginia lawmakers want to prevent people from getting their hands on salvia divinorum, a hallucinogenic herb with unknown psychological risks that has increased in popularity in recent years.

“It is the opiate equivalent of LSD, and it usually causes bad trips,” said Delegate John M. O’Bannon III, Richmond Republican who is sponsoring the measure.

The House yesterday unanimously approved the measure, which if made law would put the herb into the Schedule I class of drugs, which under the federal Controlled Substance Act of 1970 includes Ecstasy, heroin and LSD.

Mr. O’Bannon thinks such a classification will under Virginia law ban the possession, distribution and sale of the herb, including that made on the Internet.

Mr. O’Bannon said the herb is an obscure plant in the mint family that is indigenous to Mexico that “has been used by the Indians down there as a hallucinogen.” It is sold in “head” or smoke shops, tobacco stores and over the Internet. It also has spawned videos on YouTube that provide a glimpse of people under its influence.

Mr. O’Bannon said he learned how easily anybody could buy the herb when an aide, whom he gave $20, easily bought a sample from a Richmond smoke shop.

The incident furthered concern among Mr. O’Bannon and other lawmakers about children and teens buying the herb, then smoking or chewing it for a high that lasts about 30 minutes.

“When people take a large enough dose, they are transported to what they described as a different place and time, and typically they don”t know how they got there,” said Dr. Bryan Roth, a professor in the Department of Pharmacology at the University of North Carolina. “So for some people, it could be frightening. For some, it could be exciting. It depends on the person.”

Louisiana, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and recently, Illinois have banned the herb.

The Delaware legislature in 2006 passed “Brett”s Law” after Brett Chidester, a 17-year-old honor student who committed suicide after experimenting with the herb. His parents say the herb, combined with mild depression, played a major role in his death.

Rogene Waite, a Drug Enforcement Agency spokeswoman, said the agency as required by law is studying salvia to learn whether it should be controlled.

Dr. Roth said the herb was just a “blip on the screen five years ago.” He thinks it now should be regulated but hopes restrictions will not prevent medical tests on its possible medical benefits.

“We regulate the distribution of alcohol and tobacco, and here you have a substance that has a more profound effect then alcohol and tobacco,” he said. “And it can be obtained over the Internet.”

Moe Marsh, an employee at Natural Mystics, in Fredericksburg where salvia is sold, said he tried it once but was “not a fan.”

“Some people enjoy it, and some people have life-changing experiences on it,” he said.

Mr. Marsh, 30, said the herb is sold there for as much as $65 for roughly a gram and that the shop warns each buyer about the effects and advises people with mental illness not to use it.

“I would not call it recreational,” Mr. Marsh said. “I suppose it would be good for some tribal place with some soul cleansing. It”s more of a sitting around a campfire beating on some drums kind of thing.”

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