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Teen use of drug 'Salvia divinorum,' as seen on YouTube, raises alarms

Parents and state lawmakers ratchet up pressure to outlaw the hallucinogenic herb.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 9, 2008


Concern about Salvia divinorum, a shamanistic herb from Mexico that some US teenagers are using to get a hallucinogenic high, not only is spurring parents to have heart-to-heart talks with kids, but also has led some states to outlaw it.

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A concentrated leaf compound that's usually smoked in water pipes, Salvia divinorum – known as "Sally D" or "magic mint" on the streets – causes users to briefly lose their grip on reality. Some 3,500 video clips of teens experimenting with the drug have popped up on YouTube, driving up its popularity even as vendors, aware of efforts to ban it, are basically throwing going-out-of-business sales.

The highly concentrated compound made from a kind of mint plant remains legal in all but eight states, available in smoke shops and even gas station mini-marts. It can also be obtained via the Internet. Its easy availability and disorienting properties come as a surprise to parents and many lawmakers, who are asking why the US government has not yet outlawed its sale.

Yet salvia's unusual chemistry, nontoxicity, and potential research benefits have made the compound a cause célèbre among some researchers and spiritualists who say prohibition is the wrong tack for a substance whose effects are so uncomfortable that few people try it more than once or twice.

"Salvia has become an Internet phenomenon where, in talking to kids, their perception around it is, 'Well, it must not be that bad for you because it's legal,' and that's a real dangerous assumption to make," says Jonathan Appel, a criminal-justice professor at Tiffin University in Tiffin, Ohio, who has studied the salvia phenomenon. "The heavy-user group is late adolescents [and] early adults who are experimenting with substances, many of whom are attracted to ... a kind of distorted identity search, sometimes seeking the sacred in a culture where we may have lost some ability to see what is sacred."

The US Drug Enforcement Administration lists salvia as a "drug of concern" – the first step in classifying a drug as a controlled substance. But parents and state and local lawmakers, many showing YouTube clips in public hearings, are not waiting for Washington to move. Seven states now classify salvia as a controlled substance, banning its use and sale, and Maine prohibits minors from using it. Delaware banned it after it was linked, at least in part, to a teen's suicide in 2006. As many as a dozen others are considering similar legislation. Even a town, West Bridgewater, Mass., took the unusual step this year of banning it after parents became aware of its use locally.