Teen use of drug 'Salvia divinorum,' as seen on YouTube, raises alarms
Parents and state lawmakers ratchet up pressure to outlaw the hallucinogenic herb.
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Massachusetts lawmaker Vinny deMacedo first heard of salvia from a sheriff and couldn't quite believe his ears. "Once I saw [on YouTube] the effects of the drug, I realized it isn't just a small thing," says Representative deMacedo, who has introduced a bill to ban the compound in the Bay State. "All the young kids know about it and none of the parents know anything about it, so it's clearly becoming an epidemic of sorts insofar as kids are accessing it and talking about it frequently. By us doing nothing, we'd be sending the wrong message."Skip to next paragraph
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What makes Salvia divinorum dangerous, experts say, is the nature of the 15- to 30-minute "trip," during which users can lose awareness of their surroundings.
"Certainly, if you were driving a car [on salvia] that would be a bad thing, or if your son is out on a balcony and he didn't know where he was ... – stuff like this makes it a serious drug," says Bryan Roth, a pharmacologist at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, who in 2002 discovered how salvia interacts with the brain. "The one silver lining is that most people don't like it. They think it's legal marijuana and they find out that it's nothing like marijuana, and they don't ever want to do it again."
A 2006 survey by the US Department of Health and Human Services found that just under 2 percent of 18- to 25-year-olds reported using salvia in the past year – usage far behind that for marijuana and harder drugs.
Law enforcement officials say salvia, though legal in most states, is nonetheless a potentially dangerous drug. The first known arrest for salvia possession came last month in North Dakota, when police nabbed a middle-aged Bismarck man who had an interest in spiritual searching. The state banned salvia in August. If convicted, he faces up to five years in jail.
One Atlanta mother whose teenage son experimented with salvia said he told her that he had become a sofa and then a door. He didn't know what a jacket was, she said. By the time they arrived at the emergency room, the effects had disappeared. "It scared him and it scared me," she says.
The prohibition movement against salvia comes as university researchers are studying substances such as psilocybin for heightening spiritual awareness and Ecstasy for treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, with US Iraq war veterans taking part in one study.
Historically, salvia has been used by Oaxacan shamans as a backup drug when psilocybin mushrooms are not available for indigenous ceremonies. The concentrations available for smoking in the US, however, are much greater than those used traditionally in Mexico, where plant leaves are chewed or distilled into a tea.