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.
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.
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."
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.