Little-Known Drug Offers Legal High

It's a potent hallucinogen that's comparable to LSD. And while it's been around for centuries, it's just now catching on with college students and recreational users nationwide.

It's called salvia divinorum and it's easy and legal to purchase in most of the United States.

Despite its strong hallucinogenic properties and popularity with young users, salvia is not classified as a controlled substance by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.

That means that in most places salvia can be bought straight off the store shelf or ordered on the Internet, where a one ounce of dried salvia leaves sells for $7.49.

  • A plant with strong hallucinogenic properties has become more popular in recent years among college-age kids. In most states, it's not even illegal to buy, a situation lawmakers are starting to address.

Chris Barstow, a 28-year-old lawmaker from Maine, is out to change that, at least for his state. He has proposed a bill to the state legislature that would ban the sale of salvia.

"It's a very strong drug," Barstow said. "The idea that we have a hallucinogen of this nature out there without regulation when a low-grade drug like marijuana is banned -- I just don't see a balance with regard to the drug scheduling practices."

But if Barstow is fighting a crusade, it's against an enemy few people know by name.

A plant originally found in Mexico, salvia divinorum or "diviners sage" was used for religious and medicinal purposes by indigenous tribes.

When the leaves are chewed or smoked, they produce a hallucinogenic effect that lasts anywhere between 15 minutes and three hours.

Users describe its effects as an intense, psychedelic high: fingers changing color, a floating sensation, imaginary objects moving through midair.

"For a few hours after you do it, you feel really distracted and just plain stupid. But for about three minutes after you do it, you feel really elated and out of body," said one user, a student at Dartmouth College who asked not to be identified.

According to some users, effects of the drug include a sense of contemplative peace and intense calm. Others report a more negative experience, saying they were overcome with panic and depression, a loss of self-awareness and a lack of bodily control.

It's in that lack of control that Barstow sees a threat dangerous enough to justify a salvia ban.

"Any drug that if you go onto the Internet says you should have a spotter present poses a threat," said Barstow of his justification for a ban.

"The worst-case scenario is someone gets behind the wheel and hurts another person or that someone takes the drug in the home and hurts themselves for lack of bodily control. And we as a society end up incurring the health care cost."

Despite Barstow's concerns, there have been few reported injuries directly caused by salvia.

The only known salvia-related death is the 2006 suicide of Brett Chidester, who killed himself shortly after smoking salvia.

His parents blame the drug for his death and successfully pushed for the passage of Brett's Law, banning salvia in their home state of Delaware.

Only a handful of other states, including Louisiana and Missouri, have added salvia to their list of regulated substances. Other states, among them Vermont and Georgia, are currently debating a salvia ban.

Tennessee passed a ban but maintained a peculiar loophole: It is illegal to sell salvia for consumption, but still legal to sell it for use in gardening.

The salvia plant is popular in landscaping and gardening shows in the state.

As for Barstow's state of Maine, legislators rejected his proposed ban on salvia. Instead they opted for a less restrictive regulation, outlawing the sale of salvia to anyone younger than 18.

But Barstow says he'll keep fighting for an outright ban.

"We end up paying for the [negative effects] of those who use substances irresponsibly. We need to balance between individual citizens and their civil rights vs. the cost the government has to pay for those who can't handle those substances responsibly."

Moreover, after his experience with the salvia bill, Barstow wants citizens and lawmakers to rethink their approach to drug law.

He sees an imbalance between the legality of salvia and the regulation of less potent narcotics.

"There needs to be an open discussion of the drugs that are scheduled drugs and those that perhaps should be scheduled drugs. If you're going to have a tobacco provision of salvia, it should be considered for marijuana as well," Barstow said.

"The overall discussion needs to be held."