Is a Mexican Herb the New LSD?

A Mexican herb that no one really understands and can send users on intense, brief hallucinogenic trips is being sold over the Internet touting itself as a legal way to expand your consciousness that recalls the heyday of LSD.

Little is known about the drug, salvia divinorum, or how it works on the brain and what its longterm effects might be. But word of its existence is spreading through e-mail chains and Web sites praising its potential, which has caught the attention of the Drug Enforcement Administration. The DEA has included it on its list of "Drugs and Chemicals of Concern" and is considering whether to add the herb to its list of controlled substances.

Some researchers who have studied it and other hallucinogens doubt the DEA needs to worry much, and say they don't believe the herb will live up to the hype seen on some of the Web sites.

Still, the Internet descriptions of the herb's effects, albeit more subdued, would be familiar to anyone who remembers the 1960s, when Harvard University professors Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert began proselytizing for LSD's power to help people expand their consciousness.

Then, reports of "bad trips" and allegations that LSD use would lead to chromosome damage and widespread birth defects, which were never borne out by studies of users of the drug, helped to create a backlash against "acid" that quickly led to it being outlawed.

Forty years later, the fate of salvia divinorum, is still in the doubt. And there are many differences between it, LSD and the cultures that surround both. LSD was manmade and new, while salvia, a perennial in the mint family that is native to parts of Oaxaca, Mexico, has been used by Indians there for centuries as a healing and divining tool.

And unlike the champions of LSD in the 1960s, those running the Web sites offering salvia divinorum are not portraying the herb as a wonder drug without any potential problems for users.

Also, while Leary and Alpert spread their words far and wide, those offering salvia divinorum for sale, and even some researching it, are reluctant to draw widespread attention to the herb. They say on the one hand that publicity might attract users looking for a new "recreational drug," which they emphasize salvia divinorum is not, and on the other that it could prompt the DEA to take action against it without a full review of the case.

One site posts an extensive list of academic articles discussing the herb's use by Indians in Mexico and how it works chemically on the brain. Among the articles is Salvinorin A: Notes of Caution by Daniel J. Siebert, the ethnobotanist who runs the site.

"Salvinorin A (the major active principal of the plant Salvia divinorum) is an extremely powerful consciousness altering compound," the article begins. "In fact, it is the most potent naturally occurring hallucinogen thus far isolated. But before would-be experimenters get too worked-up about it, it should be made clear that the effects are often extremely unnerving and there is a very real potential for physical danger with its use."

Siebert did not respond to requests to be interviewed, but much of the information given on the site was confirmed by other researchers.

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