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.

What Does It Do?

Smoking or chewing the leaves of the plant sends the user on a trip that according to accounts posted on various sites can be even more intense than the LSD experience, but unlike an LSD trip, which can last six hours or more, the Mexican herb's effects usually last less than an hour, with a peak of only 20 minutes or less.

One woman who has experimented with the herb told ABCNEWS that she lost touch with her surroundings for only a few minutes, but during the experience it seemed much longer, and she found it difficult to describe everything she saw, heard and felt.

"At first I was able to tell myself, 'This is the drug,'" she said. "Then it didn't seem to matter so much what it was that was doing it, I just let it all come. I think there were moments when I was scared to death, but something kept comforting me."

The greatest danger, according to Siebert's article, comes when too much of the active ingredient gets into the user's system too quickly.

Dr. John Halpern, a psychiatrist with McLean Hospital, a teaching hospital affiliated with Harvard University, said there are other dangers with salvia divinorum, but they are dangers associated with other hallucinogens and with alcohol when they are used by people in their late teens and early 20s, when the brain is still maturing. These substances can aggravate tendencies towards schizophrenia, said Halpern, who has received a career development award from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

The enthusiasm over LSD included hopes that the drug could be a valuable tool for psychotherapy, and similar claims are made in some of the literature about salvia divinorum, but the caution and detailed recommendations regarding dosage and preparing the proper atmosphere are a marked difference from the era of "acid tests."

"If you choose to pursue a relationship with this plant please treat it with respect and care," Siebert's article says. "Perhaps if people can use the plant safely and responsibly it will be able to grow and thrive freely into the future."

'Nobody Has a Clue'

Perhaps the biggest question about the drug is how it works.

"Nobody has a clue," said Purdue University professor of medicinal chemistry and molecular pharmacology David Nichols, who has studied the effects of hallucinogens on the brain for 20 years. Nichols is among the scientists who has given information about the drug to the DEA.

He said attempts to discover which part of the brain the drug works on have thus far been unsuccessful. When tests involving the most common brain receptors were performed, the active ingredient in the herb, Salvinorum A, did not seem to bind to any of them.

When asked about potential dangers, he said thus far none have been identified, other than the potential for an unpleasant experience with the herb, which he said has more of a "disorienting" effect than other hallucinogens.

"We haven't really heard of any adverse reactions," he said. "Like LSD, when the dose is so small, unless it's a toxin it really can't damage most of your organ systems."

Dr. Edward Boyer, an assistant professor of emergency medicine and the director of the toxicology fellowship training program at the University of Massachusetts, said that over the last three years he has seen no cases of people suffering any toxic effect from salvia statewide in Massachusetts.

He warned, though, that there could be health concerns if it were taken along with antidepressants — a combination he said could cause hypertension, high blood pressure or strokes.

And there is always the danger of "merging," when a person using the drug feels the need to merge with another object.

"You may try to merge with an open window and fall out," he said.

Legal Issues

A DEA spokeswoman said the administration does not comment on the specifics of its consideration of substances while they are under review. At the Food and Drug Administration, which also must review a substance before it is put on the controlled substances list, two spokeswomen said they had no record of any study being under way.

The DEA Diversion Control Program has included salvia divinorum on its list of Drugs and Chemicals of Concern, and in a statement about the herb compares the active ingredient it contains to that in absinthe and to THC, which is found in marijuana.

"There has been a growing interest among young adults and adolescents to re-discover ethnobotanical plants that can induce changes in perception, hallucinations or other psychologically-inducing changes," the statement said. "Since Salvia Divinorum is not specifically listed in the Controlled Substances Act, many on-line botanical companies and drug promotional sites have advertised Salvia as a legal alternative to other plant hallucinogens like mescaline."

Richard Glen Boire, an attorney with the Center for Cognitive Liberty and Ethics, said salvia divinorum "does not meet the criteria" to be a Schedule 1 substance. "It does not have the abuse potential that other drugs that are on the DEA's list of controlled substances," he said.

The group submitted a report to the DEA in October to make the case to keep salvia divinorum legal, which included a survey of hospital emergency room data from across the country which found no record of anyone requiring treatment from using the herb.

Spokesmen at the Center for Substance Abuse Research and the Community Epidemeology Work Group, two drug abuse watchdog groups, said concerns about the herb have not been raised with their organizations.

Ethan Russo, a clinical neurologist and expert on psychotropic drugs who has studied the herb, said there is no evidence that salvia divinorum causes any damage to the brain and he does not want to see it outlawed, saying that could inhibit study of the drug.

"I can say that there is no inherent danger to salvia divinorum except that some people are going to scare themselves and it's possible for someone to walk off and get hurt by something like falling down a flight of stairs, so somebody should always be close by," he said.

"I see no reason for this to be rendered illegal," he continued. "It's not going to help anything. In a perverse way, if it were rendered illegal it might make it more attractive to some people. … There is a long list of substances on the DEA list and they haven't been eradicated."

Halpern, who emphasized that he is not a drug advocate, said he doesn't believe that making salvia divinorum illegal is necessary, though he also said there is no reason for anyone to fear that DEA scheduling would interfere with academic research.

"If it is scheduled, I don't think it's going to change anything," he said. "It doesn't seem like there's going to be that many repeat users."

Chemical Questions

There are still more questions than answers about salvia divinorum. According to researchers, salvia divinorum acts on the brain in a way that has not been seen before, and for that reason it deserves more study.

Like the peyote cactus, which contains mescaline, and psyllocibin mushrooms, salvia divinorum has long been used by American Indians as a tool for divine visions as part of religious practices. But it is different because the hallucinations it creates are not dependent on the physical environment around the person using the drug.

Whereas a person on an LSD trip or eating peyote might see patterns or ripples appear in the walls around them — their perception is altered — someone who has used salvia divinorum truly hallucinates — he sees and hears things that are not there.

Work done so far has determined that salvia operates on a receptor system in the brain that was previously unknown, and the study of the aspects of consciousness controlled by that area could lead to advances in both medicine and psychology, Russo said, pointing to the gains made through the studies of how opiates and cannabis affect the brain.

A Religious History

Ethnobiologists and anthropologists have been aware of salvia divinorum since at least the early 1960s, when R. Gordon Wasson wrote an article published by Harvard University's Botanical Museum, entitled, A New Mexican Psychotropic Drug from the Mint Family.

Though there are accounts of the use of psychotropic plants by the Indians of Central America dating back to the time of the Spanish conquest in the 16th century, and as early as the 1930s anthropologists recorded that the Mazatecs were using leaves to produce a tea for divination, it was not until Wasson's expeditions in 1950s and early 1960s that salvia was identified.

The article recounted Wasson's exploration of the remote mountainous regions of Oaxaca, where the Mazatec Indians live. He said the Mazatec used salvia divinorum in their religious practices "as a less desirable substitute" when the psychotropic mushrooms they prefer were not available.

According to Wasson, the Mazatec often used the herb, which they called hojas de la Pastora or hojas de Maria Pastora, as a curing or divining tool — to determine what illness a person might be suffering from or to learn the facts of a crime that might have been committed against him. In those ceremonies, though, it was usually the shaman alone who took the herb, not the patient.

An article by Leander J. Valdes III, Jose Luis Diaz and Ara G. Paul published in 1982 in The Journal of Ethnopharmacology, "Ethnopharmacology of ska Maria Pastora" provided more detail, recounting several ceremonies in which the herb was used.

According Halpern, the herb's potential is also being explored by a group of religious people in the United States who are "finding it is useful in their practice." He said he preferred no to identify the group other than to say they are "middle-class, responsible people."

Controlling Consciousness

While accounts of experiences on the drug range from blissful, to mystically illuminating to terrifying, the issue that concerns the DEA should be public health issues, not people's experiments with their consciousness, supporters of the drug's legal status say.

"We see this as the government confusing its own rules with respect to drugs," Boire said. "Yes, they have a responsibility with respect to public health, but they're confusing that with a responsibility to prevent people from altering their consciousness."

The question, he said, is deeper than the right to free speech — it is the right to control your own consciousness. The small number of people experimenting with salvia divinorum, and the even smaller number who want to repeat the experience, together with the lack of evidence indicating health risks make it clear that the herb is not a public health problem, he said.

"There needs to be a lot of thinking about whether doing something like this really does any good," he said. "If salvia divinorum is made illegal, to some people it's going to become more attractive. We worry about the knee-jerk reaction when we hear about people altering their consciousness and we think, 'What can we do about it?'"

An Oregon man who tried salvia divinorum said when he was younger he tried other hallucinogens such as peyote and psylocybin several times but didn't expect to repeat the Mexican herb.

"Nothing I had done prepared me for it — I mean I thought I knew what these things did to you," he said. "I found it valuable, I felt like it re-opened some things that maybe had started to close up in me, but I don't think I want to go back."

"I can't preclude there's something special about salvia divinorum because of the shaman connection," Halpern said. "It's a tool that's remained in the shaman's bag and that's probably where it should stay."