Parents Blame Exotic Plant for Son's Suicide

The hallucinogenic plant remains legal despite protests from worried parents.


Oct. 3, 2007— -- If you go to the YouTube Web site and type in the word "salvia," you enter an underground world. Young people are sharing their experiences with the drug known as salvia over the Internet.

Salvia divinorum, as it is called, packs a powerful hallucinogenic punch, unlike anything else out there. The videos on YouTube show people using it and getting high.

"The experience is usually not pleasurable. It's usually kind of frightening and disorienting," said Daniel Siebert, one of the world's pharmacological experts on salvia. "It can be scary. Some people are better able to handle it than others."

Siebert admits that he has researched, used and sold salvia over the Internet for years.

"I sell this [salvia] for $65 a gram," Siebert said.

Salvia is an ordinary-looking herb native to the mountains of Oaxaca, Mexico. It was used by the Mazatec Indians for spiritual healing. Here in the United States, minors are increasingly smoking it to get high and posting their "trips" on the Internet.

In January 2006, Dennis Chidester's 17-year-old son Brett committed suicide by zipping himself inside a tent in his father's garage, lighting a charcoal grill and asphyxiating himself.

"When I saw that tent in my garage, a light bulb went off. I said 'something's wrong,'" Dennis said. "I tried to give him CPR but … rigor mortis had set in."

Brett was a straight-A high school senior. He had a job and a girlfriend. He was a together kid.

"I never saw that there were any signs that there was anything wrong," said Kathleen Chidester, Brett's mother.

Kathleen believes her son's salvia trips were reshaping his mind -- the way he saw himself, his life and the world.

"I think he just snapped," Kathleen said. "I think he had smoked salvia to such an extent that something happened in his brain."

Salvia was found in Brett's vehicle by police the day he committed suicide. No other drugs were found, and there were no traces of any drug in Brett's system, according to the autopsy.

Brett Chidester's parents are now speaking out and campaigning to have salvia outlawed nationally. It is still legal in all but a few U.S. states.

After getting Delaware to ban salvia under what is now called Brett's Law, they want to warn as many people as they can about what they believe is a dangerous drug.

"Parents … a lot of them were oblivious to what's going on," Kathleen said. "As close as I was to Brett, I didn't really know what Brett was doing."

Siebert's opinion of salvia differs from the Chidesters.

"I don't think anyone would decide to commit suicide as a result of a salvia experience," Siebert said. "That's just so inconceivable to me."

He argues that salvia, when used properly by responsible adults, is beneficial as well as helpful in deepening awareness. He has received many e-mails from people who claim that salvia has helped them treat depression.

"It's a tool for introspection," Siebert said. "Sometimes I've taken salvia where I've had some difficult life situation, relationship problem, or something like that where I was uncertain about what I should do."

Siebert is not the only expert who looks at salvia in a positive light. Many medical researchers are excited about salvia, saying its special properties hold tremendous promise.

"I think there are risks," said clinical pharmacologist John Mendelsohn. "I would not say the risk is large enough at this point to justify governmental reaction."

Mendelsohn studies drugs and drug abuse, and is researching salvia with a grant from the National Institutes of Medicine. He and other researchers have found that salvia divinorum is a rare substance that acts on a very specific part of the human brain -- the "kappa opiod receptor."

Drug companies could develop medicines with salvia to treat some mental illnesses, or cocaine addiction or even more.

"There may be some derivatives that could be made that would actually be active against cancer and HIV," Mendelsohn said. "At the present time, there are a lot of therapeutic targets that have many people excited."

The excitement could vanish overnight if the federal government criminalizes the sale or possession of salvia, as the Drug Enforcement Agency is considering doing right now.

Mendelsohn said scheduling salvia could scare away a great deal of research and development into salvia's therapeutic promise.

Parents like the Chidesters aren't opposed to allowing clinical research by any means. Their focus is on getting the government to prevent young people from using salvia.

"You know, Brett was 16 when he purchased it and had no idea of the ramification and there was no warnings," Siebert said. "To have it out there and available to kids that age or even younger --I'm totally against that."

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