-- With a few drops of a liquid hallucinogen under his tongue and the smell of incense in the air, Texas resident Frank Ramirez says he can transport himself to a different world. Eyes shut and legs crossed, he first feels warm and flushed. Then the rush of the drug swirls into his head and, Ramirez says, he becomes "one with the room," able to see and talk with long-deceased relatives.
"Sometimes I cry or laugh," Ramirez says. "It's a spiritual trip. A brief glimpse into a beautiful world we don't even know yet."
Ramirez is on drugs, but as a resident of Texas he is breaking no laws. He has been ingesting Salvia divinorum, a once-obscure member of the mint family that ascetic Central American shamans have used for centuries. Now the herb is as easy to buy on the Internet as a best-seller, and it is celebrated in countless YouTube videos starring dazed and confused-looking high school and college-age kids. Traffic to sites that sell salvia and other drugs is increasing.
When it comes to buying powerful mood-altering drugs online, salvia is just the tip of the iceberg. At a time when authorities are cracking down on illegal sale of steroids and prescription drugs online, substances such as kratom and Mexican prickly poppy, which pack a psychedelic and narcotic-like punch, are flourishing on the Internet. Authorities are beginning to take note.
Many of these substances are legal in much of the United States, but the situation is changing quickly, especially for salvia. At this writing, 13 states have regulated salvia in some way, and bills to regulate the drug are pending in several others, including Texas. Federal officials are also considering regulations on the drug.
Online shops such as Bouncing Bear Botanicals, Psychoactive Herbs, and Purple Sticky Brand sell a panoply of substances capable of delivering a powerful high. At Psychoactive Herbs, for example, you can buy kratom, which the site describes as an "opium substitute" that produces feelings of euphoria. As recently as last fall, eBay sellers were auctioning Salvia divinorum, a fast-acting and powerful hallucinogen that researchers say is comparable to LSD, for about $15 a gram (in September, eBay instituted a ban on the sale of salvia).
PC World purchased 19 supposedly psychoactive substances from a variety of online sources, and then we asked researchers at the National Center for Natural Products Research (NCNPR) at the University of Mississippi to analyze the products we received and to explain the risks involved in taking them. Their verdict: Most of the substances--for the most part a variety of roots, mushrooms, and leaves from around the world--really can get you high. But some could also make you very sick or even kill you.
"With some of these substances it's like playing Russian routlette with your life," says Dr. Ikhlas Khan, assistant director of the NCNPR. "With others the risk is on par with smoking one [tobacco] ciagrette." It's impossible to know the specific risk without asking a lab to test what you have, he says, adding: "There is a lot of misiniformation about these substances on the Internet and what their effects are on those that take them."
Not Your Father's Morning Glory Seeds
Determined teens and thrill-seekers of all ages have always experimented with legal ways to get high--eating morning glory seeds, for example, or smoking catnip. But experts say that the Internet has changed things: Just as it has made other previously hard-to-find products more accessible, it is making substances formerly used only by obscure Amazon shamans easy to learn about, find, and buy.
Search for "salvia" on YouTube, and you'll find hundreds of video testimonials from people who have taken the drug. Hands-on types can visit sites such as NeuroSoup to view step-by-step tutorials on how to squeeze venom from Colorado River toads and extract from it a powerful hallucinogen.
Can't find a Colorado River toad locally? Bouncing Bear Botanicals will sell you a live one for $150 or an "adult male and female pair" for $250.
The owner of Bouncing Bear Botanicals, Jon Sloan, says that sales at his site have grown considerably over the past year, but he declined to reveal specific sales figures. Other sites, including Shaman's Garden and Herbal Fire Botanicals, didn't respond to our requests for comment.
Techniques used to increase the potency of herbs have improved in recent years. Experts say that sellers have learned to isolate and amplify many of the psychoactive elements within naturally occurring herbs, subsequently selling extracts of the substances at 10X or 30X the normal potency. Salvia is sold in extracts at concentrations of up to 60X and kratom at concentrations of up to 30X. "This isn't the stuff that kids were buying just years ago. This stuff has been engineered to deliver a much more potent high," says Dr. Howard Samuels, executive director of the Wonderland Center, a drug rehabilitation center in Los Angeles.
Sloan says that the Internet's reach to places such as Central America has also enabled indigenous tribes to go online and sell their native herbs to distributors. "All of a sudden, with a used PC and dial-up Internet account, these isolated tribes have a way to sell plants they have easy access to," Sloan says.
What does the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency say about all this? Right now, not much.
DEA spokesperson Rogene Waite says that some of the substances in question are currently "under review" by the DEA and remain legal under federal law. Waite does say the DEA has salvia in its crosshairs and is currently evaluating factors listed in the Controlled Substances Act to determine whether to list salvia as a controlled drug, thereby making it illegal to possess.
"Just because something is not illegal or regulated by the DEA doesn't mean it's not dangerous," Waite notes.
The Food and Drug Administration echoed Waite's sentiments. Michael Herndon, FDA spokesperson, says that herbs, mushrooms, and seeds sold on the Internet do not need to be approved by the FDA before they're offered for sale. However, Herndon says, if the FDA receives complaints that people have become sick as a result of consuming what they purchased, the FDA will consider investigating.
Reported injuries or overdoses related to the ingestion of natural stimulants and hallucinogens are rare. "Emergency room visits are infrequent," says John Qaqundah, a practicing hospital pharmacist and assistant clinical professor with the School of Pharmacy at the University of California-San Francisco. He says that most ER visits stemming from the use of hallucinogens involve bodily harm: Someone falls down and bruises a bone.
Reports of deaths due to salvia are almost nonexistent, but the parents of Brett Chidester, a Delaware teen who committed suicide in 2006, think his salvia use led to his death. "I believe the use of salvia was reshaping Brett's mind, distorting how he viewed himself and the world around him," Kathleen Chidester says. "I think he just snapped." Though an autopsy did not find salvia in Brett's system, his death certificate lists use of Salvia divinorum as a contributing cause of death, says Jay Lynch, communications director for Delaware Health and Social Services.
Salvia is not the only natural intoxicant whose use may have contributed to a teen's death. In August 2003, 17-year-old Thomas Opazo of Santa Clara County, California, died of pulmonary edema related to "acute morphine and codeine intoxication." The boy's parents, who posted a redacted copy of the coroner's report on a Web site called Poppy Seed Tea Can Kill You, say that their son died from drinking poppy-seed tea--a mixture whose active ingredient can easily be purchased online (or in any grocery store) along with a recipe for brewing the tea.
And in 2007, 15-year-old William Hodge of Albuquerque, New Mexico, was found floating just beneath the surface of a lake. The official cause of death in the case was drowning, but news reports said that Hodge had been drinking jimsonweed (Datura stramonium) tea in a state park with friends during the hours shortly before he died, and his mother, Toppin Hodge, believes that datura's disorienting effects led to her son's death. New Mexico's state Office of the Medical Investigator reported that investigators had found an almost empty container of jimsonweed tea at the campsite where William Hodge and his friends had been spending time just prior to his death. Jimsonweed grows wild in the Albuquerque area and in many other parts of North America.
Among hallucinogenic herbs that are sold online, salvia has received the largest amount of media attention. Broadcast and print media have branded it "the next marijuana" or an "LSD alternative." Sites that sell the herbs say that this media exposure has helped salvia become a top seller. The attention has also brought it scrutiny from researchers and regulatory bodies.
The abundance of videos posted to YouTube showing people taking salvia may also have contributed to efforts by law enforcement and drug prevention groups to have the substance outlawed.
In 2005, Louisiana became the first state to make possession and use of salvia illegal. As of this writing, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Virginia have followed suit, classifying salvia as a Schedule I drug--the same legal status that ecstasy and LSD have.
In Tennessee, ingesting salvia is a Class A misdemeanor, but possessing the herb is legal. In both California and Maine, possession is legal but sale to a minor is prohibited.
"My hope and goal is to have salvia regulated across the U.S.," Kathleen Chidester says. "To lose a boy so bright, so warm, so intelligent, with so much to offer the world, is incomprehensible to me--and all due to a mind-altering drug that continues to be legal in many states."
Salvia may get most of the attention, but it's far from the only psychoactive substance available online. Others include sinicuichi (Heimia salicifolia, a plant), ololiuqui (Rivea corymbosa, a seed), and fly agaric (Amanita muscaria, a mushroom).
Sites selling these products are careful to display disclaimers warning people not to ingest them. One typical disclaimer reads: "None of the products sold are for human consumption." Rather, they are "sold for research, education and propagation purposes only."
But mixed messages abound: Many sites describe the effects of ingesting the substances they sell, and some include customer testimonials about the products. "I felt what it's like to leave my body, and then re-enter it like it was a robot," reads one.
Lawmakers, drug abuse experts, and customers of these sites say that no one pays much heed to the warnings. "These disclaimers are a joke," says Samuels of the Wonderland Center.
"This is a classic case where laws are one step behind the Internet," Samuels adds. "For many vulnerable people, this is an open invitation to experiment and is an accident waiting to happen."
When PC World asked Bouncing Bear Botanicals owner Sloan about the adequacy of his site's disclaimer (which states that the products on sale at the site are not for human consumption), he replied: "I support any legal adult's right to do what they choose with their own body as long as it doesn't affect a minor or other non-consenting person. I also think they should be held personally accountable for their own choices."
Sloan also pointed out that datura and poppy seeds are sold at thousands of garden centers and other stores offline as well as at his site.
DEA spokesperson Waite says that the legal status of naturally occurring psychoactive herbs, seeds, and fungus is subject to change at any time. For example, the DEA might effectively outlaw the substances by deeming them to violate the Federal Analog Act, a component of the United States Controlled Substances Act specifying that any substance "substantially similar" to a Schedule I or Schedule II illegal drug may be treated as if it were also in Schedule I or Scedule II--but only if the substance is intended for human consumption.
To date, government agencies have not used the Federal Analog Act as a springboard for regulating the kinds of naturally occurring substances that we purchased and had tested. They have, however, invoked the act in shutting down Web sites that sold laboratory-made psychedelics. For example, in a 2004 action called "Operation Web Tryp," the agency shut down five Web sites and arrested 10 site operators in California, Louisiana, New York, and Virginia on charges that they were selling lab-made drugs from the same chemical families as LSD (tryptamines) and mescaline (phenethylamines), both of which are Schedule 1 drugs. The chemical compounds were not specifically listed as controlled substances under U.S. drug laws, but prosecutors said that the compounds were substantially similar to their Schedule 1 counterparts and were marketed and sold as recreational drugs.
Court records indicate that Racesearch.com, one of the sites shut down by Operation Web Tryp, had netted $500,000 over a 14-month period, suggesting that a substantial market existed online for its products (which included psychoactive substances).
Page-view records indicate that sites selling psychoactive substances are growing in popularity. Web site traffic-monitoring firms Compete and Quantcast show an uptick in unique monthly visitors over the past year at a number of sites that sell legal herbs.
For example, according to Compete's records, the number of unique visitors to Bouncing Bear Botanicals has grown by 32 percent over the past year to as many as 37,000 each month--about the same traffic that Frito-Lay's Cheetos.com Web site receives.
Traffic to smaller sites such as Pure Land Ethnobotanicals is growing quickly, too. There, the number of unique visitors has risen to 22,000 per month--an 86 percent increase over the previous month, according to Compete.
As increased media attention raises public awareness of how easy psychoactive substances are to find online, support for increased regulation seems to be growing. Even salvia user Frank Ramirez says that he supports age restrictions on who can buy salvia. But he says that outlawing herbs such as salvia would be going too far. For his part, Sloan says that as salvia is starting to be criminalized, kratom is gaining in popularity.
Meanwhile, people whose lives have been affected by others' use of natural highs vow to raise public awareness and press for new laws.
"It's too late for my son, but people really need to educate themselves with accurate information about the risks of taking these drugs," says Toppin Hodge. "If you ask me, there really isn't any safe limit."
For more information about psychedelic drugs online, read:
Online Drugs: A Closer Look
A Mind-Blowing World
Lab Tests of Drugs Purchased Online Reveal Risks
'Salvia Killed My Son,' Says Mother
Is Salvia a Miracle Drug?
A Video Look at Getting High Online