Little-Known Drug Offers Legal High

Lawmakers are worried about legal, little-known 'salvia.'

April 30, 2007 — -- 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 inmost of the United States.

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

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

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

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

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

A plant originally found in Mexico, salvia divinorum or "divinerssage" was used for religious and medicinal purposes by indigenoustribes.

When the leaves are chewed or smoked, they produce ahallucinogenic effect that lasts anywhere between 15 minutes and threehours.

Users describe its effects as an intense, psychedelic high: fingerschanging color, a floating sensation, imaginary objects moving throughmidair.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The only known salvia-related death is the2006 suicide of Brett Chidester, who killed himself shortly aftersmoking salvia.

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

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

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

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

As for Barstow's state of Maine, legislators rejectedhis proposed ban on salvia. Instead they opted for a less restrictiveregulation, 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 usesubstances irresponsibly. We need to balance between individualcitizens and their civil rights vs. the cost the government has to payfor those who can't handle those substances responsibly."

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

He seesan imbalance between the legality of salvia and the regulation of lesspotent narcotics.

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

"The overall discussion needs to be held."