It's already banned in Australia, Denmark, Finland, Italy, South Korea and Belgium. But across the United States, it's being sold legally.
It's called Salvia divinorum or Salvinorin A, a little-known plant native to Mexico that has been labeled strongly psychoactive and increasing in popularity.
There are plenty of herbal plants, such as Saint-John's-wort or morning glory, that contain emotion-altering compounds. But Salvia divinorum, known in the streets as Sally D, is making bigger legal waves on account of its short-term side effects, which some have described to be hallucinogenic, unpredictable and sometimes disturbing, when smoked, chewed or boiled as a tea.
Ancient shamans considered the plant sacred and used it for meditation, worship and therapeutic relaxation, says Daniel Siebert, an author and educator who has researched the herb for more than 25 years.
Siebert has discussed the plant in scientific journals and on television news shows, and he claims Salvia divinorum does not contain addictive elements. Other groups, such as the Center for Cognitive Liberty and Ethics, a California-based nonprofit outfit, have joined Siebert in fighting to keep the plant legal. The group says attempts to control the substance would have a negative impact on research.
In the United States, where it is legal to buy and possess, scores of Internet sites are selling the plant. The substance can be purchased locally at Under the Gun Tattoos, Cigars and More in New Brighton, where the Third Avenue shop sells a range of products such as T-shirts, body jewelry and tobacco pipes. Salvia divinorum, depending on the quantity, can cost from $15 to $100 and it has been selling quite well, a store clerk there said.
The federal Drug Enforcement Administration is studying the plant to consider whether it presents a risk to public safety, though many local police haven't even heard of it. Ellwood City Police Chief William Betz said he wasn't familiar with the plant, adding that if it has hallucinogenic effects and isn't a controlled substance, it may become one soon.
Some lawmakers have been pushing to take the plant off the U.S. market. In October 2002, Congress proposed revising a list of controlled substances to add salvia. The bill eventually failed. In 2003, two bills were proposed in Oregon aiming to make it illegal with severe penalties, but those bills also died.
A bill was introduced into the Missouri Legislature in January seeking to add salvia and 12 other substances to the state's list of controlled substances. And most recently, on Feb. 25, a Louisiana state representative proposed a list of 40 substances pushing to make them illegal. Salvia was one of them.
Club 13, a company based in New York, sells and distributes the product over the Internet and in stores nationally and internationally. Brian, who owns the distribution company, said general reaction is mostly positive, though repeat purchases are typically low. Brian didn't want to provide his last name.
His experiments with the plant have left feelings of giddiness and has enabled him to "think of abstract thoughts," he said.
"People purchase the plant to aid in meditation and to think outside the box," he said. "Some people who tried it haven't enjoyed it. It's not recommended if you're on medication or if you take SSRIs (antidepressants)."