By Shari Roan
It's been almost 50 years since a generation of young people were urged to "Turn on, tune in and drop out.” with the aid of psychedelic drugs. But at least one hallucinogenic drug remains legal and widely available -- and it's become popular with today's teenagers.
The drug, an herb called Salvia divinorum, is not new. Historically, it was used by the Mazatec Indians in Oaxaca, Mexico, for religious or healing rituals. But now high school and college students are using salvia for a brief psychedelic high, a trend well documented on YouTube and teen websites in the last few months.
The Drug Enforcement Administration and California state legislators are grappling with the question of what to do. The potentially dangerous herb is offered for sale on websites and at tobacco and smoke shops, head shops and botanical stores, but little is known about the effect of the drug on health and safety, the extent of its use or if it has begun to filter into the culture of younger teens.
Some researchers worry that attempts to make salvia illegal or designate it as a controlled substance may thwart studies into the drug's healing properties.
"We have people getting intoxicated on it, and there have been injuries," says Dr. John Mendelson, a senior scientist on addiction pharmacology at California Pacific Medical Center Research Institute in San Francisco. "But scheduling the drug as a narcotic is playing a big, big hand. If you're caught with it, you go to jail. Are we really interested, at this juncture, in making the drug illegal through this mechanism?"
Salvia divinorum is an inauspicious-looking member of the mint family and is one of many species of salvia, also known as sage, some of which are common garden plants in hot, dry climates. (Salvia divinorum itself is not a popular garden plant because it is not considered decorative.) Salvia divinorum contains a chemical, salvinorin A, that causes hallucinations. The dried leaves or concentrated extract, which is often sold as incense, are smoked or chewed and produce a high lasting from less than a minute to about a half-hour. Users report distorted senses, an out-of-body feeling and losing control over their body movements.
Some websites promoting salvia warn users to take the drug in the presence of a sober person who can help if a user loses body control or behaves erratically. Numerous users have placed clips on YouTube of themselves or others laughing hysterically or staggering around while high on salvia, such as one YouTube clip that has logged more than 240,000 views. Known by the street names magic mint or Sally-D, it's sold in various concentrations for about $25 a gram and isn't hard to find. One tobacco shop in Santa Ana sports a poster saying "Salvia divinorum sold here" near its front door, next to a sign saying "support local cops."
Effects Little Known
No studies exist to show that the drug causes any lasting neurological damage, is addictive or is harmful in any way other than the loss of body control that may lead to accidents. Some first-time salvia users report that the effects are unnerving and never take it again. Other salvia connoisseurs, writing on Internet sites, say the experience offers a pathway to self-enlightenment and can provide a fulfilling mystical or meditative experience.
Drug abuse expert Howard C. Samuels isn't buying that. As executive director of the Wonderland Center, a substance abuse treatment center in Los Angeles, Samuels says he is seeing more young addicts using salvia in addition to marijuana, cocaine and Ecstasy. "That this drug is legal is shocking," he says. "I find it especially disgusting that kids can leave high school on their lunch hour and go to a head shop and get it."
Samuels says that even though the high is brief, hallucinations can leave users upset and contribute to preexisting emotional problems. He supports AB259, a bill that would make the sale or distribution of Salvia divinorum to any person under age 18 a misdemeanor in California. The bill was introduced by Assemblyman Anthony Adams (R-Hesperia) after Adams learned from local deputy sheriffs that salvia use was growing among youths.
"The use of salvia is akin to the use of LSD," Adams says. "It completely distorts one's sense of reality . . . . There are instances where people are alleged to have harmed themselves or others while using salvia."
No standardized lab test exists to assess the presence of salvia in the bloodstream or measure the degree of intoxication. But by making the drug illegal for sale, distribution or use among minors, Adams hopes to crush the salvia fad before it expands while alerting parents "that this is out there."
"We're simply asking that we apply the same standard to salvia that we apply to cigarettes," he says.
The bill will be discussed Tuesday in a hearing of the Senate Public Safety Committee.
The bill is opposed by the California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, a statewide organization of criminal defense lawyers, which is against outlawing salvia until more data can be collected about its effects.
"There appears to be no scientific basis for this to be deemed a crime and for people to be put in custody and lose their liberty because of it," says Jeffrey R. Stein, an attorney in San Luis Obispo and spokesman for the California Attorneys for Criminal Justice on the proposed salvia legislation. "We think creating new crimes should be done in a serious-minded and justifiable way."
At least four states -- Delaware, Missouri, North Dakota and Illinois -- have already outlawed salvia. Meanwhile, the DEA lists salvia as a drug of concern and is "in the process" of looking into the drug to determine whether it should be declared a controlled substance, says Rogene Waite of the DEA's public affairs office.
Herb's Healing Potential
Most people involved in the debate agree that more information is needed about the drug. But the few attempts to better understand salvia have been part of research on its potential as a therapeutic.
The drug is unique in that it acts on kappa-opioid receptors, cell proteins that bind to specific molecules, which are widely distributed throughout the body, Mendelson says. The function of kappa-opioid receptors is generally not well understood, but medications that activate or block them could have therapeutic effects. Animal studies indicate substances that activate this receptor may block pain without the addictive effects caused by opiates. Some researchers suggest that such compounds could be used to treat opioid dependence and appear to have some antidepressant effects.
Mendelson has received funding from the National Institutes of Health to study similar psychoactive compounds, such as Ecstasy. In an Internet survey of 500 salvia users published in 2004 in the journal Clinical Pharmacology & Therapeutics, he found a low potential for abuse or dependence but noted that 4.4% of users reported negative effects, usually anxiety, lasting up to 24 hours after taking the drug.
The downside of making the drug illegal is that the substance may then be much less attractive to pharmaceutical companies, Mendelson says. "This is a very fertile area of research and it would be foolish to cut off pathways of commercial development with unthinking legislation."