Hallucinogenic herb popular with teens may have unknown risks
Where only first names appear, names have been changed to protect the identities of the sources.
All it took was one hit.
When he couldn't hold it in any longer, Eric, a senior, opened his mouth and blew out a thin stream of smoke. Then everything went dark. The last thing he felt was his body hitting the floor. When he came to, he found himself in another world.
"Salvia hits you fast," he says. "I wasn't even finished exhaling. The high only lasted 10 minutes, but it feels like a lifetime when you're tripping."
Salvia divinorum is an herb related to sage and mint. It's also a powerful hallucinogen — so powerful, in fact, that according to Thomas Prisinzano, a University of Iowa researcher who is studying the drug, the active chemical in the plant produces psychedelic effects stronger than those of any known hallucinogen, even LSD.
But unlike LSD, salvia is not classified as a controlled substance by the federal government, so it is legal for purchase in 45 states, including Maryland — and teens, like Eric, are the ones buying. Drug enforcement officials nationwide are alarmed by the growing market for the drug, but because it's sold primarily over the Internet, salvia is becoming increasingly popular, and they're almost powerless to stop it.
Once so obscure that few researchers even knew of its hallucinogenic properties, salvia has become the drug of choice for teens around the country, an alternative to illegal substances. But since the herb has only recently been co-opted for recreational use, says David Ausiello, public relations coordinator for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), no one really knows how it works. And if no one knows how it works, he warns, no one knows how it affects the body. "Just because it is legal does not mean it is safe," he says.
Disturbing anecdotal reports suggest that the drug may very well be dangerous — allegedly, it can make some users antisocial, reactive and even violent. In 2002, a 15-year-old Rhode Island boy reportedly stabbed another teenager while under the influence of salvia. And this past January in Delaware, 17-year-old Brett Chidesner committed suicide a few months after he began using the drug regularly. His parents believe the drug was responsible for his death.
Concerned parents have responded with calls for the DEA to criminalize the drug. In the uproar following Chidesner's death, "Brett's bill" was pushed through the Delaware General Assembly, making it the fifth state to criminalize the drug.
And while Brett's bill might earn state delegates a few points with parents, it's all just empty political posturing, so long as all it takes to circumvent state law is a credit card and an internet connection. For teens like Eric, half a gram of potent salvia extract, enough to induce an intense, even terrifying psychedelic trip, is just a few clicks away.
One hitter, quitter
Originally used centuries ago in shamanic rituals by the Mazatec Indians of Southern Mexico, salvia, also known as "magic mint," is now cultivated for recreational use. The drug can be purchased online as dried leaves or as an extract — ground salvia leaves artificially treated to increase the potency of the drug anywhere from five to 50 times that of a natural leaf.
The first time Eric tried salvia, he bought a weak extract from a friend, but he was soon purchasing stronger preparations online. He says that two grams of 15-extract, enough for several highs, cost him about $50. Both the extract and the leaves are smoked like marijuana, out of a pipe or a bong. Eric, who has smoked both types of salvia, says the extract yields a more intense trip than the leaves, but both are powerful enough to produce an almost instantaneous high. "It's like a one-hitter, quitter thing," he explains.
When Amy, a junior, tried salvia last summer, she was initially skeptical. But like Eric, she says it kicked in fast — one second she felt normal, and the next, a panorama of bright shapes appeared, popping out at her like she was wearing 3-D glasses.
Her perception was distorted, but Amy says she didn't really feel like she was hallucinating. Unlike Amy, Eric expected to hallucinate the first time he tried the drug, so he was disappointed when he did not.
Still, the high was unlike anything he'd ever experienced. "I felt unreal," he says. "I couldn't stop laughing, and everything was spinning."
Eric had heard plenty of stories about trips gone wrong, but he still wondered what it would be like to hallucinate. So one slow summer evening, when a friend offered to smoke salvia with him, he jumped at the chance. They packed the bowl, and Eric took the first hit. He lit it, inhaled and promptly blacked out.
When he opened his eyes, he was surrounded by rows and rows of garage doors. They stretched out all around him for what seemed like miles. "I felt like I was in a city full of nothing but storage garages, a whole city," he says. "I was walking around, and I was the only one there." Meanwhile, his friend, who had taken a hit just after he did, was screaming that he was being kidnapped. Lost in a bewildering world of swirling colors and a blank, bottomless sky, Eric didn't hear him. He didn't even know his friend was in the room. For Eric, time had stopped — he was "in another dimension," he says.
He lost consciousness again, and when he awoke, Eric found himself on all fours, sniffing the carpet like a dog. His friend and his friend's mother were staring down at him in astonishment.
A new high
Eric was embarrassed, but he still came back for more — he's done salvia four times so far. Eric says he used to be addicted to marijuana, so when he decided to quit, he turned to salvia as a substitute. It's safer, he says. He's not worried that he'll get addicted. "Salvia's not as addictive at all," he says. "You don't get the urge to do it as much because it's a life-changing experience."
According to Prisinzano, Eric's right. Research so far has shown that while it's possible to develop a psychological dependence on marijuana, salvia has no addictive properties, psychological or physical.
Because of the superficial similarities between the two, salvia is often billed as a legal marijuana substitute, but in reality, the two drugs are very different. While marijuana interacts with the cannabinoid receptors in the brain, salvia acts on the opioid receptors, the same area affected by heroin and LSD. As a result, Prisinzano says, "the high is very different from marijuana."
Since each drug produces a distinct type of high, Amy, who also smokes marijuana, says there are more differences than similarities between the two. "Salvia is more visual — you don't necessarily get dumber, happier, giddier," she says. She learned about the dangers of marijuana in health class, and she says salvia seems relatively harmless in comparison. "I don't see how salvia could hurt anyone," she says.
But Prisinzano says that different people react differently to the drug, and he has heard from many users that the high and its accompanying hallucinations are uncomfortable and scary.
The only time Will, a sophomore, hallucinated, the experience was so unpleasant he decided to quit. That night was his fifth or sixth time smoking salvia, but even so, he was shocked by the intensity of the high. Out of nowhere, he says, he saw rows of shelves materialize before him. Then their contents, mostly heavy books, began flinging themselves at him. His body morphed into a spaceship, swerving to avoid the falling detritus. The vision lasted less than a minute, but later, as he was coming down from the high, he saw a mangled, disembodied hand lying next to him on the couch.
This "afterglow" — the effects that can still be felt after the most intense part of the high is over — is the worst part of using salvia, Will says. Amy describes these effects as a sort of lingering, hazy euphoria, but Will says that even after the hallucinations had ended and he felt "pretty much okay," Will explains that he was irritable and paranoid. "If anyone even touches you or gets near you, you don't even want them to talk to you," he says.
Prompted by such reports of the drug's negative effects, the DEA has classified salvia as a "drug of concern" and is studying its possible risks.
Prisinzano says a contact inside the DEA told him they hope to discover something serious enough to warrant an amendment to the Federal Controlled Substances Act. If the law is amended, salvia would be classified as a Schedule 1 substance, a designation reserved for hard drugs like heroin and cocaine, within the next five years.
In the immediate future, such a change seems unlikely. A bill to criminalize the drug was introduced in 2002 but died in committee, and the congressman who drafted it has said he has no plans to reintroduce the bill.
Allie O'Hora. Allie O'Hora is a CAP senior. If you make fun of her last name, she will kill you and make it look like an accident. More »