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Drug for sale locally; effects sketchy
IRINA PERESS/Journal Staff
Arden Russo-Perry, owner of Jabberwock on The Commons, holds a packet of salvia and a water pipe, which is used to smoke salvia, in her store.
Cheaper than marijuana, stronger than LSD, as fast-acting as crackcocaine, and legally available to minors on The Commons.
Salvia divinorum, commonly referred to as salvia.
It's a perennial herb in the mint family that can cause short but intense hallucinations when the leaves are dried and smoked. Originally used for meditative purposes by the Mazatec Indians of Mexico, salvia has recently become popular in local shops for about $20 or $30 a gram.
As a legal substance, use is hard to track. Local drug counselors find that most salvia use is by curious teenagers and people in substance abuse rehabilitation looking for a high that won't show up on a drug test.
Although the flowering plant grows naturally in the southwest and is a common garden plant, law enforcement and scientists know little about its effects on the body when used as a hallucinogen. As awareness of its presence in the counterculture community grows, so does concern about its psychedelic properties and its availability to youths.
Signs in the windows of Jabberwock and 3-D Light on The Commons draw curious passersby. Arden Russo-Perry, owner of Jabberwock, said most people come in and ask what it is because they never heard of it before.
"It's a diviner's sage, and it's supposed to give you insight," Russo-Perry said. "It's unpredictable where you will go with the journey."
Using information gathered through the Internet and through personal experiences, Russo-Perry explained that after inhaling salvia smoke, users usually experience a high that lasts about five to 15 minutes. Salvia, which comes in different potencies based on how it's processed, is estimated to have about 10 "experiences" per gram. If using only a light dose, a user may feel disorientated or begin to laugh a lot, Russo-Perry said. If using a stronger potency, a users may feel as if they are floating over their body or hallucinating, Russo-Perry said.
"Salvia allows one to have inner explorations in a way like acid (LSD), but even stronger," Russo-Perry said. "It's pretty amazing that it's legal and marijuana is not, because it's obviously 10 times stronger. I've had people tell me that it was more intense than any other drug they ever took."
The altered awareness from salvia should be used to provide an awareness of the inner subconscious, said Daniel Siebert, a botanist who maintains sagewisdom.org -- an Internet site that contains information about and sells salvia. Siebert described the experience with salvia as a waking dream, unique from other hallucinations.
"It's an aide to self-observation," Siebert said. "It creates more of an introspective awareness. It makes the user more aware of thoughts and feelings."
During the "experience" some users begin to think that they're inanimate objects -- such as a painting or a leaf, Russo-Perry said. Others feel as though they're somewhere else or see people or things that aren't actually there, Russo-Perry said.
"It makes stuff digital for a while," said Allan Lawrence, a man in his early 20s waiting on The Commons with friends earlier this month, many of whom said they have used the drug.
Siebert's Web site warns that salvia is not recommended for parties, because it usually makes the user more introverted. The site also recommends that salvia be used in a dark, silent room to fully experience the altered state of awareness. Two warnings on the site allude to the strength of salvia: Do not drive under the influence of salvia and have someone keep an eye on you while you're under the influence.
"Some people have a fear of the response," Russo-Perry said. "When they're in it they think they're never going to come out of it."
"Toad," a 20-year-old who frequents The Commons, explained that it was unlike other hallucinatory drugs because instead of slowing increasing to the ultimate "high," salvia immediately reached the highest level of a state of altered awareness.
"It's this boom and you're there -- like a plateau," Toad said. "It's not something that someone that never did anything else should try."
After approximately five to 15 minutes in the altered state of awareness, a user will begin to enter "a glow period," which is said to last between a half-hour and two hours. Russo-Perry described it like you "just did something good."
Despite the hallucinogenic properties, Siebert said that salvia is not likely to have broad appeal. Many people try salvia, which is not physiologically addictive, purely out of curiosity and do not return to buy more, Siebert said.
"Maybe about 20 percent come back a second time. After a certain amount only 10 or 15 percent like to keep trying it," Russo-Perry said. "I've never heard of anyone taking it daily."
"Most people try it and are disappointed. Most people find the experience kind of confusing," Siebert said. "It's never going to become a popular drug."
Although use of salvia began to spread mainly on the West Coast in the late 1990s, police departments throughout the country are scrambling to become more informed about the legal substance. According to interviews, salvia has been around Ithaca for about the past year and a half.
"We haven't seen it," said Lt. Patrick Garey of the New York State Community Narcotics Enforcement Team. "We have no experiences with it at this point. No one has reported problems with it."
The Ithaca Police Department and the Groton Police Department also stated they had only been informed about salvia in the last few weeks and have not yet encountered it.
"We have no idea of the scope of usage," said Lt. Tim Williams of the Ithaca Police Department.
Within the past year, some students stated they have experimented with salvia, said Deb Lewis, alcohol projects coordinator at Cornell University.
"It seems to be low key," Lewis said. "Some students -- the ones more inclined to experiment with other substances -- seem to know about it."
The fact that salvia is legal seems to attract some students, Lewis said. However, making a substance illegal only acts as a deterrent to a certain point, Lewis said making a reference to the number of underage college students who drink alcohol.
Richard Anderson, an alcohol and substance abuse counselor at Cayuga Addiction Recovery Services, said he has primarily seen adolescents experimenting with salvia. Also, because salvia does not show up on drug tests, people who are under recovery for substance abuse have been known to rely on salvia to create a "high," Anderson said.
"That's a concern. Instead of abstinence or treatment, someone may use it to get a buzz and get away with it," Anderson said. "They may try it for a little while, and then may go back to something else. It can lead to other things."
Anderson acknowledged that like many other drugs, salvia is subject to cycles of popularity.
"It's growing in popularity," Anderson said. "It's definitely on the upward trend."
Journal staff reporter Adam Wilson contributed to this report.
Contact: [email protected]
Originally published Saturday, July 31, 2004
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