Purple blossoms of midnight salvia and stems of blue chiquita salvia adorn the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden at the White House and thousands of other back yards.
The common garden flowers, which belong to the mint family, have a lesser-known hallucinogenic cousin. It's called salvia divinorum, or salvia for short, and it is the subject of controversy over whether it should be classified as an illegal drug. Fourteen states have made it illegal or regulated its use. Proposed legislation in several other states died.
Packets of dried salvia leaves cost $20 to $40, depending on the amount and potency, in head shops, holistic centers and online stores.
Salvia entered the mainstream in the late 1990s, due to its widespread availability, media attention and recreational use among young adults.
When salvia is smoked or chewed, the Mexican native herb produces a short but intense psychoactive high, on par with that of synthetic hallucinogens. Like its cultural cousin, marijuana, salvia may have medical uses.
"There is a lot of promising evidence that some work on this drug could lead to medications for a variety of disorders," said Matthew W. Johnson, a substance-abuse researcher at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
The Drug Enforcement Administration, which recently listed salvia as a drug of concern, is working with the Department of Health and Human Services to evaluate the substance for possible placement on the federal controlled-substance schedule.
"Once it's on a Schedule I list, it will make it nearly impossible to be researched for medicinal purposes," said Naomi Long, Washington office director of the Drug Policy Alliance Network, which promotes drug policies grounded in science, health and human rights.
Under the Controlled Substances Act, Schedule I drugs have high potential for abuse, no approved medical use and a lack of accepted safety.
"Until that is complete, we cannot say what schedule it would be in; however, Schedule I is for drugs with no legitimate medical purpose," DEA spokeswoman Barbara Wetherell said. "At this time, it would appear that it doesn't have one."
Early research has found that salvia may treat Alzheimer's disease, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, dementia, pain and substance abuse.
Johnson said premature scheduling may deter or slow development of medical uses, similar to marijuana's footsteps, because of legal barriers and limited resources. The DEA does not recognize medical uses for marijuana, although 14 states do.
"Pharmaceutical companies are not likely to invest money in a drug or the modification of a drug that is already scheduled," Johnson said.
Toxicity and addiction among users is low, according to a report Johnson presented to the Maryland General Assembly, which did not regulate salvia.
"You compare it to something like alcohol, and there is no comparison in terms of the demonstrated harm that can be caused," Johnson said.
The psychedelic herb severely impairs motor skills, alters sensory perception and creates vivid hallucinations for five to 30 minutes, Johnson said, but there is little evidence of public risk.
"This drug is so short-acting that there's not much time for someone to cause themselves problems, and that might be why we really haven't seen any emergency-department entries regarding this drug," Johnson said.
According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health report, an estimated 1.8 million people have used salvia in their lifetimes, 750,000 of them in the last year.
According to the National Forensic Laboratory Information System, seizures grew from one in 2004 to 70 in 2008. Through June, there were 34 this year.
The Drug Abuse Warning Network, part of HHS, reported no emergency-room visits attributable to salvia from 2004 to 2006. Over those three years, the network reported 192,000 emergency-room visits linked to marijuana use.
By JUSTIN ANTHONY MONAREZ
November 19, 2009