Saturnino Allende crouches beside a mountain path and gently puts his fingers around the stem of a plant with rough, tongue-shaped leaves.
"This is it," he says about the powerful hallucinogen Salvia divinorum, known as "magic mint." In just a few years, it has emerged from Mexico's Indian villages into one of the hottest drugs in the USA and a crucial cash crop for poor farmers here.
The good times may be coming to an end, as 11 states have rushed to pass laws that restrict the use of salvia, and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration is studying whether it should be banned nationwide.
"There was no legitimate purpose for that herb, and the things it was being used for were potentially harmful," says Thom Collier, a former state representative who wrote the Ohio law that outlawed salvia in April. "We thought it would be better to deter this sooner than later."
A ban in Nebraska takes effect in September. California and Maine prohibit selling salvia to minors, and Louisiana and Tennessee limit it to animal consumption, as in scientific research. Ten countries ban salvia, and six others have restrictions on selling it, according to the Salvia divinorum Research and Information Center, a website about salvia.
Wholesalers are already making fewer trips to Mexico's Sierra Mazateca as the legal markets dry up. Carlos Campos, president of Aztecas Plants, says his company has a warehouse full of salvia in the Mexican city of Orizaba. He told farmers who grow the crop to cut production.
"This is an important part of their economy," Campos says. "These legal issues really hurt."
The United States and Mexico don't keep figures on salvia sales, but Campos said business was booming until just recently. In 2008, he exported 8 tons of salvia leaves to the U.S. and Europe, up from 550 pounds in 2002.
Videos on websites such as YouTube showing users laughing hysterically after a few puffs helped spur salvia's popularity. A 2008 report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said 1.8 million Americans have used the herb, and 756,000 had used it the previous year.
On a recent afternoon, Steve Pollard, owner of Arena Ethnobotanicals, an importer based in Britain and San Diego, and Campos handed out roasted chicken, tortillas and beer to about 50 Mazatecs who had hiked two hours through the mountains to sell their salvia leaves.
By mid-afternoon Campos' truck was filled with black garbage bags containing 1,185 pounds of dried salvia leaf.
Before salvia, this region about 170 miles southeast of Mexico City was better known for its psychedelic mushrooms. Albert Hoffman, the inventor of LSD, came here to try them with the Mazatec medicine men. So did the Beatles' George Harrison.
The magic mushrooms, salvia leaves and psychedelic seeds of morning glories make up the Mazatec medicine man's "tool kit" to help diagnose illnesses, says Jose Luis Díaz, an expert on traditional psychedelics at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
The local healers grind the leaves into a drink and feed it to a patient. "It's done in silence, in a dark place, to avoid any outside stimulus that might interfere with the experience," Díaz says.
The hallucinations can be intensely emotional and include feelings of floating above the body or having visions, Díaz says. Most foreigners smoke the leaf, says John Boyd, CEO of Arena Ethnobotanicals. "Head shops" and Internet sites sell leaves fortified with salvia extract, making them five to 35 times stronger.
"It's not a party drug, and it's not a substitute for marijuana," Boyd says. "Most people try it once, put it in a drawer and never touch it again."
Many farmers here say they don't really understand the legal issues over salvia. Federico Basilio looks confused when a reporter refers to the leaves as an enervante, or drug.
"I don't really know how they use (salvia) up there," Basilio says of the USA. "But for us, it's been a good crop."
By Chris Hawley
June 21, 2009