In the funky Adams Morgan neighborhood of the nation's capital, just past the yellow "Drug Free Zone" sign, the B&K News Stand sells hookahs, rolling papers and "Purple Sticky Salvia."
The psychedelic Purple Sticky label warns that the contents of the cylindrical package — dried leaves of the hallucinogenic herb Salvia divinorum and a chemical extract of the drug — are to be used as incense only. But at $30 for a pillbox the size of a small jar of lip balm, that's some awfully expensive fragrant foliage.
It's legal to sell, possess and ingest salvia in the District of Columbia. But the same stuff, long used for medicinal and mystical purposes by Mazatec Indians in Mexico, will get you arrested in Virginia, where a ban on salvia passed last year.
Last month, the Ocean City Council passed emergency legislation to ban salvia products, which were being sold at almost 20 shops on the resort town's boardwalk. An identical ban followed suit in Worcester County on Maryland's Eastern Shore, and state Del. Jim Mathias, the former mayor of Ocean City, plans to push for a statewide ban when the General Assembly meets in Annapolis this winter.
Salvia has been gaining popularity over the past decade as a smokable drug whose psychotropic extract provides a short-lived but potent hallucinogenic trip. The 2008 National Survey on Drug Use and Health estimated that 1.8 million people in the United States had tried salvia, "and it's probably even more now," said Matthew Johnson, a psychopharmacologist at the Johns Hopkins University medical school, where he studies salvia and its active ingredient, salvinorin A. "It's really hit a critical mass in the last couple of years."
There's ample evidence online: Salvia, which is widely available for purchase on the Internet, has become a popular theme on YouTube, where countless bong-smokers in their teens and 20s have posted videos of themselves stumbling, laughing uncontrollably, talking nonsensically and just plain freaking out.
"It's an unpredictable drug that clearly alters rational behavior and alters your psyche," Mathias said. Watching YouTube videos of kids flying high on salvia, "you see how panicky and paranoid and fearful they become. But if somebody for whatever reason decides this drug is something they want to partake in, they can buy it like they're buying a comic book or chewing gum. You don't even have to be 18. ... I just don't think you should be able to buy salvia like you'd buy a Mounds bar."
Researchers worry that a rush to regulate the drug could interfere with efforts to learn whether salvinorin A can be used to treat cocaine addiction and Alzheimer's disease, among other conditions. But total or partial salvia bans have been imposed in 16 states; North Carolina will make it illegal in December. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has labeled salvia "a drug of concern" and is considering adding it to the list of drugs banned under the Controlled Substances Act. (It's illegal in at least a dozen countries; here is the DEA fact sheet on salvia; legislation to regulate the plant has been proposed in Texas.)
Good in the garden
But fret not, gardeners: Salvia divinorum is not the same as the ornamental species of salvia you've been planting all these years. "Salvia, the flowering plants, are backbones of the garden," said Ginny Rosenkranz, a commercial horticulture educator at the Maryland Cooperative Extension. "Salvia divinorum is a different species entirely. It's not know for its flowers; it's not considered ornamental."
The genus salvia is part of the mint family and is commonly called sage, hence the trippy nicknames for "Sally D": Magic Mint, Diviner's Sage, Sage of the Seers.
Although its hallucinogenic qualities were known by ethnobotanists and in psychedelic drug circles for many years, salvia had a low profile in this country until the late 1990s, when word spread that concentrating the active compound, salvinorin A, and smoking it was like a legal ticket to a magic carpet ride.
"That's when things started changing, around 1998, 1999, and you started seeing mail-order companies offering it," said Daniel Siebert, creator of the Salvia divinorum Research and Information Center, a salvia Web site. Siebert has experimented with the drug himself, "though I haven't done it in a couple of years," he said.
He describes his experience as a journey to another place. "If you take a high dose, you get immersed in this dreamlike trance state," he said. "You're seeing this narrative scene unfold, like you do when you're asleep, and you're not aware of your body or the room you're in. You think you're someplace else."
Siebert said traditional Indian use of salvia was reserved for occasions "when they have a real reason to consult with their inner selves or with divine beings ... usually a problem they're trying to gain insight into. It's a solemn, sacred thing."
Today, however, "more and more people are smoking excessively high doses and being careless," Siebert said. They "are experimenting with it in a party atmosphere while drinking with a lot of friends around, and they're finding it confusing and disorienting."
But is it dangerous? Johnson, the psychopharmacologist, said emergency rooms aren't reporting an increase in salvia overdoses or other issues related to the drug — in part because "it's very short-acting, lasting five to 10 minutes."
Salvia doesn't appear to be addictive, nor is it particularly toxic, Johnson said. "The science is pretty clear. ... Salvia is not the next methamphetamine or the next cocaine or heroin."
But, he warned, "this is a powerful drug. If someone were to drive on it, that would be a very bad thing."
In Delaware, Brett Chidester, 17, committed suicide in 2006 after becoming a salvia smoker. There was no evidence that Chidester was under the influence of salvia when he killed himself, but within four months, state legislators passed "Brett's Law," making salvia a controlled substance.
A dozen states have put salvia on Schedule I, the most restrictive class of drugs, including heroin, LSD and marijuana.
'Rush to regulate'
That has made research into the drug's possible therapeutic uses more difficult, said Thomas Prisinzano, a University of Kansas researcher who has been studying modifying salvinorin A to treat drug addiction.
"I'm concerned about the rush to regulate," Johnson said. Putting a substance on Schedule I "disincentivizes pharmaceutical companies that might pour millions of dollars into the development of a potential medication for cocaine dependence or Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia."
By J. FREEDOM DuLAC
September 30, 2009