Plant Hallucinogens Fill Niche Left By Lack Of Laws Against Them
Don Ausman began 2009 focused on a bright future.
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The 22-year-old Michigan State University student from Northville planned to head to New Orleans for spring break to help build homes and serve residents. After earning his bachelor's degree in interdisciplinary studies this spring, he hoped to travel to Japan to teach English.
"He was fired up. ... He was in a great mood," said his stepfather, Jim Wauldron. "He had so many plans."
Those plans were cut short. On Jan. 28, Ausman was found dead in his East Lansing apartment. He had stabbed himself in the chest after ingesting obscure Hawaiian Baby Woodrose seeds, according to an autopsy. The seeds, bought on eBay, contain lysergic acid amide, a compound that can cause psychosis, including hallucinations.
One study shows a correlation between Hawaiian Baby Woodrose seeds and acute psychosis and suicidal thoughts for those who are predisposed, said C. Dennis Simpson, director of the Specialty Program in Alcohol and Drug Abuse at Western Michigan University.
"It's cheap and easily accessible. ... This is something you can grow at home in mom's little window green house and then go and use it," he said, of such legal plants.
Ausman's death tragically underscores what officials say is the rise in use of hallucinogenic legal substances that are widely available online. Thanks to the proliferation of YouTube videos and Internet blogs, learning the "how-to" of a quick hallucinogenic high from substances like Hawaiian seeds and salvia and moonflowers -- plants more likely to capture the attention of a gardener than a concerned parent -- is easier than ever.
With the use of legal plants and seeds growing among high-schoolers and early college students, according to a Western Michigan University drug and alcohol abuse program, some lawmakers are taking action.
State Rep. Michael Sak, D-Grand Rapids, introduced a bill last year to make using salvia divinorum a misdemeanor, and creating and delivering the herb, sometimes known as "Diviner's Sage," a felony.
The bill died and Sak was term-limited, but it was reintroduced this year by Rep. Joel Sheltrown, D-West Branch, and now sits in committee.
"It's cheaper than marijuana ( about $16 an ounce ), thus becoming very popular with college students and high school and middle school students," according to analysis by the Michigan House Fiscal agency. "Many find out about salvia by viewing some of the hundreds of videos of people 'tripping' on salvia posted on the Internet site YouTube."
Sometimes known as "Sally D." or "magic mint," salvia divinorum can be smoked, chewed or brewed into tea, has been used in indigenous spiritual healing sessions and produces a quick "high" and an altered state. Users can purchase salvia at smoke shops, tattoo parlors and stores selling herbal products. But it's gained popularity for its availability on the Web.
Sheltrown hadn't heard of the plants before, but Ausman's death and concerns from a constituent prompted him to add Hawaiian Baby Woodrose seeds to the legislation. He hopes a hearing will help clarify the scope of the problem.
"Apparently this is a bit more widespread than I would have thought," Sheltrown said, noting he'd consider limiting the ban to just minors. "There are a lot of drugs that are more dangerous and cause more problems, but we can't ignore some of the less prevalent ones."
More than a dozen states already have passed laws to prohibit or regulate the use of salvia, and lawmakers in several other states have considered legislation to make salvia illegal. It's banned altogether in Australia and several European countries.
According to a 2006 national survey sponsored by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, about 1.8 million people over age 12 had used salvia. Salvia has not been blamed for any deaths, but authorities listed it as a factor in a Delaware teen's 2006 death.
To be sure, hallucinogenic substances aren't solely the province of this generation. The effects of salvia divinorum and morning glory seeds first were documented in research studies in 1930s and 1950s, respectively.
Seif Osman, 20, of Farmington Hills, first heard of salvia last year and has seen YouTube videos on how to use the plant.
"The majority of students probably wouldn't know what it was," the University of Michigan-Dearborn student said. While he's never smoked salvia himself, he says others have purchased it at smoke shops and seek a one-hit high that's different than smoking marijuana.
Of course, banning salvia may not necessarily make it less accessible to those who want to use it. Pot is illegal, but students have easy access to it, he said.
Greg Somervill, who has owned Frivolity Kingdom in Jackson for nearly 20 years, says he's "not interested" in customers under 18 who have little or no knowledge of plants' effects and are just looking for a cheap high.
"I have books of thousands of psychoactive plants to buy and sell legally, but I'm not interested in doing it ( if ) people don't respect it, don't want to gain the knowledge of what they're doing," he said.
Ausman's death rattled Lansing-area health officials as they quickly had to familiarize themselves with the legal plants and seeds. "If you listen to folks on the Web, you would think it's very common, but that's the first case I've heard about on campus," said Dennis Martell, director of health education at MSU's Olin Health Center.
The legal loopholes provided by unregulated plants has frustrated police.
A Michigan State Police drug enforcement unit received a tip last year about a Central Michigan University student selling marijuana. But when police questioned the student, he said the dried leaves weren't pot, but salvia he ordered online, police said. "Since it's legal in Michigan right now, there's nothing we could do," said Lt. Melvin Mathews, with the Bay Area Narcotics Enforcement Team.
Marisa Schultz and Mark Hicks
The Detroit News
May 21, 2009