After buying packets of a legal hallucinogenic herb, a group of friends gathered at a Berks County home in April to smoke it and see what would happen.
But after taking a few hits from a pipe filled with dried Salvia divinorum leaves, a 49-year-old man in the group collapsed and died.
His death was ruled natural due to cardiac arrest. But it may be linked to Salvia divinorum, a leafy towering plant that's a psychedelic cousin of the salvia that grows throughout the Lehigh Valley. Unlike the flowering salvia plant with purple and red shoots that may be in your backyard, Salvia divinorum provides an intense hallucinogenic experience.
The herb could never be directly tied to the man's death at Lehigh Valley Hospital-Cedar Crest last spring, because it's legal in Pennsylvania and toxicological tests to determine its presence are not fully developed, said Lehigh County Coroner Scott Grim.
''It could be tied to more deaths, but we just don't know,'' Grim said. ''[People using salvia] are exploring the unknown, and I think that can be more dangerous than the drugs we know about.''
The April death is the first case Grim has seen involving salvia. At least two death investigations in Northampton County also have involved salvia, but none was directly linked to the plant, said Northampton County Coroner Zachary Lysek.
Fifteen states have banned the hallucinogenic form of salvia, and Maine prohibits anyone under 18 from having it. Ocean City, Md., outlawed it last summer after it surfaced in about 20 boardwalk shops, according to published reports.
Legislation is pending in Pennsylvania.
A bill that would add salvia to a list of controlled substances was introduced in April by Sen. Lisa Boscola, D-Northampton, and is with the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Boscola's chief of staff Bernard Kieklak. There's been no action on the bill since it was introduced.
Boscola, while giving a guided tour of the Senate to a group of suburban high school students about a year ago, grew concerned when she asked if anyone in the class knew what salvia was and all of the students raised their hands, Kieklak said.
Rep. Karen Beyer, R-Lehigh, said she's proposed a salvia ban that is awaiting review by the House Judiciary Committee.
''It is growing in popularity and is easy and cheap to acquire,'' Beyer said.
It's estimated 1.8 million people age 12 or older have tried salvia, according to a national survey on drug use published in 2008 by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a federal government agency. Most salvia users are adults 18 to 25, and most are men, the report says.
''People are buying this and using it, and there's still a lot we don't know about salvia,'' said Bethlehem police Detective Mark DiLuzio, who wants the herb banned. ''Some users claim it's actually more intense than LSD. That's a concern.
''Salvia is something that needs to be addressed and addressed soon,'' he said.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has listed salvia as a ''drug of concern,'' but making it illegal would not be a simple process.
Salvia is a perennial herb in the mint family, native to certain areas of Mexico. The leaves, which are typically chewed or smoked, have a psychotropic extract that provides a short-lived but intense hallucinogenic experience.
Proponents note it is not believed to be addictive and hasn't been associated with any health problems.
Salvia was long used by Mazateca Indians for spiritual sessions. The herb drew national attention in 2006 with the suicide of a 17-year-old boy in Delaware whose mother said he had been experimenting with salvia. The coroner listed salvia as a contributing factor in the boy's death, one of the few cases in the nation where the drug was directly linked to a death.
There's an explosion of salvia-smoking videos on YouTube, with some clips having been viewed more than 2 million times.
There are hundreds of videos chronicling the trippy effects on people smoking salvia, such as one called ''Ben Meets God on Salvia'' and another, ''Worst Salvia Trip in History.'' Many of the videos show young adults mumbling, whimpering or laughing hysterically.
''It does the same thing as illegal drugs out there, but the biggest difference is it's legal and parents need to be aware how easy it is to find,'' Grim said.
Packets of the herb are easy to buy at dozens of online sites or can be purchased at area tobacco shops.
At Primal Expressions in west Bethlehem, packets of salvia are kept in jars inside a locked display case. A one-gram bag costs about $20, but other bags run nearly $100.
The packaging material warns ''Salvia divinorum is a very, very powerful plant'' that should be used ''for incense only.'' It also suggests people using it should have someone with them.
The effects can be felt almost immediately, and hallucinations can last for 15 minutes to three hours.
There is no known medical use for salvia, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration's Web site.
Unlike other hallucinogens, the active ingredient in salvia, known as Salvinorin A, does not attach itself to the neurotransmitters, a requirement for illegal classification, according to the DEA. Unless the federal definitions for controlled substances are changed, there probably will be no national ban of the plant.
By Pamela Lehman
October 11, 2009
The Morning Call
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Salvia, linked to at least one death and is still legal in Pennsylvania