OCEAN CITY -- Huddled at the counter of a Boardwalk T-shirt shop, three teenage boys pulled crumpled $10 and $20 bills from their pockets on the first Friday night of Senior Week, pooling their cash to buy a few ounces of the only legal hallucinogenic herb available in Maryland. "Dude, how much you wanna get?" one asked impatiently.
The scene repeated itself along the Boardwalk in many other stores that sold the product, advertised by neon displays and hand-drawn signs: We have Salvia.
Used for hundreds of years by indigenous Mexican tribesmen to induce visions, the hallucinogenic herb Salvia divinorum has been banned as a Schedule I drug in 10 states since 2005 -- including Delaware and Virginia -- with a dozen other states mulling legislation that would outlaw its use.
Long after its properties were isolated by researchers in the 1950s and 60s, salvia's popularity skyrocketed since the late 1990s, when it first became available from online retailers marketing a spiritual high.
In Maryland, salvia is legal to buy, sell or use, whether in its natural leaf form or sold as an extract, without age restrictions. Through the product remains readily available on more Web sites than ever, some state and local lawmakers have only very recently learned about salvia. They say they hope to change its legal status.
Linda Busick, a Worcester County commissioner and former Baltimore City police officer, said she's talked to other elected officials and law enforcement agencies since February to drum up support on a bill to ban salvia in Maryland.
"I absolutely feel that Maryland should pass legislation that would make this a controlled dangerous substance," Busick said. "It's certainly detrimental to anyone who uses it. I don't know of any beneficial effects that it has. It's a psychedelic drug, and it's dangerous, and I'm totally against anybody who sells it."
Busick said she first heard about salvia after seeing signs for it at the Boardwalk. Later, it again came to her attention after speaking with a concerned mother who had learned that her high-school child had tried it.
"It's supposed to be inducing spiritual grow-th," Busick said, incredulously. "I don't want people to think they're going to use something soothing, and then die from it. Does anybody know how hazardous it is? If these merchants were responsible, they wouldn't be selling it at all."
Boardwalk retailer Isaac Algave, though, believes he is a responsible salvia merchant. Algave, the owner of Dreamland Fashion, said his store was the first to sell salvia in Ocean City, starting in 2003.
Algave's store has a clearly posted sign in back that explains salvia and its effects. He also self-regulates the product, selling salvia only to those at least 18 years old, just like tobacco. He is the only salvia retailer on the Boardwalk to do so.
"If you ask me, I think, my opinion, we should sell it to over 21," he said. "It's like alcohol. Eighteen is too young to try it. I can make three times more money if I sell to kids under 18, but I don't want them to lose control. They do something, you never know what's going to happen."
He believes that it won't be long before local lawmakers decide they don't want salvia being sold in Ocean City.
"People start learning what it is, we don't know how long it's going to be on the market," he said. "Soon, I believe. I don't know."
[h3]Problematic potency claims[/h3]
An estimated 1.8 million people age 12 or older have tried Salvia divinorum in their lifetime, with 750,000 using it in the past year, according to a February survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Those surveyed between ages 18 and 25 said they were three times more likely to try salvia than adults 26 and older, with boys far more likely to use than girls, the study said.
Online videos of people getting high on salvia also are multiplying. There are now more than 4,700 videos on YouTube featuring hijinks of young people on brief salvia trips.
Despite its popularity, local law enforcement agencies say they aren't seeing salvia-related problems.
Sgt. Dave Sharp of the Maryland State Police said his lead narcotics detective has had "no dealings with it whatsoever."
"This guy's the expert on club drugs, and it's not even come up on the radar screen," Sharp said.
Daniel Siebert, a botanist who claims to have studied salvia and its history among Mexican natives for more than 20 years, said there have been no studies on salvia's toxicity, which could lead to an overdose. Siebert sells salvia on his Web site, and offers information about its healing and meditative power.
Still, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration considers salvia "an illegal street drug alternative" and has warned several Internet merchants that they could be subject to regulatory action, including seizure and injunction, according to FDA spokesman Stephen R. King.
It's been reported that some of salvia's effects include intense dreamlike experiences, reliving past memories and sensations of motion. Other effects include a loss of motor coordination, dizziness, loss of consciousness, uncontrolled laughter and profuse sweating. Some people have overly-intense experiences that come with terror and panic.
[h3]Attempts to regulate[/h3]
The Boardwalk store Beach Styles was charging $30 for the least potent 20x; the price escalates incrementally with increased potency -- though the clerk, who did not give her name, said their price also fluctuates with demand. Lately, she said, demand is high.
Each product comes in one-gram packages. Albert, an 18-year-old visiting the resort with friends from Pittsburgh, said it's "more than enough to last us through the night."
Albert and his friends decided to buy a 40x package of salvia for $50.
"You trip for like, 10 minutes," said Albert, who declined to give his last name. "It's such an intense trip that you know, like, everything isn't real. Too much of it really isn't good for you, but there really isn't a way you can (overdose) on it."
Brett Chidester, 17, of Wilmington tried salvia after buying it online. According to a CNN report, he chronicled his experiences in a journal, writing: "Salvia allows us to give up our sense and wander in the interdimensional time and space ... Also, and this is probably hard for most to accept, our existence in general is pointless."
It's unclear how much time passed between his last salvia trip and his suicide. It's also not clear how much salvia he used or what the dosage was. But on Jan. 23, 2006, he put a charcoal grill inside a tent in his father's garage, lit the grill and crawled inside the tent, according to an April 2006 story in USA Today. The boy's mother lobbied state legislators to ban it, and was successful: Three months after his death, Delaware made Salvia divinorum a Schedule I substance.
Illinois, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota and Oklahoma already have added Salvia divinorum to their list of Schedule I substances, making it illegal to have or sell. Similar bans in Florida, Kansas and Virginia began July 1.
Three other states have different regulations: Tennessee makes it a misdemeanor to produce, manufacture or distribute salvia, but it's fine to grow it for landscaping; Louisiana, the first state to pass a salvia ban, makes the herb "illegal for human consumption;" In Maine, salvia is regulated like tobacco -- illegal to buy for those under age 18.
On the federal level, Congressman Joe Baca, D-California, introduced legislation in 2002 that would have added salvia to the Schedule I list of federally banned substances. His bill, the Hallucinogen Control Act of 2002, did not make it to the floor for a vote.
The U.S. Drug Enforce-ment Agency has not listed salvia or its active ingredient, salvinorin A, under the federal Controlled Substances Act, though the DEA says salvia can "evoke hallucinogenic effects, which, in general, are similar to those of other scheduled hallucinogenic substances."
[h3]Attorney general takes notice[/h3]
Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler said after hearing about salvia for the first time during a very recent trip to Ocean City, he plans to work on legislation for the upcoming session to address its legal status.
"I was on the Boardwalk in one of these stores, and I asked the lady what that was on the counter," he said. "She told me it was salvia and what it was. And I'm, of course, in my T-shirt and shorts, so I look just like anybody else. She said, 'If anybody with any power found out that they were selling this stuff, they would stop letting them sell it.' So I thought that was interesting. I'd never heard of it before, and I just found it remarkable that the saleswoman would say that.
"I went back and asked some more questions about it, and found out, as a matter of fact, a number of states were doing exactly that, putting restrictions on its sale, either as a controlled dangerous substance general, or certainly to the minors, in particular. So, it's something that we're looking into," he said.
Delegate Jim Mathias, D-38B-Worcester, said he believes local health departments should begin looking into the issue.
"Right now, the best thing to do is to start and do our fact-finding," he said. "Have the health departments look at it, have the police departments look at other states. If there is medicinal value in this, being able to document what that medicinal value is. We'll take a rational approach to this."
Jayne Dickerson, owner of Ocean Plaza Tees on the Boardwalk, appreciates that her fellow retailers are making big profits from salvia, but said she feels that salvia remains "detrimental to the community."
"It definitely needs to be outlawed," she said. "We don't need anything else to hype up the young people on this Boardwalk. I know they say it's harmless, but I wouldn't want somebody driving a car under the influence of it. These kids get in fights at the drop of a hat. We don't need anything else to encourage bad behavior. This salvia stuff is just bad news."