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Divinorum in the New York Times
On July 9, 2001, the New
York Times ran a story about Salvia divinorum, noting that it
as a legal hallucinogenic plant that is currently gaining in popularity,
and listing several Web sites where the plant, leaves, and extracts can be
purchased. The article quoted a DEA spokesperson who said that while the
plant is not currently controlled, the DEA is aware of it and is currently
"collecting information on it." It thus appears to be only a
matter of time before the US government will move to place Salvia
divinorum in Schedule I.
The Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics is
continuing to monitor this situation, and will work to contest the
scheduling of Salvia divinorum should the DEA issue a notice of its
intent to schedule the plant or its active principle.
The full New York Times article is archived below.
New Cautions Over a Plant With a Buzz
By RICHARD LEZIN JONES
(c) July 9, 2001, New York Times
An obscure hallucinogenic herb from Mexico is gaining a toehold in the
world of recreational drugs, prompting law enforcement officials to
increase their scrutiny of the plant, which is legal, and moving health
experts to issue cautions about the drug, whose jarring effects are not
The herb, Salvia divinorum, is a type of sage plant that can cause intense
hallucinations, out-of-body experiences and, when taken in higher doses,
unconsciousness and short-term memory loss. Users have also reported
sensations of traveling through time and space, assuming the identities of
other people and even merging with inanimate objects.
"This is a very interesting agent," said Dr. Ethan Russo, a
neurologist in Missoula, Mont., who studied Salvia divinorum and other
herbs while preparing his book, "Handbook of Psychotropic Herbs"
(Haworth Press). "It is really in a class by itself."
Dr. Russo said that scientists had identified the active chemical compound
that causes the hallucinations - Salvinorin A - but knew little else about
Salvia divinorum. Scientists are still unclear about precisely how it
interacts with the brain or may affect the rest of the body, and do not
know if it leads to long-term side effects.
"We don't know how it works," Dr. Russo said. "It doesn't
work on serotonin, dopamine or any of the known neurotransmitters. People
who are arbitrarily using it need to be cautious. It's totally different
from anything they may have tried before."
Salvia divinorum (pronounced SAL-vee- ah dee-vin-OR-um), which is native
to Mexico, can be smoked or chewed like tobacco. Its leaves can also be
boiled to make an intoxicating tea. It is different from common species of
Salvia like the brilliantly colored scarlet sage or culinary garden sage.
And unlike most other hallucinogenic substances, Salvia divinorum is legal
in the United States, although drug enforcement officials say they are
looking closely at the herb.
"It's not currently controlled and we're actually collecting
information on it," said Rogene Waite, a Drug Enforcement
Precise figures about the plant - it is also known as ska Maria Pastora
and diviner's sage - its use and proliferation are almost impossible to
gather. But herbalists, users and sellers say its popularity is growing.
National drug information clearinghouses and law enforcement officials
acknowledged only a passing familiarity with Salvia divinorum. The
authorities said they had no reports of health problems, hospitalizations
or emergency room visits that might be attributed to the plant. And
researchers say they are still trying to conclusively answer such
questions about the drug as its potential for addiction and tolerance.
Users dismiss such concerns, saying that no evidence of an addictive
quality has been documented, and pointing out that the Mazatec Indians in
the Oaxaca region of Mexico have used it, with no apparent ill effects,
The mystery of just how Salvia divinorum works seems to be part of its
appeal. It is available almost exclusively through the Internet and has
spawned a small but thriving group of commercial Web sites, like the
"Sage Wisdom Salvia Shop," which offer dried Salvia divinorum
leaves for as much as $120 an ounce.
"The Mazatec people have preserved Salvia divinorum and the knowledge
surrounding its use for hundreds of years," reads one passage on the
Web site. "We are privileged to have them share their sacred herb
Daniel Pinchbeck, a 35-year-old freelance writer from SoHo, said that when
he first tried Salvia divinorum two years ago, "it totally freaked me
"It was like you were calling in something, some presence," said
Mr. Pinchbeck, who warned against abusing the drug. "I had to call a
friend; then I started to calm down. It's not like anything else. It's a
totally unique experience."
Despite its upper-middle-class price tag, herbalists and drug experts say
that Salvia divinorum draws those from wide-ranging backgrounds - everyone
from partygoers to practitioners of transcendental meditation - who are
attracted to this year's hip herb.
"There's herbs that come into fashion every year," said Jeffrey
Rosen of Flower Power, an herb shop in the East Village, "and this
year, it's Salvia divinorum."
Adding to the plant's mystique is its relative scarcity. In the New York
City area, as elsewhere, most herbalists supply Salvia divinorum only to
customers who place special orders.
"No, no, no, no, no, we don't have it," said Joanne Pelletiere,
the owner of Aphrodisia, an herb store in the West Village. "I must
get about 20 calls a week about this."
The new level of interest in Salvia divinorum troubles some longtime
herbalists at stores like Aphrodisia and Flower Power, who say they do not
process special orders for the plant because of concerns about abuse.
"I think the interest is not medicinal," Mr. Rosen said. "I
think the interest here is recreational. It's contributing to the
pilfering of the plant community. It's denigrating the plant. I don't
order because I feel it's a plant that's going to be looked at more
Those most concerned about the potential abuse and recreational uses of
the plant come from what would seem like an unlikely corner: Salvia
divinorum users themselves.
Daniel Siebert, an amateur botanist in Malibu, Calif., has studied Salvia
divinorum for more than 20 years and admits some unease about the recent
surge in its popularity.
"I think a lot of people who are into this kind of thing see it as a
legal alternative to illegal drugs," said Mr. Siebert, who also
manages the Salvia Divinorum Research and Information's site on the
Internet, www.sagewisdom.org, and sells leaves from the plants online from
the Sage Wisdom Salvia Shop. "That's not what this is. It's a
Mr. Siebert said that unlike alcohol or illegal drugs, which often make
users more outgoing and gregarious, Salvia divinorum usually makes those
who take it more introverted. Its harsh smoke, bitter taste and relatively
short-term effects - it lasts about an hour - also keep it from being
truly user-friendly, he said.
"It's really not a suitable drug for parties," he said.
"It's not like Ecstasy or LSD. It's not a good drug for socializing.
It's the opposite of that. Most of the young people who try it are looking
for something that they can use in a recreational context at parties or
with friends, and Salvia doesn't work effectively for what they're looking
Mr. Siebert can feel that dissatisfaction in his wallet. Without
discussing sales figures in great detail, he reports that only about 1 out
of every 10 customers places a repeat order for the plant.
***End of NYT article***
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