herb catches fire
March 28, 2003
CCLE Legal Counsel Richard Glen
Boire is quoted in this article.
hallucinogenic herb traditionally used by Mexico's Mazatec Indians
is being touted as a legal alternative to marijuana on numerous Web
sites, attracting attention from teenagers seeking a psychedelic
experience and parents concerned about their children's well-being.
Salvia divinorum, a member of the sage family,
has been used quietly by soul-searching drug users for years but
only recently seems to have caught the attention of the school-age
crowd, said Dr. John Halpern, a professor of psychology at Harvard
Medical School at McLean Hospital in Massachusetts.
Only a few specialists at drug institutes reached for comment
by The Washington Times knew about salvia, also known as Mexican
mint, magic mint or diviner's sage, but Web site vendors such as
www.herbsmoke.com call the Mexican-grown herb a legal alternative to
Others, such as www.sagewisdom.org, say it should be used
solely for meditation and self-discovery: "Salvia divinorum is an
extraordinary herb used in shamanism, divination, healing and the
exploration of conscious," the Web site reads.
"The fact is, it's out there and kids are learning about it,"
Detective George Chavez of the Dane County (Wis.) Narcotics and Gang
Task Force told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
The Drug Enforcement Administration is investigating salvia to
decide whether it will classify it as a controlled substance like
marijuana or heroin, says DEA spokesman Rusty Payne. Salvia can be
smoked, chewed or made into a tincture.
The DEA investigation is based on the drug's availability, its
potential for abuse and its physical effects. There is no timetable
for the investigation, and Mr. Payne could not comment on any
The lack of a DEA timetable and dearth of knowledge about the
drug is a cause for concern, says Gayle Engles, education
coordinator of the American Botanical Council.
"We don't know anything about what salvia really does, and not
knowing more about it than we do, who knows what it might do?" she
Concerned parents don't have much information, making it all
the more difficult for them to know how to guard against their
children getting into salvia.
Sharon, a Milwaukee resident who asked for her last name to be
withheld, told the Portland Oregonian she found a bag of salvia
leaves in her son's car. After doing some Web research, she called
her son's high school counselor, who had never heard of it even
after returning from a recent drug seminar class.
"Somebody needs to get this out to adults," Sharon says. "Trust
me — most of the high school kids know about it. Their parents need
to know there is a new drug in town."
Dr. Ethan Russo, a neurologist and researcher of psychotropic
herbs at Montana Neurobehavioral Specialists in Missoula, says the
active ingredient in salvia, salvinorin A, is the most potent
natural hallucinogenic discovered. He said it does not produce any
known toxic effects and is not addictive.
Salvia users write on www.erowid.org that their trip
experiences include visions of the past, intense fits of laughter
and the feeling of electricity flowing throughout the body.
One user writes: "I have never been so totally 'lost,' not even
on the potent LSD available during the '60s. I am accustomed to
thinking and traveling outside the box, but salvia put me in a place
where there is no box and never was a box."
At the Gas Pipe, a head shop in Albuquerque, N.M., that sells
salvia, employees recommend that all users take the drug in a
secluded, safe atmosphere with only one or two other persons,
manager Carrie Phelps said.
Miss Phelps says the drug is not conducive to a party
atmosphere and emphasized the need for a "sitter," someone who
watches over users during the experience to ensure they do not harm
Dr. Halpern says the drug will not be swept into mainstream
culture because the effects are not physically addicting or
pleasurable and habit-forming. He has spoken with former salvia
users who describe the experience as "very unsettling and
terrifying, and they wind up never trying it again."
The most high-profile incident involving salvia was in Rhode
Island, where a 15-year-old boy stabbed another youth after
reportedly using the drug.
"It doesn't matter if there are five Web sites or 500 Web
sites. The same limited number of people are going to be
interested," said Dr. Halpern, who wrote about salvia in a 2001
report he published in the American Journal of Psychiatry on
different hallucinogenic drugs available on the Internet.
Salvia is being taken seriously, and legal action is being
taken, in some parts of America. In St. Peters, Mo., an age
restriction of 18 was enacted in January for those who wish to buy
The law was a response to increased calls to the police
department concerning strange behavior in adolescents.
"We were beginning to see high amounts of abuse with the
substance among youths high school age and younger," says Jeff
Finkelstein, captain of the St. Peters Police Department.
In October, Rep. Joe Baca, California Democrat, introduced the
Hallucinogen Control Act of 2002 in an attempt to classify salvia.
The legislation died in committee.
One strong salvia advocate is Daniel Siebert, who as an
ethnobotanist studies how plants are used in particular cultures.
Mr. Siebert runs the salvia information site www.sagewisdom.org. He
says the drug's effects are so intense that he has used it only once
in the last year.
The true spirit of the plant, Mr. Siebert says, is reflected by
serious users today and is rooted in the plant's historical use by
the Mazatec Indians in Oaxaca, Mexico. Salvia was used as a sacred
plant by the shamans for spiritual meditation, healing and solving
"It is important to recognize that this is not just a drug that
some crazy hippie concocted and is trying to turn on America to," he
Fear that the government will move to control the substance
angers advocacy groups, who view it as another area where the
government's war on drugs encroaches on an individual's freedom,
says Richard Glen Boire, co-director and legal counsel for the
Center for Cognitive
Liberty and Ethics, a civil-liberties think tank in Davis,
"We need to acknowledge that people have always entered into
altered states of consciousness," Mr. Glen Boire says, noting that
popular anti-depressant medications can change a person's outlook.
"Paxil and Prozac are drugs that people can take to alter the
way they view their environment," he says. "The government needs to
come to terms with the fact that there is a distinction between drug
abuse and drug use."
Some doctors acknowledge that the Mazatec users may not have
experienced any known negative effects, but their intentions may
have been different from the teenagers' today.
"This is a compound that was taken out of the shaman's medicine
bag," Dr. Halpern says. "But that is probably where it should
What should concerned parents tell their children about
something that is still so obscure?
Dr. Halpern recommends they acknowledge the scarcity of
information about salvia's effects on body and emphasize the fear of
the unknown. They can say something like: "Are you willing to take
the risk to experiment with your brain and health like that?"
Salvia Divinorum Action