THE WORLD OF SALVIA | Bill Cooper hardly expected to dial into a world of Mazatec Indian shamanism when his phone went dead and he borrowed his son's. ¶ Then he saw one of the text messages: "hey, when were you fixen to blaze the salvia." ¶ Cooper, a bill collector, suspected it was code lingo for marijuana. But under parental pressure his 15-year-old finally told him "something horrifying," Cooper said. see salvia, page 15
He and other Brentwood teens smoked a little-known Mexican sage sold legally to adults in California, and apt to launch users into a strong, hallucinogenic and sometimes fearful mind trip.
"Since then he must have had five texts in a week's time saying 'I got the Salvia, let's blaze,'"" Cooper said.
"It's like the new thing. He said the kids are all selling it at the school," his wife, Caroline, said. "The fact it's legal, it's just crazy."
Salvia divinorum, which East Bay smoke shops sell in packets of dark, crushed-leaf extract — with a "strictly for incense use only" disclaimer — has spurred new laws in more than a dozen states in recent years amid a slew of online videos showing youths speaking or acting bizarrely after smoking it; and the well-publicized suicide of a Delaware teen in 2006, with the coroner listing salvia as a contributing cause.
In many of the videos, the smokers often start laughing uncontrollably, then are rendered incoherent by a forceful high that users describe as much shorter than LSD, but often more intense. All three of Brentwood's smoke shops carry the same brand of the extract in their display cases, with prices ranging by strength from $17 to $40 per 1-gram packet. Several Web sites also sell it.
In several testimonials, users of a plant native to Oaxaca, Mexico, describe a lasting spiritual effect from an herb known as Diviners' Sage, Sally-D and Magic Mint.
The online videos may create the false impression of a party drug, said the owner of a Berkeley head shop that sells Salvia. He requested anonymity, saying he worried his shop would be mistaken for one that sells it to minors.
"We point out this is a very serious thing. It has a very strong effect for about maybe 10 minutes. You can actually have an out-of-body experience," he said.
"It's not euphoric. It's not something where it's necessarily a pleasant experience, where people want to do more of it because it's fun," he said. "You have a very serious understanding that there are parallel realities and things are somewhat relative. It basically exposes elements of consciousness, like stretching your mind."
According to a federal drug-use survey published by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in February 2008, an estimated 1.8 million people 12 or older used Salvia divinorum at some point, including 750,000 who used it in the past year, with use more common among young adults and males. Contrast that with Ecstasy, which was used by 2.1 million people in the same one-year period.
The numbers may surprise, but one researcher who studies Salvia in humans doubted that it means rampant use or abuse.
Many people seem to take it just once, said John Mendelson, a pharmacologist at the Research Institute at California Pacific Medical Center.
"College kids and friends have done it. Half of them, maybe two-thirds, have a really bad time, very disturbing imagery, lots of fear, lots of anxiety. This drug appears best done in silence and in darkness and with a sober companion," Mendelson said.
In lieu of federal regulation, at least 10 states have listed Salvia as a Schedule 1 drug, like Ecstasy or LSD. A California assemblyman proposed a ban in California that was rejected in committee. Instead, the state last year outlawed the sale and distribution of Salvia to minors.
The federal Drug Enforcement Administration now lists Salvia as a "drug of interest."
"It's like our watch list," said DEA spokesman Michael Sanders. "It's starting to become highly popular out there among the younger generation. I've seen the YouTubes. People start seeing Martians, the wars between the monsters and the aliens, without the 3-D glasses."
Mendelson is among a cadre of medical researchers who say the plant carries unique chemical properties and holds the potential to advance drug development for a range of troubling diseases. Unlike other hallucinogens, the key chemical in Salvia divinorum activates a single receptor, called a kappa-opioid receptor, linked to a range of medical conditions such as bipolar affective disorder, depression and abdominal pain, he said. Research suggests it could help with cocaine addiction, and could even lead to medicines to fight HIV.
But most of that remains speculative.
"We don't have anything in the library that looks quite like this compound. There's going to be a lot of scientific exploration here," Mendelson said. "One of the concerns with drug developers is if something is (restricted), what that really does is drive away capital" for research.
There is no evidence that Salvia is addicting, or that abusers have shown up in emergency rooms with symptoms of psychosis, he said. The Delaware teen's suicide is the lone death linked to the herb. "If we have demonstrated harms, we should go after it, but we should first demonstrate the harms," he said.
Assemblyman Anthony Adams, R-Claremont, who proposed the ban on Salvia, said liberal Democrats chose to defer to the federal government, but that he may bring it up again if use widens.
"When you have an out-of-mind experience, you can do substantive harm to yourself. The larger concern is the potential harm to a third person," he said.
Mendelson cautioned about treating Salvia like elicit drugs, but also warned that the risks are in what scientists have yet to learn.
"This is a really novel new human experience. We really don't know the risks at all at this point," he said.
That fact doesn't seem to faze some of the high school students, Caroline Cooper lamented.
"These kids are so young and dumb, they tend not to care."
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