A member of the mint family related to the flowering sages enjoyed by gardeners, salvia divinorum is a southern Mexican herb that when smoked properly can induce a psychedelic experience something akin to an express acid trip. It comes on like a fast-forward freight train; within a few seconds of inhaling, a full-blown psychedelic experience is underway, and within five minutes, it's all over. And as a legal product under federal law, it is sold in thousands of retail outlets in the United States as well as being easily available over the Internet.
But momentum to ban the herb in the US is building. Largely driven by the suicide of a 17-year-old Delaware youth who experimented with it, salvia has been banned in two states this year, and in at least three more, legislation to make its possession or sale a crime is pending. Previously, the herb had been banned in Louisiana and Missouri. This year, Delaware and Tennessee have already outlawed it, and similar efforts are afoot in Alaska, New Jersey, and Texas.
Renewed interest in banning salvia came after the death of Brian Chidester, a Delaware youth who committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning in January. His parents, Kathy and Dennis Chidester, described him as a happy, normal teenager who believed the plant couldn't hurt him if it was legal. And although young Chidester was also taking an acne medication linked to depression in adolescents, his parents blamed his death on the herb.
"We found a note that he wrote on the computer that said salvia divinorum made him realize there was no point to being on Earth," Kathy Chidester told a New Jersey news conference last week as, fresh from victory in her home state, she pressed for a ban in the Garden State as well. "He had a lot to live for and I believe salvia took that away from him."
While salvia is not "deadly," as some overheated news accounts have stated, neither is it a casual party drug. According to Daniel Siebert, proprietor of the Sage Wisdom web site, "salvia is not 'fun' in the way that alcohol or cannabis can be. If you try to party with salvia, you will probably not have a good experience," Siebert wrote. "Salvia is a consciousness-changing herb that can be used in a vision quest, or in a healing ritual. In the right setting, Salvia makes it possible to see visions. It is an herb with a long tradition of sacred use. It is useful for deep meditation. It is best taken in a quiet, nearly darkroom; either alone (if a sitter will not be used, see below for discussion of sitters), or with one or two good friends present. It should be taken either in silence or (sometimes) with soft pleasant music playing."
Indeed, salvia use is not likely to become a craze sweeping the country. Like other psychedelics it is non-addictive and carries with it no compulsion to use again. And the experience is too weird and occasionally downright unpleasant to have much mass appeal.
"Salvia doesn't cause any physical damage or brain damage, but it can be unsettling and unpleasant," said Chris Bennett, who runs the Urban Shaman entheogen shop in Vancouver. "The biggest danger is tripping alone. I've had people tell me they woke up in the woods and things like that. Most people are too high to move, but you should have a sitter there with you," he told DRCNet.
But despite the fact that salvia is a freaky drug for psychonauts with little popular appeal, politicians across the land are now calling for its prohibition. Pushed by the Chidesters, Delaware passed its ban quickly this spring, as did Tennessee. And New Jersey politicians are the latest to get on the bandwagon.
"We should take preventative steps now, before our children start using this product and before someone gets hurt," said Assemblyman Jack Conners (D-Burlington), a sponsor of New Jersey's bill to outlaw the plant. Under that bill, salvia would become a Schedule I controlled substance, the same category as heroin. Distribution, possession, or even use of the herb would be a felony, and those caught with more than one ounce could face up to 10 years in prison and fines of up to $150,000.
In Alaska, meanwhile, a state senator has introduced a bill that would similarly define salvia as a dangerous controlled substance. In a statement accompanying his bill, Sen. Gene Therriault (R-North Pole) warned that the plant is a "very powerful hallucinogenic substance" that is becoming more popular because it is not illegal. "We have an opportunity to get ahead of this powerful substance and reduce the risk to our young people," he wrote.
Therriault's initiative is largely thanks to the efforts of his legislative assistant, Dave Stancliff, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported. Stancliff told the newspaper he researched salvia on Internet chat rooms, and it must be banned because otherwise children would think it was safe to use. "The fact is, legal means safe," he said.
Still, Stancliff conceded that the bill was not in response to any known problem with salvia in Alaska. Alaska State Troopers spokesman Greg Wilkinson seconded that opinion, telling the paper salvia "has really not shown up on our radar here in Alaska."
While the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) lists salvia among its "drugs of concern," it is not proscribed under the Controlled Substances Act. While the DEA has the power to proscribe it, it has not yet moved to do so. "It's a concern and we're looking at it, but just because it hasn't been scheduled doesn't mean it's safe or healthy," DEA spokesperson Rogene Waite told the Associated Press in April. "It's dangerous from what you can see from anecdotal material."
But the drug has its defenders, even among the federal health bureaucracies. In the same article, Bryan Roth, director of the Psychoactive Drug Screening Program for the National Institute of Mental Health, said salvia could be useful in treating disease. The plant produces savinorin A, "the world's most potent natural occurring hallucinogen," as Roth put it. Salvinorin A targets a single chemical receptor in the brain that is linked to "consciousness and our perception of reality" and located in neurons that have a role in depression, drug abuse, and schizophrenia, he said.
"Many teams of chemists around the world are making salvinorin A for research," Roth said. Criminalizing the plant and its derivatives would make it "almost impossible" to obtain supplies for research, he warned. Still, he said, while the herb should not be banned, it should be regulated. "It probably shouldn't be sold over the Internet to unsuspecting teenagers," Roth said.
That would be just fine with the Urban Shaman's Bennett, who professed bemusement at the very notion of criminalizing nature. "How can a plant be illegal?" asked Bennett. "We don't sell it to minors, but beyond that, how can a plant be illegal?"
Further resources on this issue are available at the Salvia Divinorum Action Center, on the web site of the Center for Cognitive Liberty. The project has been suspended due to lack of funding, but there is still a lot of information there.