Legal hallucinogenic drug moves onto officials' radar
By David Hasemyer
UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
March 12, 2008
The teen in the YouTube video sucks in air through a pipe. Within moments, his arms start flailing. He flops out of a chair and wriggles on the floor, chanting, “Oh man. Oh man! This is weird.”
The video is one of hundreds on the site that give a vivid glimpse of an emerging – and still legal – hallucinogen from Mexico that can rock a user's mind with the power of LSD.
The drug, known as Salvia divinorum, is gaining buzz on streets and school campuses across the country, and it is setting off alarms among law enforcement and health officials.
Eight states have classified it as a controlled substance, and many others are considering regulating its use, including California.
“It's coming on our radar screen now, and we want to know what we may be up against,” San Diego Police Officer Jim Johnson said yesterday.
Although authorities say the drug hit the United States in the 1980s or early 1990s, it didn't become widely available until five or six years ago. It comes in the form of fresh or dried leaves, whole plants, seeds or sometimes as an extract.
It's generally smoked but can also be chewed or taken as a concentrate, and it's easy to find on the Internet and in San Diego smoke shops and herbal stores for $15 to $50 a dose, depending on its potency.
The drug hits the system fast, usually within a minute or so, and causes a high that can send users into frightening mind-altering trips or dreamlike states for a few minutes to two hours.
Fans say it's nonaddictive and can be used responsibly. Others, such as San Diego resident Tamara Soto, said the effects are too strong to be fun.
Soto, 29, said she found herself reeling with the sensation of sliding through a tunnel of light and dark when she tried salvia a couple of years ago.
“It was really super-intense,” she said. “It wasn't a very pleasurable experience.”
San Diego State University has conducted one of the few studies that gauge salvia use. Among the more than 1,500 students surveyed last year, 4.4 percent reported using it in the previous year.
The study is a snapshot, but it shows that salvia is making an appearance on campus, said James Lange, the university's coordinator of alcohol and drug initiatives and one of the study's directors.
What remains unknown are the long-term health consequences, Lange said.
“We have no sort of human studies on its effects or potential for harm,” Lange said. “We do know college students are using it and are in a sense becoming human guinea pigs for what may or may not be a dangerous substance.”
Lange said he had his researchers study hundreds of YouTube videos such as the one featuring the wriggling teen because so little is known about the drug's effects.
Officials say use of salvia is not as widespread as alcohol and illicit drugs such as marijuana, psychedelic mushrooms or cocaine. San Diego Unified School District police Lt. Rueben Littlejohn said salvia has not been an issue on any of the district's 185 campuses.
“We've got the heads-up that it's out there, but haven't seen it,” he said.
Nevertheless, police and school officials are taking early action.
This week, salvia was added to the drugs featured in a presentation by the regional Narcotics Task Force during a meeting of campus police officers from schools around the county.
“It's a new trend we're seeing,” Officer Johnson said. “It's just now starting to be encountered frequently enough that it needs to be addressed.”
Johnson, like others in law enforcement and school administration, cautioned that it is too early to say whether salvia will become a problem. They hope the drug's intensity and harsh effects will limit its popularity.
“When they realize it is not a good high, it might steer them away,” Johnson said.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency has listed salvia as a “drug of concern” and is evaluating whether it should be banned, according to Rogene Waite, a national spokeswoman for the agency.
Local DEA spokeswoman Eileen Zeidler said salvia is not much of a concern in San Diego, so the agency does not want to draw attention to the drug through public discussion.
“If it's here, it's not here in great mass,” she said. “If it is emerging, we don't want to bring attention to it so kids see it and say, 'Let me jump on board.' ”
The San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department took a different approach. At the department's urging, Assemblyman Anthony Adams, R-Hesperia, proposed legislation to make it a misdemeanor to sell salvia to minors.
The bill passed the Assembly this year and is pending in the state Senate.
The legislation is a compromise after a harsher bill was defeated last year because of some lawmakers' concerns that salvia was not classified as an illegal drug by federal authorities.
“This is a potentially explosive problem, and one we can get a head start on before it hits quasi-epidemic proportions and we are at a loss for what to do,” Adams said yesterday.
Daniel Siebert, a Malibu herbalist who runs the Web site sagewisdom.org, is among the more vocal salvia supporters who say worries about its effects are overblown.
“Salvia has much to offer: fascinating psychoactive effects, sensual enhancement, magical journeys, enchantment, apparent time travel, philosophical insights, spiritual experiences and perhaps even healing and divination,” the Web site says.
However, the site warns that salvia should be used only by adults in a “thoughtful, intelligent manner,” and that someone else should be present in case users “freak out, become confused, injure (themselves), fall, or do anything that might harm others.”
Staff librarian Denise Davidson contributed to this report.
David Hasemyer: (619) 542-4583; email@example.com