Up in smoke

Up in smoke

More features:

Salvia 101
What is it?

It might be legal, but there’s still a stigma
A high school newspaper censors a student journalists attempt to write about salvia use

In the name of God, leave salvia alone!
The Rutherford Institute’s John Whitehead weighs in

I am still unable to comprehend that the drug has taken hold. I open my eyes and the colors in the Mexican blanket on my lap seem baked, as if they’re on fire. The furniture is stretched out and far away and my conscious mind bobs just out of reach in the middle of the living room.

“This is the drug,” I think. “That’s what’s happening. I didn’t think it would come on so fast. I didn’t think it would be this intense. Will it ever stop?”

Delegate John O’Bannon, a Republican neurosurgeon representing Virginia’s 73rd district, first heard of Salvia divinorum about a year and a half ago when an Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney told him about a drug bust in Richmond that produced paraphernalia and something called salvia. His interest peaked, O’Bannon learned that Salvia divinorum, a strong, natural hallucinogen, was not only legal, but could be purchased in a store in downtown Richmond.

So O’Bannon, whose record tends towards medical issues but which otherwise shows no obvious interest in drug abuse, drafted a bill to make salvia illegal in Virginia. On November 29, Virginia bill HB21 was pre-filed to make the active ingredient in the plant, salvinorin A, a Schedule I hallucinogenic drug, joining in that category Ecstasy, LSD and Heroin. On January 15, the bill passed the House 98-0 and made its way to the Senate floor, where it again passed unanimously, on February 18. Once Governor Tim Kaine signs his name to it, the bill will be law and Salvia divinorum will be illegal in Virginia.

So let us herald salvia’s last legal days in The Old Dominion. Raise your hand if you’ve ever heard of it before.

“Beavis” and “Butthead” (not their real names) are both 18 and seniors at Western Albemarle High. Each has tried salvia only once, and knows of around four or five other students, they say, who’ve done it. (In the course of reporting this story, I came across several students at other local high schools who had taken salvia.) One of Butthead’s friends has tried it more than once, and she was the one who introduced him to it.

“When it hit, it hit pretty hard,” he says when I talk to him on the phone. Butthead was outside when he took the salvia, and he says that “everything turned kind of reddish,” and the trees seemed to pull at him. “I kind of lost myself and started rambling about trees and goats.” Beavis tells me that his body was tingling and he couldn’t stop laughing. “It was awesome,” he says.

Salvia divinorum, a type of sage, is a relative of the mint plant. It originates in Oaxaca, Mexico, where for perhaps thousands of years the Mazatec shaman have squeezed the juices of the plant into water, drinking the mixture as part of religious and medicinal ceremonies. Salvia derives its hallucinogenic properties from the chemical salvinorin A, the most potent naturally occurring psychoactive drug known, one that is chemically quite different from all other hallucinogens. Its popularity on the fringes of the drug culture as one of the last legal highs comes via the Internet, where a wide variety of sites sell it as “incense.” With a wink and a nudge, these sites inform you that in no way are you supposed to put it in a pipe and smoke it.

And the really crazy part? Salvia seems to be relatively harmless. In 2003, doctors at the University of Nebraska pumped massive doses of salvinorin A into rats for 14 days straight and found it did zero damage to any of the rodents’ organs. Nor is there evidence, according to a study conducted by researchers from the University of California-Berkeley and California Pacific Medical Center Research Institute, that salvia is addictive or has any significant negative side effects.The trip only lasts for about 30 minutes (compare this to 8-10 hours for LSD) and there’s no hangover. I can attest to this. Currently legal in 42 states (and dropping fast) salvia is off the radar of most police departments and hospitals for the simple fact that it doesn’t seem to be causing many problems.

Which makes you wonder why anyone would bother to make it illegal.

I begin to get a grip on what is passing for reality and to enjoy the echoing music and distorted colors. Something drags through the air at the edge of my vision, and I see dripping orange claws hanging down like demented tree limbs. My senses are deranged: Colors bleed and seem thick and multidimensional.

The galvanizing incident in the movement to ban salvia was the suicide in January 2006 of 17-year-old Brett Chidester. Brett had started using salvia, which he purchased online, several months before he killed himself. Kathy Chidester, Brett’s mother, is convinced that it was salvia that made her son depressed, and three months after his death, the chief medical examiner in Brett’s home state of Delaware changed the death certificate to include Salvia divinorum as a contributor to the youth’s demise.

Despite there being no direct evidence cited between Brett’s salvia use and his suicide (no traces were found in his system when he died), nor any other official reports of salvia-linked deaths, Brett’s mother is actively advocating for salvia criminalization. In a phone interview, Delegate O’Bannon tells me that Mrs. Chidester wrote him a letter to support the proposed salvia ban in Virginia. I mention to him the seeming lack of connection between the suicide and salvia. “That’s not what his mother thinks,” he snaps.

The drug seems to absorb whatever comes in through my eyes and ears and manipulate it, as if it, the drug, is rummaging around in the attic of my mind, pulling stray thoughts out the corners and making them dance like Balinese shadow puppets. “Little green men!” I think, “Leprechauns!” and each thought brings the idea to mind as a transparent image hanging in the air in front of me. I am stubbornly holding on to the fraying edges of reality, but if I were to let go, I’m pretty sure that the visions would really start pouring in.

Beavis and Butthead bought their salvia at the same place, a store called Kulture Clothing Co. on the Corner. Kulture has only been open in Charlottesville for six months, and given that none of the high school students I talked to mentioned buying salvia online (too risky, they said, what with their parents and everything), I conclude that salvia hasn’t been used at local high schools for very long.

“Do you sell salvia?” I ask the sales-dude when I visit the store for the first time. He pauses for a moment. “Yeah, I think so.” He digs around behind the counter and then reaches into a cardboard box and hands me a small plastic bag with a big colorful label that says “Purple Sticky Salvia.”

“That’ll be $60.”

I don’t tell the guy that I’m a reporter, but he talks freely about the drug. The cardboard box behind the counter is all the salvia left in the store, and when it’s gone, he volunteers, they won’t be ordering any more. Apparently, it sold much better in Richmond than in Charlottesville. All kinds of people buy it, he says, ages 18 to 70. He usually tries to convince them not to buy it, but they do, and then inevitably they bring it back the next day and say that they didn’t like it. When they initially got it in the shop, he tells me, the first person to try it had a bad reaction, but sales-dude himself tried it and liked it. When he tripped, he thought it was 1999, and kept telling his friends that he hadn’t met them yet.

I leave the store with a small plastic container holding about two thimbles full of purple, almost black, shredded leaves that smell like bitter tea. The packaging says that it is “Not intended for human consumption” but also that it was “Atomix Laboratory Approved.” Neither statement reassures.

According to the Drug Enforcement Agency, which considers salvia a “drug of concern,” “information on the user population is limited. It appears to be mostly adolescents and younger adults influenced by promotions of the drug on Internet sites.” The DEA would be better off surfing YouTube, where live thousands of videos of kids tripping on salvia—lots of off-camera giggling while the star of the show stares into space and smiles.

YouTube videos of people taking salvia. To see similar videos, click here.

Local law enforcement does not seem to be keeping a watchful eye on salvia. I put in a call to JADE, the Jefferson Area Drug Enforcement task force, and after a bit of effort manage to get someone to call me back, although he won’t tell me his name. “Look,” he barks, “I’m not going to be quoted in your paper. Now tell me what you want to know.” He hasn’t heard of salvia. I seem to be wasting his time. If it’s made illegal, he tells me, JADE will enforce the law.

According to Laura Bechtel at Blue Ridge Poison Control, there have been 11 calls about salvia in the past four years, only four of which were people who had ingested the drug, the other seven being callers seeking information (to put those 11 calls into perspective, in the same time period a total of 148,650 calls came into the poison control center). The salvia callers have been of all ages—in fact, one of the four ingestion calls concerned an infant who had accidentally swallowed salvia. “As far as I know,” Bechtel says, “we haven’t had any cases that needed medical attention.” (The baby was probably fine, as salvia is rendered inactive by stomach acids.) Most of the callers have been concerned about the hallucinations. “It’s hard,” she continues, “to put a number on how emergent the drug is,” but it’s getting an increasing number of hits on Internet medical sites. I ask what her professional advice would be if someone called and said something like, “I have some salvia. Should I take it?”

“No,” she says, “don’t smoke it.”   

I don’t like hallucinogens. I don’t even like smoking pot. So it takes me several days to get up the nerve to try the purple sticky. I sit down in a chair in my living room with a borrowed bong, put a small pinch of the salvia in the bowl, light it and watch the tube fill up with white smoke. I hold the smoke in my lungs for a few seconds, and then blow it out.

As soon as I do, I realize that I have forgotten to note the time. I get up from the chair and head into the other room to look at the clock. When I move I feel a little bit strange, and I think, “I better hurry up before it hits.”
My body feels like it’s being twisted, wrung out like a towel. Twin, white plumes of smoke are spiraling into me.
I can barely focus on the clock

the time is 8:59pm

and I turn and run back to my chair,

still with this spiraling, twisting feeling. It alternates on either side of my body, as though the world was rushing into me like water down a drain.

The strange thing is that I’m not yet aware that the drug has kicked in; my ability to process what is happening is lagging way behind my experience of it. I sit down, still not understanding that the trip has begun, and close my eyes.

The air is filled with green and white caterpillars marching in time to the music, a vast moving kaleidoscope, into and out of little holes in the air.

I’m not exactly seeing things, but I’m sure I could if I were willing to let go of the flimsy life raft that journalism affords me. Part of me is analyzing everything, thinking, “I see how this could cause people to think they had traveled to other worlds.”

It is, to quote one of the high school students, “absurdly intense.”

It’s like the fever dreams I remember from childhood. My body is tingling all over, is warm and light.

At 9:05, six minutes after it started, I can think well enough to grab my notebook and begin to write down what has happened. By 9:08, I’m able to get up and walk over to my computer. An hour later I feel relatively normal, but with a persistent body buzz that lingers until I finally go to sleep.

The next morning, I feel great.

I would definitely take salvia again, but with reservations. It was very strong (salvia is typically sold as leaves that have been fortified with extracted salvinorin A. These are sold in varying strengths, the one I tried being relatively potent) and came on frighteningly fast. Being prepared for those two things would make the trip a lot more manageable. At no point did I feel out of control or completely out of touch with reality. As is the case with many drugs, if you research it, have a friend on hand (I didn’t) and approach salvia with caution, you’re likely to be fine.

I didn’t feel depressed in the slightest. This is not an issue I take lightly, being someone prone to depression with or without drugs, and it was the greatest fear I had before I tripped. As far as I could tell, it seems unlikely that salvia would cause a suicide. Granted, my lack of suicidal thoughts is not evidence of salvia’s harmlessness, but by the same logic, neither is Brett Chidester’s suicide proof of salvia’s menace.

A week after my trip, HB21 unanimously passes through the State Senate making what I had done, without hindrance or consequence seven days before, a de facto crime. Score another one for the War on Drugs, for the swelling of prisons and jails with small-time users, for politicians that will make criminals out of people who need or want a 30-minute break from reality.

The ongoing attempt to make Salvia divinorum illegal is not being driven from the bottom up by police battling crime or doctors concerned about public health. It is instead coming from the top down, the result of hand-wringing news stories and grandstanding politicians wanting to appear tough on drugs. Some say it is being done hastily and without any real thought being given to the consequences (see sidebar, p. 22).

Making salvia illegal, 18-year-old Butthead told me, is “kinda silly, frankly.” It’s hard to understand how making a drug user into a criminal makes the user safer. The penalties for salvia possession in Virginia are yet to be set, but in some of the states where the drug is already illegal, they are quite severe. In Missouri, for instance, salvia possession is a felony punishable by a maximum of seven years in jail. In Louisiana, it’s 10 years. It’s worth asking why our government’s time and money is being spent criminalizing something that doesn’t seem to present a problem. How are high school kids—or society at large, for that matter—any safer going to jail for 30 minutes of nontoxic, nonaddictive mind alteration? Meanwhile, the search inevitably begins for the next legal high, or the next soon-to-be-illegal one—whatever we can get our hands on. Beavis told me that he probably wouldn’t do salvia again, legal or not. Butthead, on the other hand, said that he would. “[Making it illegal is] not gonna make it go away,” he said. “As a high school student, I know it’s easier to buy pot than beer.”

With additional reporting by Scot Masselli

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