Salvia's Growing Popularity Brings Legislative Scrutiny

By J. Freedom DuLac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 30, 2009

On 18th Street NW in Adams Morgan, just past the yellow "Drug Free Zone" sign, the B&K News Stand sells hookahs, rolling papers and "Purple Sticky Salvia."

The psychedelic Purple Sticky label warns that the contents of the cylindrical package -- dried leaves of the hallucinogenic herb Salvia divinorum and a chemical extract of the drug -- are to be used as incense only. But at $29.95 for a pillbox the size of a small jar of lip balm, that's some awfully expensive fragrant foliage.

It's perfectly legal to sell, possess and ingest salvia in the District. But the same stuff, long used for medicinal and mystical purposes by Mazatec Indians in Mexico, will get you arrested in Virginia, where a ban on salvia passed unanimously in both the House and Senate last year.

Last month, after police reported multiple instances in which officers had to restrain people under the influence of salvia, the Ocean City Council passed emergency legislation to ban salvia products, which were being sold at almost 20 shops on the resort town's boardwalk. An identical ban followed suit in Worcester County on Maryland's Eastern Shore, and state Del. Jim Mathias, the former mayor of Ocean City, plans to push for a statewide ban when the General Assembly meets in Annapolis this winter.

Salvia has been gaining popularity over the past decade as a smokable drug whose psychotropic extract provides a short-lived but potent hallucinogenic trip. The 2008 National Survey on Drug Use and Health estimated that 1.8 million people in the United States had tried salvia, "and it's probably even more now," said Matthew W. Johnson, a psychopharmacologist at the Johns Hopkins University medical school, where he studies salvia and its active ingredient, salvinorin A. "It's really hit a critical mass in the last couple of years."

There's ample evidence online: Salvia, which is widely available for purchase on the Internet, has become a popular theme on YouTube, where countless bong-smokers in their teens and 20s have posted videos of themselves stumbling, laughing uncontrollably, talking nonsensically and just plain freaking out. (Video titles include "Jess' Journey To Space," "Worst Salvia Trip bad bad bad" and "!!!Hilarious Salvia Trip!!!!!!")

"It's an unpredictable drug that clearly alters rational behavior and alters your psyche," said Mathias, who sponsored an earlier anti-salvia bill that stalled in the Senate. Watching YouTube videos of kids flying high on salvia, "you see how panicky and paranoid and fearful they become. But if somebody for whatever reason decides this drug is something they want to partake in, they can buy it like they're buying a comic book or chewing gum. You don't even have to be 18. . . . I just don't think you should be able to buy salvia like you'd buy a Mounds bar."

Researchers worry that a rush to regulate the drug could interfere with efforts to learn whether salvinorin A can be used to treat cocaine addiction and Alzheimer's disease, among other conditions. But total or partial salvia bans have been imposed in 16 states; North Carolina will make it illegal in December. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has labeled salvia "a drug of concern" and is considering adding it to the list of drugs banned under the Controlled Substances Act. (It's illegal in at least a dozen countries.)

But fret not, green thumbs: Salvia divinorum is not the same as the ornamental species of salvia you've been planting all these years. They're family, but Salvia divinorum is the hippy-trippy uncle of the genus. "Salvia, the flowering plants, are backbones of the garden," said Ginny Rosenkranz, a commercial horticulture educator at the Maryland Cooperative Extension. "Salvia divinorum is a different species entirely. It's not know for its flowers; it's not considered ornamental."

The genus salvia is part of the mint family and is commonly called sage, hence the trippy nicknames for "Sally D": Magic Mint, Diviner's Sage, Sage of the Seers.

Although its hallucinogenic qualities were known by ethnobotanists and in psychedelic drug circles for many years, salvia had a low profile in this country until the late 1990s, when word spread that concentrating the active compound, salvinorin A, and smoking it was like a legal ticket to a magic carpet ride.

"That's when things started changing, around 1998, 1999, and you started seeing mail-order companies offering it," said Daniel Siebert, creator of the Salvia divinorum Research and Information Center, a salvia Web site. Siebert has experimented with the drug himself, "though I haven't done it in a couple of years," he said.

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