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Salvia's Growing Popularity Brings Legislative Scrutiny

He describes his experience as a journey to another place. "If you take a high dose, you get immersed in this dreamlike trance state," he said. "You're seeing this narrative scene unfold, like you do when you're asleep, and you're not aware of your body or the room you're in. You think you're someplace else."

Siebert said traditional Indian use of salvia was reserved for occasions "when they have a real reason to consult with their inner selves or with divine beings . . . usually a problem they're trying to gain insight into. It's a solemn, sacred thing."

Today, however, "more and more people are smoking excessively high doses and being careless," Siebert said. They "are experimenting with it in a party atmosphere while drinking with a lot of friends around, and they're finding it confusing and disorienting."

But is it dangerous? Johnson, the psychopharmacologist, said emergency rooms aren't reporting an increase in salvia overdoses or other issues related to the drug -- in part because "it's very short-acting, lasting five to 10 minutes."

Salvia doesn't appear to be addictive, nor is it particularly toxic, Johnson said. "The science is pretty clear. . . . Salvia is not the next methamphetamine or the next cocaine or heroin."

But, he warned, "this is a powerful drug. If someone were to drive on it, that would be a very bad thing."

In Delaware, Brett Chidester, 17, committed suicide in 2006 after becoming a salvia smoker. There was no evidence that Chidester was under the influence of salvia when he killed himself, but within four months, state legislators passed "Brett's Law," making salvia a controlled substance.

A dozen states have put salvia on Schedule I, the most restrictive class of drugs, including heroin, LSD and marijuana.

That has made research into the drug's possible therapeutic uses more difficult, said Thomas E. Prisinzano, a University of Kansas researcher who has been studying modifying salvinorin A to treat drug addiction.

"I'm concerned about the rush to regulate," Johnson said. Putting a substance on Schedule I "disincentivizes pharmaceutical companies that might pour millions of dollars into the development of a potential medication for cocaine dependence or Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia."

Worcester County Commissioner Linda Busick shrugged off such concerns. She recalled walking down the Ocean City boardwalk and wondering when and how the summer resort became an open-air drug market, with Purple Sticky Salvia and other brands offered at multiple levels of potency and in various flavors at the ubiquitous T-shirt shops.

"There's some feeling out there that we made a rush to judgment," Busick said. "But this is bad stuff. I had a youngster tell me that . . . you might think you can fly when you're on it and you'll need somebody to hold you back. Kids were having really bad experiences with it, and it was legal. We needed to stop it."

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