For years, an intense hallucinogenic herb first hauled down from a Mexican mountain four decades ago was quietly traded by online merchants to a small collection of global connoisseurs, never popping up on the radar of thrill-seekers or federal regulators.
But now that a Texas company marketed Salvia divinorum at a recent major Las Vegas trade show for tobacco paraphernalia dealers and head shop owners, the lime-colored sage's anonymity may be deteriorating.
"They suggested it's like a dream quest, something used for meditating," said head shop owner Susan Neumeyer. At the show, she ordered Salvia divinorum for her businesses, The Joint Venture in Fontana and Huff-N-Puff in Hesperia. "It's new. I have never heard of it. . . . I hope it works out good. I hope no one else has it and I make a lot of money."
That attitude bothers many of the people who best know Salvia divinorum.
They point out the herb fails to work for everyone and is expensive, as much as $120 per ounce. Its impact is short, lasting as long as an hour and as little as five minutes.
It's not the party drug some Internet suppliers say it is. Those familiar with the drug say the herb makes people become introspective. While the powerful hallucinations can be enjoyable, they say it can be a terrifying experience at other times.
"Microgram-for-microgram, it's the most potent psychoactive drug out there," said Dr. Ethan Russo, a neurologist in Missoula, Mont., who studied the herb while writing "Handbook of Psychotropic Herbs."
"While the chance that someone is going to hurt themselves is very limited, I don't recommend this to anyone. It's a hard thing to use . . . and if you do, you need a handler, someone who is not taking it."
'Make a quick buck'
In recent years, herb users worried that selling the herb online would cause the Drug Enforcement Administration to crack down. Some of those Internet companies cast the plant as being much like illegal recreational drugs such as Ecstasy. One merchant's Web site, calling itself the "Temple of Ecstasy," tells customers which types of Salvia are "hot" and trendy.
Other companies simply dance around the subject. For example, Riverside-based Burton Services operates a Web site stating "Welcome Salvia Researchers" and yet offers the "highest grade" of herb, meaning the most potent, and a "FREE cute cigarette lighter" for purchases of more than one ounce. Company officials declined comment.
"You see some sleazy things that in my mind are people who are trying to make a quick buck," said Daniel Siebert, a Malibu resident who uses the herb and markets it on his Web site. "A lot of that stuff is just hype. It's disturbing to see."
Fear of impulse-buying
Offering the herb in head shops will convince people that it is only a recreational drug, some users worry.
They say window shoppers will stumble upon packages of the herb and buy it on impulse. Patrons of the shops, where marijuana users buy pipes or bongs sold as tobacco-using products, will sample it with little comprehension of what they are putting into their bodies, they say.
"Head shops change the picture because it puts it right into the community," Siebert said. "The Salvia experience is so profound and so bizarre; it's not something that's fun. It really makes you question whether you are going to come back from it. Everybody does, but there's a sense you might not."
But the owner of the company that brought the herb to the recent trade show said the 30 head shops and gift stores carrying his product deliver a one-page informational sheet to each Salvia divinorum customer.
"Our position is that with the Internet, it's a lot easier to get if you're a kid," said Brian Arthur, pointing out that buyers can even go to the online auction site eBay and bid on a plant that just went up for sale. "We feel it's important to get it out the right way."
At least for Yahoo chat room users, Arthur's Houston-based Mazatec Gardens' trade show appearance has generated a long debate among Salvia divinorum admirers.
One forum member forecast a scenario in which a young man experienced in marijuana buys the herb on a whim and tests it while driving home from a head shop: " . . . so the driver decides to try some and maybe he's highly sensitive and smokes some. Next thing you know he's gone into another world. Problem is, however, he forgot to take his moving automobile with him."
Arthur replied in the chat room that his company handles wholesale transactions responsibly and he chided Siebert for advocating in which venues the herb can and cannot be sold.
Not a DEA target
As far as drug enforcement officials are concerned, there are no plans to give the herb a controlled-substance classification, the same as drugs such as cocaine, heroin or Vicodin.
"We're aware of it. It's not something that we are targeting right now," said Special Agent Jose Martinez, a spokesman in the DEA's Los Angeles field office who said he also was aware that the herb was marketed at the trade show. "I guess if there was a public uproar or the medical community thinks it should be (controlled), obviously it's something we would look at."
Russo, the Montana neurologist, called the idea of regulatory intervention "preposterous" because he believes the plant's scientific potential is profound.
While scientists know the chemical compound, Salvinorin A, causes the hallucinations, they have not identified how it works. Many controlled drugs, such as marijuana, have been found to work by attaching themselves to the brain's neurotransmitters. While scientists have long known that the brain has neurotransmitters, those that connect with marijuana were found only in the past decade, Russo said.
"My suspicion is it will lead us to a new neurotransmitter system," said Russo. "My hope is that all this attention will translate to some interested party out there who would want to fund research."
Like Russo, Siebert has vast hopes for Salvia divinorum. He foresees it someday helping scientists better identify how the brain determines consciousness, and it may lead to new directions for psychiatry. He explained that some experience new but distinct memories of their childhood.
Long used for healing
Salvia divinorum was first cultivated from the Sierra Mazateca mountains in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. Shamans have used the herb, apparently for centuries, as a healing device to treat patients. The herb was brought to the United States in the 1960s but ignored by nearly everyone who sampled it because they failed to use it correctly.
Getting the herb to work is an arduous task, Siebert explained. Mazatec Indians chew the leaves. But to get the effect, a person must gnaw on many leaves -- which have a terrifically bitter taste -- for about 30 minutes. Smoking the leaf works, but users must completely fill their lungs several times with the harsh smoke. Siebert said most people find both efforts to be unpleasant.
Some people have heated the herb and used a commercial vaporizer to inhale the smoke. But Siebert said controlling the dose is difficult and the result can be equivalent to general anesthesia.
Sensational or sickening
Those under the influence describe slipping into deep trances where they experience out-of-body sensations, time or space travel, or visit different worlds. Some people vomit; others pass out and recall nothing. Despite the herb's strength, Siebert says it has no lingering effects such as a hangover, and no one, the DEA included, has heard of a person overdosing or experiencing long-term consequences.
"It was so bright that I looked at the sand and each grain of sand turned into a star and I was bathed in . . . light," wrote a user on Siebert's Web site under the heading "Trip report." "The light was so bright that I became disoriented and I thought I was walking on a sidewalk against the side of a building and the sun was reflecting off the cement, which I assumed was creating the bright lighting. Then the sidewalk and the wall began to `squeeze' me and I became sandwiched between the two planes and felt like I was being crushed."
For the past two years on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Ian Soutar has been studying the herb's effects on meditation. He has worked with 10 people practiced in meditation, including some of Buddhist background, using tiny doses of the herb's extract.
"By everyone's account, it does work," Soutar said. "It helps when there are distractions and improves clarity."
The biggest fear for Salvia divinorum's admirers is that its newly found attention will eventually fade but federal regulators will still outlaw the herb, leaving the people who enjoyed the herb and treated it responsibly out of luck or treated like criminals.
Note: Salvia Divinorum: A business owner plans to sell the hallucinogenic plant at her Inland shops.
Newshawk: Ethan Russo M.D.
Source: Press-Enterprise (CA)
Author: George Watson
Published: Tuesday, August 28, 2001
Copyright: 2001 The Press-Enterprise Company
Related Articles & Web Sites:
Salvia Divinorum Research
Handbook of Psychotropic Herbs