A Legal Hallucinogen, at Least for Now

Discussion in 'Marijuana News' started by Superjoint, Aug 15, 2001.

  1. By Anne-Marie O'Connor, Times Staff Writer
    Source: Los Angeles Times

    Looking like an Old West preacher, with an earnest manner and long wavy hair, an amateur botanist from Malibu takes the podium and soberly lectures a small but keenly interested audience on a hallucinogenic drug that is legal and available.
    This is Daniel Siebert, the local apostle of an unlikely Mexican herb called salvia divinorum, or diviner's sage. Like peyote, the sage is said to cause vivid hallucinations and a deeply transcendental sensation, and it has a tradition of ritual use by Native American shamans seeking spiritual realms.

    But salvia divinorum is not a controlled substance. Americans looking for consciousness-altering experiences buy it on Web sites, grow it in their yards and share their experiences at conventions.

    And they pepper Siebert with questions at appearances such as his Los Angeles lecture this year, which was videotaped and can be rented at some video outlets.

    "It's a fairly rare thing to be working openly with a psychoactive drug," Siebert said in an interview at his home, perched on the edge of a Malibu ravine overlooking the sea.

    Information on the sage--and enthusiastic testimonials from users--is all over the Internet. The most elaborate Web site, Salvia Divinorum Research and Information -- http://www.sagewisdom.org -- is managed by Siebert, who sells the sage from his online Sage Wisdom Salvia Shop.

    Siebert worries that the exposure the drug is getting could lead to government intervention.

    "The more press, the more people experimenting with it, and the more it will be seen as a problem or be used in an irresponsible way," Siebert said. "Like any drug that alters consciousness, if you do it and, say, get in a car, that can cause a problem."

    Anti-drug authorities are aware of the situation.

    "We know it's out there," said federal Drug Enforcement Administration spokesman Will Glaspy. "We're looking at it to see if it needs to be controlled."

    But at this point, "it's not a controlled substance," Glaspy said.

    Siebert and other advocates of the sage say it has psychoactive healing potential, and is not likely to be adopted as a recreational drug like Ecstasy or make an appearance on the rave scene.

    "It is not something that will be passed around at parties and concerts," Siebert said. "That will limit its appeal. If you take it in a social context, you'll wish you hadn't. It's a very introspective experience. You can't walk around and socialize."

    He's not very happy about the "Salvia Divinorum" video. It intersperses his rather scholarly presentation with testimonials by sage users, intercut with trippy spiraling graphics reminiscent of late-night reruns of "Outer Limits."

    "I was just really annoyed with them," Siebert said. "I thought they did it really amateurishly."

    He is scheduled to talk about the sage again today on a radio program, "Vibrational Voyages," which is heard in the Santa Cruz area. He dispenses an encyclopedic array of information on his Web site, and he's writing a book.

    Such offerings usually reach a small audience--unlike a recent spate of press articles that circled the globe.

    It all began in December 1999, when Details, that hipper-than-thou bible/consumer catalog for affluent twentysomethings, trumpeted salvia divinorum as "The New Ecstasy: It's Not Illegal."

    Since then, there has been a small but growing drumbeat of reportage, mostly along the lines of "Lady Salvia: Mexican Mind Bender Like a Legal LSD," as a New Zealand News headline put it a couple of weeks ago.

    This kind of exposure, Siebert said, could "attract the attention" of U.S. anti-narcotics agents.

    The exposure has already had consequences.

    For the last three years, there has been a salvia divinorum conference in Oregon (chronicled on -- http://www.maps.org --) "but it won't be happening this year because the facility decided they didn't want to host it," Siebert said.

    He showed a visitor the scale on his table that he uses to weigh the sage and a bottle of sage extract that can be dispensed by the drop. The herb can also be chewed or smoked. The effects typically last an hour or less.

    Siebert said he believes the drug has deep healing properties. He points to a "trip report" sent to his Web site by a man who said he was so depressed after his lifetime companion died of cancer that he was considering suicide.

    When therapy and antidepressants failed to help, the man said, he turned to herbal remedies, finally stumbling upon the sage.

    "The feeling was one of incredible lightness," the account said. "I felt as if I had shed an incredible burden."

    A friend of Siebert who experiments with the sage said the thoughtful testimonials show how divorced the sage experience is from the Ecstasy party scene.

    "You know if you're having an experience like that, you don't want people pouring martinis over you and yelling," said the friend, who did not wish to give her name.

    She said that when she first tried the sage, she heard the sound of a child laughing and urging her to come and play. She saw multiple images of her face with different expressions: sad, happy, perplexed.

    "I gained insights from that," she said. "A sense that you don't have to hide, that it is all part of you, and it's OK. A sense of self-acceptance."

    Siebert recounts even more vivid hallucinations, visions of smiling, benevolent elves and tiny woodland fairy homes.

    "It's like a mirror," he said. "You break out of all the ways you relate because you don't have the means of escaping."

    Siebert took a visitor outside where, against the hillside, he keeps several sage plants under cloth to protect them from the cauterizing Malibu sun. He lifted up the cloth. The basil-green plants looked sad and tired.

    The sage's native range is the misty mountain cloud forests of Oaxaca, a rugged area in southern Mexico where the temperature hovers in the 60s much of the year. Shamans of the Mazatec Indians have used it for years.

    The plant was "discovered" for modern science in 1962 by Albert Hofmann, a chemist who was an early pioneer in LSD research, and Gordon Wasson, who went to Oaxaca to research psilocybin mushrooms and other hallucinogens.

    In recent years, it has aroused renewed scientific interest, because it is unclear precisely how it works on the brain.

    A Missoula, Mont., neurologist, Dr. Ethan Russo, who studied the sage while researching his "Handbook of Psychotropic Herbs," said that although scientists have isolated the chemical compound that triggers the hallucinations--salvinorin A--the sage does not act on known neurotransmitters such as serotonin or dopamine.

    Jeremy Stewart is devoting his doctoral research to tracing the sage's interaction with the brain at the University of Mississippi's Department of Pharmacognosy, which is the study of drugs from natural products, such as plants.

    "Most of the hallucinogens act on the serotonin system," Stewart said. "This molecule, salvinorin A, does not mimic any of the known neurotransmitters. So it's definitely a new jungle for discovery as far as brain research is concerned."

    Stewart's research will involve placing radioactive isotopes on the salvinorin A molecule and testing it on purified fractions of frozen mouse brains.

    Stewart just returned from the annual conference of the American Society of Pharmacognosy, which just happened to take place in Oaxaca. At the conference, "some people had interest, mainly younger scientists," he said.

    "You always get a lot of mixed feelings about research into psychoactive substances," Stewart said. "But one thing you have to remember is that most of our understanding of the brain came from research into psychoactive substances."

    Stewart said he doesn't know anybody in Mississippi who takes the drug.

    "It's a very introverted experience. There's no euphoric feeling whatsoever," he said. "It's very sudden, and it alters your perception substantially. Depending on your emotional state, it could be scary, because it will manifest whatever is inside of you."

    Drugs: Even as an advocate praises the 'healing potential' of diviner's sage, he hopes its growing exposure won't lead to government controls.

    Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
    Author: Anne-Marie O'Connor, Times Staff Writer
    Published: August 14, 2001
    Copyright: 2001 Los Angeles Times
    Contact: letters@latimes.com
    Website: http://www.latimes.com/
  2. whoa! this sounds awesome.

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