By Elizabeth Limbach
When Evan Henry was handed the pipe he had no idea what was in store. He took the piece, sparked the lighter and burned the bowl. He inhaled, held it and found himself becoming another person.
"My whole perspective got sucked out of my own body and thrown into my friend. I became my friend," Henry, a third-year UCSC student, said. "It was uncomfortable, as if I was getting pulled out and sliced into him. Like I was getting cut as if I was play dough or clay and I was getting shaken violently by some sort of mold."
The drug Henry used was Salvia, which produces an experience he deems "the trippiest 10 minutes of your life." But the trippiest part of all is that Salvia is legal for those 18 and over and essentially unheard of. Salvia Divinorum is a psychoactive sage plant native to Oaxaca, Mexico that has been used for thousands of years by Mazatec Indians for spiritual purposes. Despite its longstanding use below the border, Americans began using it only a few decades ago.
Traditionally Salvia leaves are chewed, but among recent drug experimenters in the United States, its dried leaves or extract forms are often smoked in similar fashion to marijuana. While smoking the leaves can produce little to no effect, smoking the tiniest bit of more potent extracts can have extreme hallucinogenic results.
According to Daniel Siebert, founder of the Salvia Divinorum Research and Information Center, these feelings of "being pulled or twisted by forces of some kind" and believing oneself to be in multiple places simultaneously are common themes of the Salvia experience.
"Salvia is a tremendous tool for personal examination and as an introspective aid," Siebert said. "It is an interesting experience, but for a lot of people it is too intense and difficult to make sense of, and too psychologically challenging."
Other typical reactions are hysterical and uncontrollable laughter, the sensation of becoming a foreign object, loss of identity, and revisiting places from the past. And although any given Salvia user has a unique story, most trips do include certain similar effects. Not everyone will hear their family’s voices like a broken record as Henry did, or see life "like it is a storybook," as did Amy, a third-year student who asked to remain anonymous, but most trips do begin with an instantaneous black out.
"I blacked out," she said. "When I became conscious I was rocking back and forth and I don’t remember thinking or doing the movements I was doing."
Although typically said to be indescribable, this "black out" is reportedly more like completely leaving reality.
Ralph Cantor, Drug and Violence Prevention Coordinator for the Alameda County Office of Education, believes a short salvia trip to be a complete disconnect from one’s mentality.
"It’s like a psychotic break," Cantor said. "You run the risk of not coming back the way you went out."
Amy describes a Salvia trip as an acid trip concentrated into two minutes. "I’ve taken a lot of other hallucinogens, and Salvia was by far the most intense," Cantor said. Although a Salvia trip lasts no more than a few minutes, time and reality become so mutilated that a user can feel like they have lived an entire lifetime other than their own, according to Siebert.
Despite hearing mostly negative stories about Salvia, it was this reality warp that Amy found most appealing.
"When people said ‘I went to this place and did this crazy stuff then I came back within seconds’ I thought that sounded cool," she said. "Even if it’s bad trip, it is still cool because you will never experience that soberly in reality."
Almost 400 Salvia trips are posted on the popular video sharing site Youtube.com, where the patterns of the experience can be seen in their entirety.
Some of the video’s captions encourage viewers to try it, while many others make some comment regarding reality distortion.
The abundance of captured Salvia trips shared online is one testament to its growing popularity. Siebert has been researching and experimenting with Salvia for over 20 years, during which time he has witnessed the dramatic change in Salvia’s place in American drug culture.
"Back then it was extremely obscure and almost completely unavailable in this country, and generally people considered it nothing worth bothering with," Siebert said. "Since then, that has all changed."
A quiet existence for an explosive drug
LSD was used widely and joyously, when legal loopholes and legislative lagging left the drug legal to a psychedelic generation for most of the 1960s. And like the government’s apparent ignorance about LSD decades ago, Salvia, too, has gone virtually unrecognized. But Ralph Cantor says Salvia will never be as abused and widespread as LSD.
"A lot of the drug laws are behind the times or not in tune with what is going on," Cantor said. "Look as LSD in the ’60s, or Ecstasy in the ’70s. But one reason Salvia is below the radar is because it is not a regularly abused drug."
Nationally, Salvia is currently legal but not approved by the government for human consumption. But while there is no national schedule for regulation, Louisiana, Missouri, Tennessee and Delaware have all outlawed the Mexican herb and other states are working on controlling it.
The federal government is not totally ignorant of the matter, however. The national Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has begun tracking Salvia. Special agent Steve Robertson says the DEA is concerned with any substance that can be so disorienting.
"We are hearing stories, getting calls from parents, local officers in the fields, and from the media," Robertson said. "That fact that we are hearing about it says something."
Salvia can be purchased at head shops and is widely available online, but Henry sees the marketing of the drug as too recent a development to have affected its legality.
"It’s legal probably because people don’t really know about it," Henry said. "It just became marketable on a wide scale recently."
The existence of a legal high would seem to invoke increasing use, but Salvia has still managed to remain far under the radar of government, parents and even people who regularly use other drugs.
Even at UC Santa Cruz, with its fairly drug-friendly reputation, the legal high has not reached the mainstream. Meg Kobe, drug educator at the UCSC Student Health and Outreach Program (SHOP), claims that hardly any of the student’s seeking drug counseling come in because of hallucinogens, and never once because of Salvia.
"I have not once in my four years here had to talk to a student about Salvia," Kobe said. "But because it is such a short lived experience I can see how it could be attractive to people."
Santa Cruz Youth Services, another local drug abuse resource, has also had diminutive Salvia problems.
"Occasionally we hear of a kid going on a Salvia hunt," Santa Cruz Youth Services Representative Bill McCav said. "But the drugs we are dealing with are really alcohol, marijuana, pharmaceuticals, methamphetamines, heroin and related opiates."
Though both the university and Youth Service drug programs rarely deal with Salvia, some say the low rate of Salvia patients does not mean that people are not using it, but rather it may indicate they are not forming abusive habits.
Siebert says that the reason Salvia has not skyrocketed in popularity and induced national awareness is because it is not the type of drug users take regularly.
"Although it has become much more available I wouldn’t say it is a popular drug," Siebert said. "People that use it don’t seem to want to do it very frequently."
Like Siebert, Amy believes that the powerful nature of Salvia prevents it from being habit forming.
"People that [use Salvia] do it once or twice," Amy said. "If they do it again it is a while after and with hesitation, because they know what they are getting themselves in to."
Kobe, however, expressed concern that word-of-mouth hype and recent media exposure could "give kids the idea." Siebert also noted the media’s role in raising awareness of Salvia, but believes that it will not lead to widespread abuse of the drug.
"The media brings a lot of interest," Siebert said, "But I am confident that no matter how much media attention Salvia gets it will not become a popular drug."
Locally, businesses in Santa Cruz have felt the effects of the drug controversy. In the past year, Santa Cruz head shop Pipeline stopped selling Salvia because of the increasing scrutiny. Two others, Graphix and Glassroots, still sometimes carry it but, like Pipeline, declined to comment about Salvia sales.
Irresponsible use and sales
Cantor, who works with teenagers in the Berkeley area, has noticed a spike in Salvia interest and experimentation in the area’s high schools.
"Salvia is not as far under the radar in the youth scene," Cantor said. "Youth culture is one up in that way; if you ask a parent what 420 is, they probably won’t know. If you ask a parent what a 40 is, or a blunt, and they don’t know, they will certainly have no idea what Salvia is."
Siebert expressed concern that teenagers are more susceptible to irresponsible behavior and more inclined to use a drug without doing proper preliminary research. However, he argues that high school students still use many drugs that are illegal, and that making Salvia illegal would not fix the problem of its use amongst youth.
"It just creates a black market for the drugs and criminalizes the users," Siebert said, "It makes sense to have some regulations, but they should not demonize Salvia."
Kobe feels that, like many drugs that are now considered mainstream, it will take controversy or catastrophe to bring Salvia to the limelight.
"With other drugs that got started with that age group, like LSD in the ’60s, it took serious devastation, accidents, death and the popular press to push it out there," Kobe said. "I see this going in that way."
In fact, there have been recent teenage deaths linked with Salvia use, including the suicide of Brett Chidester, a Delaware teen last January. Although Salvia is not considered the official cause of Chidester’s death, his death caused enough concern about the drug that Delaware Senator Karen Peterson put forth Senate Bill 259, or "Brett’s Law," which outlawed the plant’s use. Brett’s Law passed, and now Peterson, along with Chidester’s parents, is campaigning for Salvia to be a Schedule I controlled substance in all states.
Many believe it is only a matter of time before situations like Delaware’s are seen around the country. Siebert attributes the risky Salvia use among youth not only to behavioral tendencies, but also to the dangerous ways in which the substance is sold. He sees this as the real problem at hand, not whether or not it should be legal. Online and at head shops, the most popular Salvia product is the extract form, which is sold at up to 60 times the natural strength. Siebert has been hearing more and more horrifying Salvia stories, coming mainly from people who bought extracts. When dealing with these strengths, Siebert says it is common for someone’s body to go on autopilot and "sleepwalk" or run while their mind is in a different, altered reality.
"People are taking way too much because the products being sold are too potent and they are not being cautious," Siebert said. "With higher potency you can take way too much with just one lung full. That is the kind of thing that will cause accidents and eventually affect the legality."
But for now, extracts are completely legal to buy, sell and possess the same as the more natural, dried leaf forms of Salvia.
No research proves Salvia to be detrimental to health, making the intense hallucinations the only real effect of the drug. Few think Salvia’s use will become a national problem, and yet teen use has led to a trend of states outlawing it. Some say the brevity of the Salvia experience will never make it a popular drug, while others see it as only a matter of time before the nation picks up on the possible dangers of it. However, as Salvia begins to crack the surface of national awareness, most agree that only time will tell. For now, Siebert hopes people will not take the legality of the potentially enlightening drug for granted.
"It is a serious thing," Siebert said, "Salvia is not like a beer-it is a very intense mind-altering drug that should not be sold in a casual way."