The 411: The latest drug: Why do we want it? | March 21, 2008 | Danville Express | |

Danville Express

Living - March 21, 2008

The 411: The latest drug: Why do we want it?

by Katharine O'Hara

An up and coming drug has parents, teachers and lawmakers worried. Salvia divinorum, the strongest hallucinogen found in nature that was historically used by the Mazatec Indians for its healing powers, has become increasingly popular among youth for its availability, legality and inexpensive cost (an effective amount of salvia can be purchased for as little as $15). Usually smoked out of a bong, chewed, or brewed in a tea, the drug has made recent headlines, as lawmakers fear it "could become the next marijuana."

The drug, which is known by names that include "Sally D," "Magic Mint," and "Diviner's Sage," produces a wide array of effects (depending on its potency and form of consumption) that commonly last anywhere from one to 35 minutes. The effects are immediate and short-lived, and are physically no different than those of smoking tobacco.

Users report feeling relaxed, experiencing a dream-like state, out-of-body sensations, communication with the spirit world, impaired vision and judgment, and short-term memory loss. In his user's guide, ethnobotanist and author Daniel Siebert reports that salvia can induce "fascinating psychoactive effects, sensual enhancement, magical journeys, enchantment, apparent time travel, philosophical insights, spiritual experiences and perhaps even healing and divination."

More negative effects include paranoia, and intense fear - and anxiety-producing hallucinations, and often occur if an individual is extremely stressed, uncomfortable or anxious before using the drug.

A San Ramon Valley High School student and one-time salvia user, who requested anonymity, described her experience using salvia.

"Everything around me was really bright. Light looked like a solid object, and I was giggling a lot. Then, bam - within 10 or 15 minutes it was over, and everything went back to normal."

The Internet has had an extraordinary effect on the drug's increased usage. Internet purchase is the most popular method by which people obtain salvia, and its spiritual benefits are largely played up on Web sites advertising it, luring in teens looking to define their identity, or escape the reality of their situation. The drug leaves users feeling energized, does not result in a hangover, and because it is legal, accompanies less associated guilt, offering more incentive for use.

"If salvia was as hard to get as weed, it would not have been worth it, because its effects are not nearly as good," said another salvia user at San Ramon Valley High School who also asked to remain anonymous. "But, given that I knew it was completely legal and pretty cheap, I really, really liked it. It was fun and short and had no consequences; I could go home soon with no side effects. I guess I just liked it a lot for its convenience,"

Even YouTube is popularizing the substance. Over 3,000 videos come up for 'salvia' on the site, with names like "Trippin on Salvia - First Timer - So Funny," and "Crazy Ass Salvia Trip," depicting people's sometimes frightening, sometimes "hilarious" salvia experiences.

Many teens who use the drug are under the misconception that because salvia is not illegal, it must not be dangerous. In fact, the Drug Enforcement Administration deemed salvia a "drug of concern," and based on its effects, researchers have placed it in the same category as drugs like LSD and marijuana.

Despite salvia's relatively heightened use, the number of users is still fairly low, and most parents - even many students - remain essentially unaware of its usage. A 2006 U.S. Department of Health & Human Services report revealed that about 2 percent of 18- to 25-year-olds had used salvia in the past year. Four percent of the 1,500 San Diego State University students surveyed in 2007 reported doing so.

One SRVHS user said, "I had never even heard about salvia before I had it in front of me."

A mother in Delaware, who attributes the suicide of her 17-year-old son Brett Chidester to the drug's hallucinogenic effects, is pushing for its outlaw. Australia, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Italy, Spain, Sweden and eight states have already placed restrictions on the drug, and 16 states are considering banning it. Assembly Bill 259, which would make the sale of salvia to minors a misdemeanor, is currently working its way through California legislation.

Opposition to banning the drug lies in the fact that, because salvia is fairly uncommon and legal, little research has been conducted and its long-term effects have not been studied. In a statement to lawmakers, the California Attorneys for Criminal Justice wrote, "As a matter of public policy, we should not simply criminalize behavior without sufficient scientific information." Adding another drug to the list of criminalized substances also means that more resources will be spent on locking up offenders - a cost the justice system cannot afford to make.

Before we put any temporary fixes on this up and coming problem, it is important to investigate why it is that the problem exists to begin with. Once one drug is illegalized, it does not take long before young people gravitate toward another drug that's a little cheaper, and a little easier to obtain - but why? Why is it that the current generation is so quick to alter their brain chemistry? Why are kids so stressed or pained that drugs seem like the only way out? It is these questions and thousands more our society must reflect on if permanent and effective change is desired.

The 411 offers information and insight on the teen scene by Katharine O'Hara, a senior at San Ramon Valley High School who spends her free time going to concerts, enjoying her friends, and playing the piano. E-mail her at


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