Powerful but legal,
hallucinogenic under scrutiny
By Oren Dorell, USA
little-known hallucinogenic leaf that is legal
in most of the USA is the target of new calls
for a ban after the suicide of a teenager who
Salvia, a relative of
flowering sages enjoyed by many gardeners, is the
most powerful natural hallucinogen known — almost
as strong as LSD, experts say.
Known as "diviner's
sage," salvia has been used for centuries by the
Mazatec Indians in Mexico. In the USA it is sold
in leaf and liquid form by websites and head shops
and is available to anyone at any age.
"Kids fall into a
false sense of security because it's legal," says
state Sen. Karen Peterson, a Delaware Democrat.
"We control LSD, and we should control this."
Peterson has filed a
bill to make Delaware the third state to designate
Salvia divinorum a banned substance like
marijuana and heroin. Louisiana and Missouri have
already taken such action.
Her action came in
response to the suicide of Brett Chidester, 17, of
Wilmington, Del., whose family blames the drug.
Brett was a straight-A
student who ranked top in his state in Spanish and
was making plans for college and to buy his
girlfriend roses for Valentine's Day, his family
says. On Jan. 23 he put a charcoal grill inside a
tent in his father's garage, lit the grill and
crawled inside the tent.
A suicide note
described revelations that echoed descriptions of
salvia experiences posted by users to various
salvia-related websites. "How can I go on living
after I learned the secrets of life," he wrote.
"It took me 17 years, but I finally figured it
out. I can't tell you that here because that kind
of information can cause chaos."
His mother, Kathleen
Chidester, says her son bought salvia on a
website. His father, Dennis, says police took
salvia from his room. Kathleen Chidester says she
believes Brett was depressed and used salvia
because it was legal. His suicide note left no
doubt in her mind that salvia had something to do
with his death.
powerful nature, the Drug Enforcement
Administration has not recommended that it be
banned as a dangerous drug. The DEA has been
collecting information for years on the leaf, says
Rogene Waite, a spokeswoman for DEA. The process
involves measuring its availability, potential for
abuse and medical uses.
"It is a concern and
we're looking at it, but just because it hasn't
been scheduled doesn't mean it's safe or healthy,"
Waite says. "It's dangerous from what you can see
from anecdotal material."
Research on salvia has
found that it causes depressive symptoms in rats
and monkeys and dysphoria — similar to depression
— in people. However, some see the potential for
Daniel Siebert, who
sold his T-shirt business years ago to study
medicinal plants, has a website where he offers
cautionary information about salvia and sells the
leaves and their extracts. Siebert says moderate
doses help people meditate and gain insight about
their inner selves.
The first time Siebert
chewed some of the leaves, he says, he had
pleasant visions of "fairy-like beings hovering
around the hillside" of his home in Malibu, Calif.
When he first smoked the more potent extract,
however, he experienced an "extreme disembodied
state in another universe" that he says was
frightening and unpleasant.
He says he favors
"some reasonable controls" but opposes a ban.
So does Bryan Roth,
director of the Psychoactive Drug Screening
Program for the National Institute of Mental
Health. The federally funded program looks for new
treatments for mental illnesses.
Roth calls Salvia "the
world's most potent natural occurring
hallucinogen." He is among several researchers who
say salvia may prove helpful in treating disease.
The plant produces large amounts of salvinorin A,
an "extremely potent hallucinogen," nearly as
strong as LSD, that targets a single chemical
receptor in brain cells, Roth says. The receptor
is involved in "consciousness and our perception
of reality," and it is located in neurons that
have a role in depression, drug abuse and
"Many teams of
chemists around the world are making salvinorin A
for research," Roth says.
and its derivatives would make it "almost
impossible" to get salvia-related compounds
approved for human use, Roth says.
says, there should be some regulation. "It
probably shouldn't be sold over the Internet to
unsuspecting teenagers," he says.
In an essay she found
on Brett's computer after his death, he wrote that
the meaning of the universe "is nothing."
"When I read that I
thought, 'That's not him talking, that's salvia,"