This is a Blast Magazine enterprise piece.
Anthony* sits on his bed across from two friends in his Boston apartment. There’s a fan blowing next to his bed. Dave Matthews Band is playing in the background as he takes out his bong and begins to pack it with Salvia extract, a legal drug that grows in the mountainous region of Oaxaca, Mexico. Anthony purchased the drug earlier that day at Kang’s Corner, a head shop and convenience store located on the corner of Gainsborough Street and St. Stephen Street.
The senior music major at Northeastern University takes two hits from the bong and looks at his friends and shrugs. He hasn’t felt anything yet. He then packs the bong again and takes another two hits, this time inhaling more deeply, and for a few moments he appears to be in another world.
“Can I have a glass of water?” Anthony asks his friend. He grips the glass with both hands and seems to be struggling to bring it to his mouth, claiming that the fan is going to blow him away.
Anthony gives up on trying to drink the water. Still holding the glass, he is staring at his friends with a confused look. As he is clearly entering into a deeper stage in his trip Anthony asks, "Who put on the tribal music?"
His reaction demonstrates just some of the effects of smoking Salvia divinorum leaves or extract, sometimes know as Diviner’s Sage. Besides hallucinations, other effects include altered perceptions, change in body temperature and panic. Often among college students like Anthony, Salvia has recently become popular because of its unique effects. It’s also legal in almost every state.
“It’s like your mind is thrown into a centripetal force. Like it’s being pulled away from itself,” said Chris*, who extracts and sells Salvia on his Web site, www.salvialight.com.
Salvia is legal in most states. Other drugs like cocaine, LSD and ecstasy were once legal as well. They were used in a controlled manner for scientific, medicinal and therapeutic purposes. But once the general public got a hold of these drugs and began abusing them, they became regulated and controlled substances.
Dr. Ara DerMarderosian believes the popularity of Salvia has increased because other drugs are not readily available.
"Young people decided they’d get high on something else," said the professor of pharmacology at University of the Sciences in Pennsylvania.
The recreational misuse of Salvia might lead to increased regulations in the rest of the country, according to DerMarderosian.
"It depends on the generation. If enough people get hurt, eventually it will become illegal," said DerMarderosian.
Brett Chidester, 17, of Wilmington, Del., committed suicide earlier this year after smoking Salvia. He left a suicide note describing the experiences he had with Salvia, claiming he knew the secrets of life. Sen. Karen Peterson (D – DE) is now trying to get a bill passed that will ban Salvia in the state.
So far, Chidester’s is the only reported incident in which injury appears to be a direct result from using Salvia. For now, Salvia continues to be sold legally, mostly available on the Internet and in head shops.
In 2004, researchers conducted a survey on Salvia, which questioned 500 people and found that certain effects of the drug lingered in some people. For example, 47 percent of those questioned claimed to have increased insight. Also, about 32 percent of users felt like they were floating and claimed that things felt unreal to them.
"I expected it would have the same effect on the brain as LSD does, and was very surprised when they found out it did not. It was very different than anything we’d seen before," said Jay McLaughlin, a psychology professor at Northeastern University. "Right now, the psychological effects differ, but many people will suffer hallucinations.”
Why Salvia affects the brain the way it does remains a mystery to scientists.
About five minutes after Anthony took those last two hits from his bong, he came back to reality.
"Whoa. That was ridiculous," he said groggily, rubbing his eyes. He looks at his friends. "I swear you two turned into trees and I was walking through a forest in this like Tarzan outfit. I mean, I could feel myself sitting on the bed, but I was definitely not here."
Although not primarily popular in the United States in the past, Salvia has been around for hundreds of years, experts say.
Salvia is a plant native to the mountainous region of Oaxaca, Mexico, according to Eduardo Butelman, a research assistant professor at Rockefeller University in New York. Indigenous people use it for traditional medicinal practices, Butelman said.
Salvia has been associated with the Mazatec people, who likely used it in healing rituals, researchers say. According to Butelman, Salvia was used under specific conditions, prescribed in the form of a leaf. The Mazatecs used it to ease the suffering that the sick and dying felt. It was also used to treat certain medical conditions, including headaches, anemia and rheumatoidism, as well as in divination rituals.
Salvia has been found to grow specifically in the Sierra Mazateca region of Oaxaca. The Aztec people inhabited this region between the 13th and 16th centuries, so there has been some speculation as to whether or not they knew of Salvia as well.
"It’s a form of communication with a higher force," said Chris, who uses Salvia as well as sells it.