Legally High

For years, many have searched for the legal buzz -- the Holy Grail of drug use. It may be time to call off the search party -- it seems the quest for the perfect legal drug, one that actually kicks your ass the way you want it to, may at long last be over. Until it is banned that is.

Introducing Salvia divinorum, an obscure Mexican herb that contains the hallucinogen Salvinorin A. It's totally legal in the United States -- it's so far managed to slide beneath the Drug Enforcement Administration's radar and remains to this day uncontrolled and unregulated.

No federal laws govern Salvia divinorum, even though by weight the active component of Salvia divinorum is more powerful than that found in peyote, psilocybin mushrooms, or any other natural hallucinogen, says Dr. Ethan Russo, a neurologist from Missoula, Mont., who researched the drug for his book, Handbook of Psycho-tropic Herbs.

"This is not a prevalent agent," says Russo. "Though it needs to be treated with a great deal of respect, it's not inherently dangerous the way a lot of other drugs are."

Salvia divinorum is a type of sage plant that can induce intense hallucinations, out-of-body experiences, and when taken in higher doses, unconsciousness and short-term memory loss. Anecdotal accounts of Salvia trips, provided in encyclopedic detail on websites like www.sagewisdom.org, describe sensations of passing through time and space, assuming the identities of others and even fusing with inanimate objects. More often than not, Salvia is smoked.

"When someone uses Salvia, first of all most people find that nothing happens," says Russo. "When someone does have a full-blown experience, the worst that could happen is two things: First, they will disassociate from their surroundings. Things may not look as they really are in front of them. They could wander off and get hurt. Second, they can scare the heck out of themselves from this experience. It's one reason why most people do not choose to repeat it."

How Salvia divinorum produces its hallucinogenic effects is still something of a mystery to researchers, in that it doesn't work on any neurotransmitter sites affected by other hallucinogens. Although considered a new drug in a strictly "recreational" sense, this hallucinogenic herb has been used for centuries by Mexico's Mazatec Indians for the purposes of divination. Plus, science has known of Salvia for at least 40 years. Researchers continue to study it because the effects of Salvia on the brain and body aren't fully understood.

Salvia has never been more popular outside of the confines of Mexico than it is today. It's only been within the last five years or so that this herb has started gaining in popularity with recreational drug users. That, says Daniel Siebert, a neophyte botanist living in Malibu, Calif., could be problematic.

"It's not an alternative to anything," says Siebert, who sells Salvia divinorum through his website, www.sagewisdom.org, for as much as $120 an ounce. "Salvia has unique effects that are distinctive. People who are interested in a recreational, social kind of drug experience, something that might be equivalent to marijuana or ecstasy, are just disappointed in Salvia because most people are interested in a more recreational thing, something with a mild effect that they can handle more easily."

Siebert says he too fears Salvia divinorum's criminalization. "It's got useful properties and certainly a lot of people are using it that way so making it illegal would be a shame because you're taking something away from people that's very beneficial," he says.

Russo says there's no real potential for abuse -- as there is with most illegal substances -- with Salvia divinorum, a drug he classifies as a "disassociative hallucinogen." Should the DEA step in and set controls on its use, "it would make it more attractive to people," Russo predicts.

Russo also fears strict controls could cripple ongoing research: "This is a fascinating agent from a biochemical standpoint," he says. "Salvinorin A has been tested against 100 different neurotransmitter systems with no clear explanation for its mechanism of action. It's totally possible that Salvia divinorum will lead us to a new understanding of neurotransmitter systems in our brain."

Now for the bad news. The recent surge in popularity has helped make DEA officials aware of its recreational uses. Says a DEA spokesperson: "It's not currently controlled and we're actually collecting information on it." Stock up now, kids!

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