Herb banned in Missouri shows up on Internet

Sunday, July 22, 2007

In the span of less than a decade, salvia divinorum, a fragrant herb smoked for its hallucinogenic qualities, has run the gamut from a harmless, legal high, to a party drug, to a controlled substance.

In August 2005, Missouri passed a House Bill banning salvia as an illegal drug, yet the popularity of the plant among teens continues to flourish, though it may now be facing a federal ban.

Prized by the Mazatec Indians of Oaxaca, Mexico, its native home, for its use in ritual divination and healing, the plant is a relative of the mint and sage family, with leaves that can cause powerful delusions or hallucinations when smoked.

In May 2007, the National Institute of Drug abuse issued a report warning the public about the ready availability of salvia, even in states where it was banned, via the Internet, and its increasing popularity among teenagers as a recreational drug.

The effects of smoking salvia have been compared to that of mescaline or ketamine, according to the Web site for the Drug Enforcement Administration, which is currently trying to add the plant to the list of illegal controlled substances.

Though the actual process the DEA must go through to get a drug illegalized is classified, DEA spokeswoman Rojene Waite did say that they have been collecting information on salvia in order to show that it meets the eight factors of analysis necessary to register a substance as controlled. (See box above.)

These factors include such red flags as potential and patterns for abuse, scientific proof of the drug's effects, public health risk and links to previously banned substances.

Salvia came up on the radar screen for the DEA because of anecdotal reports of college students abusing the drug, and the push to have it listed as a controlled substance occurred when the data reached a threshold of an actual problem, Waite said.

Currently, Youtube.com has more than 3,000 videos of people, mostly teens, who recorded and posted their "trips" while smoking salvia. There are 84 Facebook groups and 11,900 on MySpace, signifying that despite its ban in six states and tenuous legality on a federal level, it's only getting more popular.

"People ask [for salvia] every day," said Christie Wibbenmeyer, owner of Hempie's, a shop on Themis Street in downtown Cape Girardeau.

Though they haven't carried the herbal extract since 2005, Wibbenmeyer said that prior to the ban, Hempie's sold salvia to at least five customers a day, whose ages varied from 18 to 65.

"It was one of our most popular items," Wibbenmeyer said.

Despite several attempts by state legislature to ban salvia, the drug is still readily available in Illinois, and Wibbenmeyer said many customers still get it from shops across the state lines.

"We haven't run across any too much -- not that it's not out there," said Kevin Glaser, director of the Southeast Missouri State University Drug Task Force.

If salvia's popularity is on the upswing as Internet sites suggest, though, it could present a problem at Southeast Missouri State University shortly because of the large influx of students from St. Louis.

"What's cliquish and popular for them, they bring down here," Glaser said.

The nature of Internet sites like Facebook and MySpace creates an avenue for teens that live in areas where salvia is banned to not only acquire it, but also communicate more effective ways to use it, which happened with methamphetamine, Glaser said.

Waite cautioned potential users to recognize that just because a drug may be legal in some states, does not mean it isn't dangerous.


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