Pubdate: Tue, 9 Sep 2008
Source: New York Times (NY)
Page: 1, Section A, Front Page
Copyright: 2008 The New York Times Company
Author: Kevin Sack and Brent McDonald
Cited: Representative Charles Anderson of Waco
Cited: California Pacific Medical Center Research Institute
Bookmark: (Hallucinogens)


DALLAS -- With a friend videotaping, 27-year-old Christopher Lenzini 
of Dallas took a hit of Salvia divinorum, regarded as the world's 
most potent hallucinogenic herb, and soon began to imagine, he said, 
that he was in a boat with little green men. Mr. Lenzini quickly 
collapsed to the floor and dissolved into convulsive laughter.

When he posted the video on YouTube this summer, friends could not 
get enough. "It's just funny to see a friend act like a total idiot," 
he said, "so everybody loved it."

Until a decade ago, the use of salvia was largely limited to those 
seeking revelation under the tutelage of Mazatec shamans in its 
native Oaxaca, Mexico.

Today, this mind-altering member of the mint family is broadly 
available for lawful sale online and in head shops across the United States.

Though older Americans typically have never heard of salvia, the 
psychoactive sage has become something of a phenomenon among this 
country's thrill-seeking youth.

More than 5,000 YouTube videos -- equal parts "Jackass" and "Up in 
Smoke" -- document their journeys into rubber-legged incoherence.

Some of the videos have been viewed half a million times.

Yet these very images that have helped popularize salvia may also 
hasten its demise and undermine the promising research into its 
possible medical uses.

Pharmacologists who believe salvia could open new frontiers for the 
treatment of addiction, depression and pain fear that its 
criminalization would make it burdensome to obtain and store the 
plant, and difficult to gain government permission for tests on human 
subjects. In state after state, however, including here in Texas, the 
YouTube videos have become Exhibit A in legislative efforts to 
regulate salvia. This year, Florida made possession or sale a felony 
punishable by 15 years in prison. California took a gentler approach 
by making it a misdemeanor to sell or distribute to minors.

"When you see it, well, it sure makes a believer out of you," said 
Representative Charles Anderson of Waco, a Republican state lawmaker 
who is sponsoring one of several bills to ban salvia in Texas.

When the federal government this year published its first estimates 
of salvia use, the data astonished many: some 1.8 million people had 
tried it in their lifetimes, including 750,000 in the previous year. 
Among males 18 to 25, where consumption is heaviest, nearly 3 percent 
reported using salvia in the previous year, making it twice as 
prevalent as LSD and nearly as popular as Ecstasy.

Recent studies at college campuses on both coasts have yielded 
estimates as high as 7 percent. The herb's presence on military ships 
and bases has prompted enough concern about readiness that the Armed 
Forces Institute of Pathology was asked to develop the first 
urinalysis for salvia and is now testing 50 samples a month.

Though research is young and little is known about long-term effects, 
there are no studies suggesting that salvia is addictive or its users 
prone to overdose or abuse. Indeed, a salvia experience can be so 
intense, and at times so unsettling, that many try it just once, and 
even devotees use it sparingly.

Reports of salvia-related emergency room admissions are virtually 
nonexistent, likely because its effects typically vanish in just a few minutes.

With little data at its disposal, the Drug Enforcement Administration 
has spent more than a decade studying whether to add salvia to its 
list of controlled substances, as is the case in several European and 
Asian countries. In the meantime, 13 states and several local 
governments have banned or otherwise regulated the plant and its 
chemically enhanced extracts.

Known on the street by nicknames like Sally D and Magic Mint, salvia 
can have vastly different effects depending on dose, potency and the 
mindset and tolerance of its users, according to researchers and 
experienced smokers (though bitter, it can also be chewed or consumed 
as a tincture). Dozens of online vendors sell mild extracts for as 
little as $5 a gram; the strongest, at up to 100 times the potency of 
the raw leaf, sell for more than $50.

Users often report a sudden dissociation from self, as if traveling 
through time. The experience tends to be solitary, introspective and 
sometimes fearful: a 2003 bulletin from the Department of Justice 
concluded that salvia was unlikely ever to become a party drug.

"I've used several psychedelics, and salvia's definitely the most 
intense experience that I've had," said Brian D. Arthur, founder of 
Mazatec Garden, which sells salvia and other herbs online from a 
nondescript house in Houston. "Salvia takes you out of the world and 
puts you in a different place."

Regular users say it can be a restorative, even spiritual tonic, and 
recall their visualizations with precision.

One night in August, Nathan K., a 29-year-old father of three from 
Waco, stretched back in his blue recliner and took a long, purposeful 
drag from his pipe. As he closed his eyes, he found himself 
transported into a dream state, he said, as if drifting down a rain 
forest river. A beatific smile spread lightly across his face.

The effects dissipated after five minutes, leaving him with a sense 
of well-being. It was, he said, as if a masseuse had rubbed out the 
knots in his psyche. "Just a very gentle letting go, a very gentle 
relaxing," Nathan said on the condition that he not be fully identified.

Those who support the contemplative use of salvia disdain the 
YouTubers for disrespecting the herb's power and purpose.

"They're not really taking it as a tool to explore their inner 
psyche," said Daniel J. Siebert, a Californian who pioneered the 
production of salvia extracts. "They're just taking it to get messed up."

At a legislative hearing near Dallas in August, Mr. Anderson argued 
that by not banning salvia, governments were communicating that it is 
benign. He noted that Internet purveyors advise that salvia should be 
used only with a "sober sitter," and said its legal status might 
encourage experimentation among some who would never consider a 
back-alley drug deal.

He also told his colleagues about a video that depicts a salvia user 
behind the wheel of a car. (In fact, that video, "Driving on Salvia," 
is one in a series of popular parodies featuring Erik J. Hoffstad, a 
production assistant in Los Angeles. In the two-and-a-half minute 
film, Mr. Hoffstad smokes salvia from a bong in a parked car -- his 
friends made sure he did not have the real keys -- and then freaks 
out when a cat unexpectedly pounces on the windshield.)

"What we really worry about," Mr. Anderson said at the hearing, "is 
youngsters doing this and then getting in a vehicle or getting on a 
motorcycle or jumping in a pool somewhere."

There have been rare claims of salvia-related deaths, but the links 
are speculative.

In March, Mario G. Argenziano, a 42-year-old restaurant manager from 
Yonkers, shot himself in the face 10 minutes after smoking salvia, a 
police report quoted his wife, Anna Argenziano, as saying. Ms. 
Argenziano said her husband, a gun collector and marksman, retrieved 
a handgun from a bedside table to show friends, then pointed it at 
himself and acted confused.

"Before the shot was fired, he was laughing," Ms. Argenziano said. 
She said her husband had no psychiatric history; Yonkers police said 
they could not determine salvia's role.

In 2006, Brett Chidester, a 17-year-old described by his family as a 
model student with no history of mental illness, committed suicide in 
Delaware at a time when he was apparently smoking salvia several 
times a week. Entries in his journal, provided by his mother, suggest 
that his salvia use influenced feelings that "our existence in 
general is pointless."

Several months later, a medical examiner changed Mr. Chidester's 
death certificate to list his salvia use as a contributing factor. 
Delaware's Legislature immediately banned salvia by passing a bill it 
called Brett's Law.

Such laws could pose a substantial burden to researchers at 
institutions like Harvard and the University of Kansas who are 
convinced that salvia's active compound, Salvinorin A, holds great 
promise and will aid in the development of new lines of pain and 
psychiatric medications.

In 2002, Dr. Bryan L. Roth, now of the University of North Carolina 
at Chapel Hill, discovered that Salvinorin A, perhaps uniquely, 
stimulates a single receptor in the brain, the kappa opioid receptor. 
LSD, by comparison, stimulates about 50 receptors. Dr. Roth said 
Salvinorin A was the strongest hallucinogen gram for gram found in nature.

Though Salvinorin A, because of its debilitating effects, is unlikely 
to become a pharmaceutical agent itself, its chemistry may enable the 
discovery of valuable derivatives. "If we can find a drug that blocks 
salvia's effects, there's good evidence it could treat brain 
disorders including depression, schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, maybe 
even H.I.V.," Dr. Roth said.

Many scientists believe salvia should be regulated like alcohol or 
tobacco, but worry that criminalization would encumber their research 
before it bears fruit.

"We have this incredible new compound, the first in its class; it 
absolutely has potential medical use, and here we're talking about 
throttling it because some people get intoxicated on it," said Dr. 
John Mendelson, a pharmacologist at the California Pacific Medical 
Center Research Institute who, with federal financing, is studying 
salvia's impact on humans. "It couldn't be more foolish from a 
business point of view."

Though states are moving quickly, Bertha K. Madras, a deputy director 
of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, said federal 
regulators remained in a quandary.

"The risk of any drug that is intoxicating is high," Dr. Madras said. 
"You're one car ride away from an event that could be life-altering. 
But in terms of really good studies, there is just very little. So 
what do you do? How do you make policy in the absence of good hard 
cold information?" 
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