More than 9,000 videos like this populate YouTube. They feature people high on salvia, a natural herb with hallucinogenic properties. While the drug is illegal in some states, salvia divinorum is legal in California and may be purchased at local smoke shops, including two in Brentwood. The drug can also be purchased online through head shops and venues such as eBay. The price ranges from $10 to $25 for 5x, the lowest-potency salvia. It’s cheaper to purchase salvia online, as it can cost up to $50 for 20 mg of potency 20x in the smoke shops.
The high from salvia is reportedly instantaneous. Most people describe sensations of seeing vivid colors, bright lights, object distortion and sluggish body control, an experience that appealed to Kevin (an alias used to protect the source’s identity), a Liberty High School freshman who experimented with the drug and said other students at Liberty and Heritage high schools are using the substance, although the number of students using the drug is unclear. Within his circle of friends, Kevin said he knows of approximately 15 people who use it on a regular basis.
“My friend told me about it,” Kevin said. “She said she tried it and thought it was cool – that it felt good … You can get it on campus, but most people get it through the smoke shop.”
According to a 2006 survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, males between the ages of 18 to 25 are the primary users of salvia, and about 750,000 Americans over the age of 12 have reported using the substance.
While it’s illegal for minors to purchase salvia in California, Kevin pooled his money with friends and persuaded a 20-year old acquaintance to purchase it for them. The boys went to a friend’s house to smoke it. Kevin said that after trying the drug, his body felt heavy and he couldn’t stop laughing, but that was it. Unsatisfied with his experience, he looked forward to trying it again.
Kevin’s second trip never took place. His stepfather intercepted a text message from one of Kevin’s friends asking about the drug, and the teenager was immediately grounded.
Gloria (also an alias), Kevin’s mother, said she is frustrated with her son and the fact that salvia is legal in California and easily obtained by minors.
“I am so hurt that he would do something like this,” Gloria said. “I don’t get it. I’d never even heard of salvia, and after the research I’ve done, I can’t understand why anyone would want to try that stuff. And to find out that his friend told him that she was drooling on herself while she was high on it, and he still wanted to do it … I don’t get it. It’s so frustrating.”
The only recorded death linked to salvia occured in 2006 in Delaware. Eightee-year-old Brett Chidester committed suicide while high on the drug. His mother, Kathleen, lobbied for and helped pass legislation known as Brett’s Law, making salvia illegal in the state. Nine states have since adopted laws banning the sale and use of the drug.
California Representative Joe Baca, a Democrat, created bill HR 5607 in order to amend the Controlled Substance Act to include salvia in 2002, but the bill never made it to a vote. Assemblyman Anthony Adams, a Republican from Hesperia, submitted a bill in 2008 that would have made the drug illegal in California. Adams’ bill was revised to put a restriction on salvia purchase but not ban the drug. Three other states enforce similar laws that prohibit the sale of salvia to minors.
The problem with passing legislation on a national level is that little is known about salvia. Legislation banning or restricting sale of the drug has failed in 10 states because legislators did not have enough compelling evidence to ban the natural substance. Researchers are only beginning to understand the long-term effects of the drug, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which speculates that the long term effects could be similar to hallucinogens such as LSD.
The DEA is currently investigating salvia for possible classification as a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substance Act, which would classify the drug as a substance with high potential for abuse and no accepted medical benefits.
Supporters of salvia such as Daniel Siebert, pharmacologist and founder of the Salvia Divinorum Research and Information Center, object to the comparison to the chemical compound LSD, since salvia is a natural herb. On the organization’s Web site, Siebert suggests that salvia might even be used to treat LSD addiction because the effects are similar, but salvia leaves the system within 30 minutes. LSD’s effects can last for up to 12 hours. He speculates that salvia’s ability to stunt pain receptors in the brain could also make the drug a candidate to be used as a form of anesthetic.
Kevin said that if he hadn’t been caught, he would have tried the drug again until he got a more intense high. As part of his punishment, Kevin was asked to research the drug and report his findings to his mother. Despite seeing the “bad trips” on YouTube, he said he’d still try it again if he had the chance.
“I’m not really concerned about the negative effects that I’ve read about or seen,” Kevin said. “I don’t know anyone who’s had a bad experience. I didn’t have a bad reaction and none of my other friends have, either.”
Since Kevin expressed interest in trying the drug again, Gloria set up a drug counseling appointment with Kaiser Permanente. The counseling only lasted a few sessions when it was determined there was no course for treating salvia use, since the drug isn’t addictive and leaves the body quickly.
Gloria said she’s perturbed that nothing more can be done and that high school officials seem to be largely unaware of the drug’s existence on campus.
Liberty High School Assistant Principal Jim Bruce said Liberty staff is slowly learning more about the drug, but he’s not aware of any sales of salvia on campus.
“Salvia has just recently come to our attention, and it’s disturbing that it’s legal in California,” Bruce said. “There have been no reports of students using it on campus, but as we do more research, we will have to come up with a strategy to educate the staff about the warning signs so that we can be on the lookout.”
Sgt. Mark Misquez of the Brentwood Police Department said school resource officers have been made aware of the drug, but no incidents regarding the use or sale of salvia have been reported at local schools or in Brentwood as a whole.
Misquez said parents should call police dispatch if their child has obtained salvia. While possession is not a crime, it’s illegal to sell, furnish, and purchase the substance for a minor, as in Kevin’s case. To report an incident, call 925-778-2441.
Until salvia is banned in California, Gloria said she will conduct at-home drug tests to ensure that Kevin stays away from salvia and other drugs, as he also admitted to smoking marijuana.
“I don’t know what else I can do,” Gloria said. “I’ll do whatever it takes to make sure he stays away from this stuff. I’m more nervous now than ever. He knows that it’s stupid, but it’s not sinking in. I don’t know what else to do to get through to him.”
The California Attorney General’s Crime and Violence Prevention Center suggests that parents help their children resist the urge to experiment with drugs such as salvia by setting consistent boundaries and establishing consequences for inappropriate behavior. The site advises parents to encourage their children to get involved in school or in community activities that will boost their self esteem, and the site recommends that parents keep track of their kids’ friends and get to know the friends’ parents when possible to steer children away from bad influences.
For more tips for helping kids stay away from drugs, download the educational booklet “Drugs and Youth” at www.safestate.org.
For more information about salvia, visit the Drug Enforcement Administration at www.usdoj.gov/dea/concern/salvia_divinorum.html; the Salvia Divinorum Research and Information Center at www.sagewisdom.org; or the comprehensive educational site www.salvia.net.