When Benjiman Madderom, 32, of St. Petersburg, Fla., saw that his state planned to ban the hallucinogenic herb Salvia divinorum, he quickly went to a head shop on Park Boulevard and purchased the powdered leaf in a yellow envelope. He wanted to try smoking "Sally-D" or "Magic Mint," as it's also known, while he still could. He described his experience as "profound" and "otherworldly."
"It actually removes your brain from your body," he said. "You don't exist in the few minutes you're under the influence of a salvia trip."
Madderom says he should be able to consume what he wants, whether it hurts him or not. But it is just that potential for harm that has caused lawmakers in the Sunshine State to ban the sale and possession of salvia by classifying it as a Schedule I hallucinogen, placing it in the same category as heroin, LSD, marijuana, and ecstasy. Passing the State Senate by 39-0 and the House of Representatives by 109-4, the law took effect on July 1, adding Florida to the expanding list of states to outlaw or regulate the herb. Similar bans went into effect in Kansas and Virginia on the same day.
Missouri, Delaware, North Dakota, and Illinois had already passed laws against selling and possessing salvia, and Louisiana, Maine, and Tennessee have restricted its distribution. Bills to ban or control the entire plant or its primary active chemical are pending in a number of other states.
Native to Oaxaca, Mexico, salvia has been used for hundreds of years by the Mazatec Indians to treat a host of ailments, including headaches, rheumatism, and diarrhea. The plant's popularity for other purposes has spiked since the late 1990s, when it first became available from online retailers advertising a spiritual high.
A national survey in 2006 found that about 1.8 million people 12 or older had used salvia in their lifetime, with approximately 750,000 in the past year. Adults were nearly three times as likely as kids ages 12 to 17 to have experimented with the drug that year.
Now, typing the term "salvia" into the search engine of the website "Youtube.com," yields more than 4,600 results. Titles range from "Gardening on Salvia" to "Driving on Salvia." "Anecdotally, YouTube seems to have been an influence," says Florida State Rep. Mary Brandenburg, who co-sponsored the bill to criminalize salvia in her state. "I guess if you're foolish, then you might think the videos of people high and doing stupid things is cool."
Salvia, which is generally smoked through a water pipe but can also be chewed or made into a tea, causes uncontrollable laughter, a sense of loss of body, overlapping realities, dizziness, and slurred speech, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Most don't find using salvia particularly enjoyable, says medical botanist Daniel Siebert, who has tried the drug and spent more than 20 years studying the plant. "It's certainly unusual and can be interesting, but most people don't really like the effects," he says, noting that the high lasts for about five minutes, tapering off over about half-an-hour.
Despite the fact that it makes him "uncomfortable," Siebert says there is no evidence that salvia is an addictive herb; on the contrary, he says, studies show that animals go out of their way to avoid exposure to it, whereas they can become highly addicted to morphine, cocaine, or heroin. He does not think the plant should be "demonized" by Florida and other states. "It can be potentially harmful if used in a very careless way, but so can aspirin and all other kinds of things that we don't seem to worry much about," he says.
Brandenburg says Florida legislators are primarily concerned with salvia's role as a gateway drug. "When the kids get used to using salvia, the idea is that it's a little easier to step across the line and buy drugs that are already illegal," she said. "We wanted to nip that entry level in the bud."
The active ingredient of salvia, a compound called salvinorin A, targets a single receptor site in the brain called the kappa-opioid receptor, according to Bryan Roth, a professor of pharmacology at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine who discovered how salvia works in the brain. Salvinorin A is the strongest naturally occurring hallucinogen, with the same potency as LSD, he says.