KEVIN SACK and BRENT McDONALD
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.
Brandon Thibodeaux for The New York Times
Nathan K. calls his use of salvia “just a very gentle letting go, a very gentle relaxing.”
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.