Thursday, October 27, 2005

Herb Alters Reality, But It's Legal

There's a mind-altering drug showing up on Milwaukee-area college campuses that is growing in popularity among students, and it's perfectly legal.

It's an herb in the mint family called salvia divinorum, and it gives users a psychedelic head trip.

WISN 12 News found it in local head shop just off the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee campus.

Nestled among the skateboards and sneakers is the so-called "sacred sage."

The sign advertises salvia as the most potent psychotropic herb on the planet. Prices start at $35 for a few grams and go up to $70 for higher strength.

The clerk said the market is good.

"Kids just want it cause it messes them up," the clerk said.

Clerks at Knuckleheads told 12 News interest in salvia increased after it opened the head shop last spring just off campus. Knuckleheads also sells salvia at its store near University of Wisconsin-Madison.

"So who's buying it?" 12 News investigative reporter Colleen Henry asked.

"College kids. College kids," a store clerk said.

The clerks asked 12 News not to use their names, but said for many kids, salvia is cost-prohibitive.

"They always come in and ask about it, and then they look at the price, and they're like, 'OK, maybe not today." But they do ask about it two or three times a day," a clerk said.

"Is pot cheaper?" Henry asked.

"Yeah," a clerk said.

They even get kids from nearby Riverside High School looking to try it, but the clerks said they won't sell salvia to anyone under 18, even if it is legal.

"We card when you're buying salvia, 'cause, like, better safe than sorry," a clerk said.

The health effects of salvia use are unclear although doctors at Wisconsin's Children's Hospital call it a drug of abuse saying smoking anything is unhealthy.

"The law hasn't caught up to it," University of Wisconsin-Whitewater Professor Stephen Solheim said.

Solheim was an early salvia researcher and was the first to find it in the mountains of Mexico. It is grown by the same Indians famous for growing the psychedelic known as "magic mushrooms."

"People are going to find ways to alter their heads one way or another. People have been doing it for thousands of years, and we're no different," Solheim said.

Solheim said he came down with dysentery while studying in Mexico in a village far from any hospital, so a local woman treated him with salvia divinorum.

"I hallucinated for a few hours. I had giant insects tunneling in my brain for a few hours," Solheim said.

Solheim said in the years since his Mexico research, he's watched the political climate related to hallucinogens change.

In the 1960s, a renowned Harvard botany professor routinely gave students psychedelic plants to try as homework.

"No professor would hand hallucinogens to a student anymore, but think about that, that was only 40 years, that was perfectly acceptable. Then LSD became illegal, and then mushrooms, and now there's a move afoot to make salvia divinorum also illegal,." Solheim said.

The state of Louisiana just outlawed salvia divinorum, and New York and New Jersey have similar bills pending. Congress took up the issue in 2002 after a stabbing involving a 15-year-old Rhode Island boy who reportedly smoked salvia, but that bill failed.

"Just because it's legal doesn't mean something is healthy or safe," Special Agent Chris Hackbarth said.

Hackbarth said the Drug Enforcement Administration supports outlawing salvia, especially because it's popular with kids.

"We can't be proactive because it's not illegal. We can't go out and target the sellers of it because it's not illegal," Hackbarth said.

Back at the head shop, a UW-Milwaukee student doesn't see salvia as a big deal.

"It's an experience. It's nothing too heavy, though, that's for sure. It's not going to be like your heroin or cocaine or even pot or anything. It's not going to compare to it, really," the student said.

Though the staff expect salvia will eventually join the ranks of other illegal psychedelics.

Experts say it's unlikely salvia will ever become a party drug because it tends to make users more introverted.

WISN 12 News surveyed Milwaukee-area police departments.

Some were unfamiliar with it, while others said they don't see it.

At UW-Milwaukee, the police told 12 News that they don't see much Ecstasy either, but they know it's out there, Henry said.

To date, Wisconsin has taken no action to outlaw salvia.

Doctors in Milwaukee told 12 News they know of no medical benefits to using salvia.

Those who sell it actually hand out a fact sheet that warns against using it alone, or while driving.

To be clear, the store where 12 News bought salvia is not doing anything illegal.

The owner told 12 News that he will not sell salvia to anyone under the age of 18.

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