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Salvia, a legal 'high,' is under fire

Purple Haze owner Leo Calzadilla of St. Petersburg stands for a portrait in his store. His customers can legally buy a hallucinogenic plant called salvia divinorum, but Calzadilla compares its mood-enhancing effects with those of liquor.

EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN | Times

Purple Haze owner Leo Calzadilla of St. Petersburg stands for a portrait in his store. His customers can legally buy a hallucinogenic plant called salvia divinorum, but Calzadilla compares its mood-enhancing effects with those of liquor.

It tastes terrible, doesn't always work and lasts just minutes.

But salvia divinorum, a hallucinogenic herb in the sage family, has one thing on LSD:

It's legal.

In Florida, you can buy it as easily as oregano at some tobacco shops. It comes in dried leaves and extracts in escalating concentrations. Or order on the Web and have it delivered right to your door. You don't even have to be 18 to possess it.

The availability worries Florida lawmakers. A bill to make it a controlled substance with a penalty for possession of five years in prison is headed to the floors of the Florida House and Senate.

"We need to do everything we can to protect our children in a world where there are massive temptations," said Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach.

The legislation has revealed an irony about drug classification: If it's legal, people think it's harmless. If it's made illegal, the publicity drums up demand and discourages research that could lead to medicinal uses.

• • •

Salvia divinorum has traveled to head shops from Oaxaca, Mexico, where Mazatecs used it thousands of years ago in ritual practices. The Latin name roughly translates to "diviner's sage."

At Purple Haze Tobacco & Accessories Shop in St. Petersburg, Leo Calzadilla says he's been selling salvia for about four years. He offers several concentrations and amounts, from $12.99 to $39.99. Since it has become illegal in some states, it's more popular than ever.

Salvia use surged in the 1990s as word spread on the Internet. Now, YouTube videos show young people losing coordination — falling off couches, crawling on the floor, slurring speech — after purportedly taking the highest doses. Some are immobile, others laugh hysterically — though never as hard as their friends with the camera.

Calzadilla, who has smoked it several times, calls these people "actors" and says his experiences have been much milder. He doesn't even consider it a hallucinogen, describing its effects as mood-enhancing. He compares it to liquor.

Still, he shrugs at the prospect of taking it off shelves. Taped to the inside of a glass case are several other druglike herbs not in the Legislature's sights.

• • •

The Drug Enforcement Administration, which lists salvia as a drug of concern, says the herb and its active component, Salvinorin A, are potent psychoactive hallucinogens that can make users lose consciousness in high doses. Its toxicity and addictiveness are still being researched.

Only one death has been linked to salvia. The parents of a Delaware teen who committed suicide in 2006 sued a salvia distributor, saying the drug made their son believe life was pointless. The suit is pending.

After that, legislation swept the country. Eight states now regulate it, and at least 18 are considering action, according to a legislative analysis. The federal government has taken steps toward controlling it, but that could be years away.

Surveys suggest it has limited popularity. A 2006 national substance abuse survey showed 1.8-million American teens and adults had tried salvia. Less than half of them reported using it within the previous year.

At the University of Florida, criminologists found 3 percent of students surveyed had tried it in the last year, compared to 34 percent who had used marijuana. Less than 20 percent said they would be likely to try it again.

Authorities with the St. Petersburg police, Tampa police and the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office all said they haven't encountered the drug.

David Khey, a criminology doctoral student who co-authored the UF study, said he thinks salvia needs to come off shelves at head shops. But he doesn't think there's enough evidence to equate it with drugs like heroin and cocaine, especially before researchers have studied it. Some think it has potential as an antidepressant and non-addictive painkiller.

Khey said prescription drug abuse is the truly dangerous trend. But attacking salvia is easier and the political rewards are greater, he said.

"No one's really gotten flak for being hard on drugs," Khey said. "It's always a win for legislators."

Legislative analyses of the bill found that making the drug illegal won't require more prison space or cost the state any money, a boon for lawmakers facing declining revenue and cutbacks. The bill's sponsors — Lynn and Rep. Mary Brandenburg, D-West Palm Beach — say the lack of financial impact doesn't mean the bill would have no effect. They figure people will stop using it if it becomes illegal.

Khey agreed. Unlike other illegal drugs, it doesn't have enough demand to create an underground market, he said.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Stephanie Garry can be reached at sgarry@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2374.

Salvia, a legal 'high,' is under fire 04/11/08 [Last modified: Monday, April 14, 2008 11:51am]

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