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Last fall Anderson told the Waco Tribune-Herald that “with a single use [salvia smokers] can cause some serious, serious damage to their brain.” Roth, the salvia researcher, says “there’s no evidence for that statement.” In fact, says Siebert, animal studies of salvia give “no indication of it having any significant toxic effects, even at doses that are hundreds of times more than what humans would ordinarily use.” Even salvia’s detractors concede that addiction does not seem to be an issue, since few people who try the drug want to use it on a regular basis. Despite a dramatic increase in use during the last few years, emergency rooms are not seeing a flood, or even a trickle, of salvia users, probably because a hospital trip usually takes longer than a salvia trip.
The lack of alarming statistics helps explain why the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which has the power to ban psychoactive substances without new legislation, is still waiting and watching six years after declaring salvia a “drug of concern.” DEA spokesman Rusty Payne says, “I don’t think we have enough information yet.” And there’s no telling when they will. “It’s going to take a while,” Payne says. “If we decide to schedule [salvia], we’ll publish a notice [in the Federal Register]. If we don’t, we won’t.” Although Payne says the delay should not be read as a judgment on salvia’s dangers, the DEA can act much more quickly when it wants to, as when it banned MDMA on an emergency basis in 1985. “When they say they’ve been looking at it for years,” says Rick Doblin, “it means it’s not much of a problem.”
Nor is salvia a high priority at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Officially, the FDA says herbal products like salvia are “unapproved new drugs” and “misbranded drugs” if they are “marketed with claims implying that these products mimic the effects of controlled substances.” Products are deemed to be “illegal street drug alternatives” when they are “intended to be used for recreational purposes to effect psychological states (e.g., to get high, to promote euphoria, or to induce hallucinations).”
“I am aware of that law,” says Arena Ethnobotanicals CEO John Boyd, “and that’s why if you check our website there are no references to anything like that.” Many salvia vendors do tout the psychoactive effects of their products, promising “psychedelic,” “visionary,” “enlightening,” and “enjoyable” experiences. Yet except for two warning letters it sent in 2002, the FDA does not seem to have taken any enforcement actions against companies that sell salvia. While FDA spokesman Christopher Kelly says “we do not discuss potential, pending, or ongoing actions,” none of the distributors I interviewed was aware of any recent warnings or seizures.
As for Congress, Rep. Joe Baca (D-Calif.) introduced a bill to ban salvia in 2002, declaring, “We know very little about the drug, but what we do know is frightening. This drug’s power is beyond anything we have seen before.” But the bill died in committee, and Baca never reintroduced it. I contacted his office a couple of times to find out why but did not get an answer.
‘Our Existence in General Is Pointless’
By contrast, there’s been a flurry of anti-salvia activity at the state level in the last few years. With so little evidence that salvia is hazardous, prohibitionists lean heavily on anecdotes. Ohio state Rep. Thom Collier (R-Mount Vernon), who introduced a salvia ban that took effect in April, said he was motivated by the death of a Loudonville boy who was shot by a friend. But according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, “it isn’t clear whether the friend was on the drug when he shot and killed the 12-year-old.” The Columbus Dispatch notes “there was no direct evidence…that the shooting was drug-related.”
Similarly, when Rep. Baca proposed a federal salvia ban in 2002, he cited the case of Daniel Moffa, a 15-year-old Rhode Island boy who smoked salvia one morning and stabbed his pot dealer on the way to school. Moffa later told WPRI, the Fox affiliate in Providence, that he was “paranoid” and “hallucinating,” thinking the dealer looked “evil” and “horrible.” The story sounded fishy to Daniel Siebert, since he didn’t think a salvia user on a trip that intense would be able to coordinate his movements well enough to meet someone and repeatedly stab him. Still, Moffa’s parents initially blamed salvia for the assault because “we had no other plausible explanation,” the boy’s father explained in a 2007 email message to Siebert. Since then, the father said, “we have found out that Dan suffers from bipolar affective disorder with psychosis.” While “the salvia may have contributed to an episode,” he added, it “was not the real cause.”
The most influential salvia horror story involves Brett Chidester, a Wilmington, Delaware, 17-year-old who in January 2006 pitched a tent in his parents’ garage, went inside it with a burning charcoal grill, and stayed there until he was dead from carbon monoxide poisoning. Brett had been experimenting with salvia and claimed it had given him profound insights. “Salvia allows us to give up our senses and wander in the interdimensional time and space,” he wrote in an essay discovered after his death. “Also, and this is probably hard for most to accept, our existence in general is pointless. Final point: Us earthly humans are nothing.”
A month after Brett’s death, his mother, Kathy Chidester, told the Wilmington News-Journal: “We just won’t have any answers, and we have to learn to accept that. But my gut feeling is it was the salvia. It’s the only thing that can explain it.” A month later, the state legislature had approved Brett’s Law, which made salvia a Schedule I drug. The same week the ban took effect, Delaware’s deputy chief medical examiner, Adrienne Sekula-Perlman, changed Brett’s death certificate, adding “salvia divinorum use” as a contributing cause.
Since then Kathy Chidester has campaigned for similar laws across the country, and 15 more states have either banned salvia or (in the case of California and Maine) prohibited sales to minors. The laws all passed by overwhelming margins, in some cases unanimously. Anti-salvia bills have been introduced in at least 22 other states. “My hope and goal is to have salvia regulated across the U.S.,” Chidester wrote in testimony supporting the proposed salvia ban in Maryland last January. “It’s my son’s legacy and I will not end my fight until this happens.”
Appel, the Tiffin University psychologist, does not think salvia should be legal for general use, but he is reluctant to draw any firm conclusions about Brett Chidester’s death. “I wouldn’t feel comfortable saying it caused him to commit suicide,” he says. Such explanations, he adds, are “a way to try to make sense of something that’s pretty senseless. We’re always looking for rationalizations and reasons, particularly when there aren’t any.”
Roth, the University of North Carolina psychiatrist, is also opposed to using salvia recreationally, partly because of the psychological risks. But he says it’s difficult to say what role the drug might have played in Brett Chidester’s suicide. Although “it’s tragic that this young guy killed himself,” he says, “there’s no way of knowing if salvia had anything to do with it.…There have been a couple of reports of people having long-term psychotic episodes after smoking it that have appeared in the literature. It would seem, given the apparent widespread use of salvia, that if these are side effects, they don’t occur at very high prevalence. Otherwise, the ERs would be filled with people having bad salvia reactions.”
Siebert concedes that salvia “might have influenced [Brett Chidester’s] thinking in some way” but adds: “He must have already had some thoughts about suicide. I don’t think salvia’s just going to put thoughts into peoples’ heads. Mentally healthy people don’t decide to take such a drastic action based on [an idea] they had during a drug state. Psychedelics basically amplify a lot of your own internal stuff. If you’re already having some kind of dark thoughts, a psychedelic experience could amplify that, and it could lead to a problem for some people.”
Notably, there is no indication that Brett Chidester was under the influence of salvia when he killed himself. The idea seems to be that using the drug encouraged him to reach conclusions about the nature of life that were conducive to suicide. That theory, notes Richard Glen Boire, a senior fellow at the Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics, “could apply to some of the greatest pieces of art in the history of the world. It would make Nietzsche a controlled substance. There is a lot of cultural production out there that shows a way of looking at the world that isn’t all sunny and rosy.”