Tuesday, May 10, 2005
Legal hallucinogen becomes hot seller
'A real trend'
National Post Abi Roach with a display of the packets of Salvia that she sells in her store, Roach-O-Rama, in the Kensington Market area of Toronto. It is the only drug known to activate a newly discovered brain receptor.The drug activates makes people feel they have been transported to a different place and time.
A powerful, unregulated hallucinogen is growing increasingly popular in Ontario while remaining virtually unknown to police and health officials.
Salvia divinorum, a member of the mint family, originates in Oaxaca, Mexico, where it has been used in shamanism and vision quests for centuries. The leaves are chewed or smoked and are widely available on the internet.
A 14-year-old from Huntsville, Ont., said Salvia is hugely popular among his peers.
"I'd say it's a real trend," said the teen, who asked to remain anonymous.
On April 16 the teen and a friend purchased a gram-sized bag of Salvia for $40.25 from the Silver Daisy Boutique in Huntsville. The 14-year-old went to the woods behind his home to smoke the drug. The effect was instantaneous.
"As soon as I blew out the smoke ... I couldn't move," he said. "I fell and then I just went to a completely different place." The teen saw trees uproot, the world was tinged purple and tiny people pinned him to the ground.
"It was really scary," he admits. As the teen fought his imaginary captors, he repeatedly bashed his head into a rock. Thankfully, his friend cradled the teen's head, preventing serious injury until the trip ended.
Salvia is a hot seller at Toronto's Roach-O-Rama, a smoke shop in Kensington Market. Store manager Christina Yolanda said that Salvia -- and access to the shop -- is restricted to ages 18 and older.
"I can't imagine selling Salvia to a young person, even if it is legal," Ms. Yolanda said. "It's been used as a ceremonial drug to bring on heavy-duty hallucinations and a child is not used to expanding their mind that much."
Roach-o-Rama has sold Salvia for three years and Ms. Yolanda has unwritten rules for customers.
"You have to be in a safe place [to smoke it]," she said. "It's not a party drug. I advise people not to smoke it in a nightclub or anywhere public because you can lose control of your body. Someone could easily take advantage of a person who is on Salvia."
According to a 1994 study by pharmacologist Daniel Seibert, Salvia can cause users to believe they have transformed into objects, such as "yellow plaid French fries, fresh paint, a Ferris wheel, etc." On Seibert's Web site www.sagewisdom.org
, he urges users to "never, ever, attempt to drive under the influence of Salvia - doing so could prove fatal!"
Salvia divinorum is illegal only in Australia. The U.S. Congress has twice tried to bring Salvia under the jurisdiction of the federal Controlled Substances Act, first in 2002 and again in 2003. Currently, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency lists Salvia as a "Drug of Concern," along with cocaine and ecstasy.
While popular in Toronto's drug culture, Salvia remains virtually unknown to authorities.
"I haven't even heard of it," said Constable Wendy Drummond of the Toronto Police. "But that's not to say it's not out there."
Because Salvia is a legal substance, the drug squad would not deal with it, she added.
Toronto Emergency Medical Service spokesman Peter Macintyre said that if EMS did pick up someone under the influence of Salvia, the paramedics would not likely know it.
"[The patient] could just be acting psychotic and we wouldn't know why," he said.
The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health is aware of Salvia divinorum, but spokeswoman Sylvia Hagopian said it is not yet "on the radar screen for 'emerging trends.' "
Hospitals around Toronto had no records of Salvia users turning up in emergency rooms, but that is not surprising, said Dr. Bryan Roth, a professor of biochemistry at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. Dr. Roth led a research team studying Salvinorin A, Salvia's active hallucinogenic compound. His studies show that the effects of Salvinorin A are brief -- lasting no more than 15 minutes -- meaning users would be unlikely to get to the hospital before the drug wore off.
"Salvinorin A is unique," said Dr. Roth. The compound activates a different brain receptor than other hallucinogenic drugs, such as LSD or magic mushrooms. Salvia divinorum is the only drug known to activate this newly discovered "kappa-opioid" receptor, Dr. Roth said.
"As a result, Salvinorin A causes quite a different experience," he explained. "We have coined the term 'spatio-temporal dislocation,' because people frequently have the experience that they are transported to a different place and time. This is very different from LSD-like hallucinations."
Researchers in California are preparing to study the long-term effects of Salvia but, currently, no studies show what the plant does to the brain or the rest of the body over longer periods.
The Huntsville teen immediately told his parents of his terrifying experience with Salvia. Now, his mother wants to see sale of the drug restricted.
"These kids see that it's legal and that's misleading," she said. Merchants who sell the drug to minors are taking advantage of children, she added.
Tony Theos, manager of the Silver Daisy in Huntsville, where the teen purchased the drug, is incredulous.
"There is no age restriction on the product in general," Mr. Theos said. Only one parent, a friend of the 14-year-old's family, had called to complain about Salvia, he said.
"This woman said I was exploiting children. If I were exploiting children, I would be in jail right now."
Health Canada is currently "monitoring" Salvia divinorum, but it is not listed as a controlled substance under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act and there are no plans to add it to the list, according to spokeswoman Nathalie Lalonde.
Despite defending the legality of the drug, Mr. Theos says Salvia is no longer available at the Silver Daisy. He stressed that the decision was made because sales dropped and not as a result from any community pressure.
"The novelty just wore off," he said, but added that the drug is still widely available at other locations in Northern Ontario.
The 14-year-old said he will not be recommending Salvia to his friends.
"I know a girl who was thinking about trying it," he said. "I told her what happened to me. I said: 'Don't even think about it. It's not cool.' "