(Reuters) – Native Americans have known about the therapeutic powers of “divine sage” for centuries, and it is still legal in most parts of the United States. But there are moves afoot to outlaw what some describe as a mind-altering drug similar to LSD.
As lawmakers debate the obscure Mexican plant officially called “salvia divinorum,” and as more Americans smoke or chew it, some scientists are studying its potential therapeutic effects including whether it can help cocaine addicts break the habit.
“We had a few isolated reports of problems associated with its use,” said Gary Kendell, director of state drug control policy in Iowa which introduced a bill in January to ban it.
“It’s an attempt to be ahead of the game and maybe take care of it before it becomes a problem,” he said.
Five U.S. states have outlawed it in the last two years including Delaware, where a teenager who suffered from depression and smoked salvia committed suicide in 2006.
Eight more states — California, Iowa, North Dakota, Oregon, Alaska, Illinois, Utah and New Jersey — may follow. Lawmakers in New York and Maine, fearing its effects on children, are debating bills to ban its sale to minors.
Utah state Rep. Paul Ray, 40, told Reuters he was confident about the Utah bill’s chance of success. “It takes 38 votes to pass a bill and I may have 38 co-sponsors” this month when it could reach the floor of the state Legislature, he said.
A federal bill that would have banned it nationwide died in committee in 2002. Several European countries have already made the plant illegal.
LIKE AN ‘ITCHY WOOL SWEATER’
But not everyone wants it outlawed.
Daniel Siebert, 46, of Malibu , California, recalls the sensation of chewing a large bundle of the leaves for the first time more than 10 years ago.
“After 15 to 20 minutes I was overwhelmed by this pleasant vision of spirits in the mountains,” said Siebert, whose experience led him to start a mail-order salvia business.
He wants it to remain legal but says the government should ban its sale to minors and regulate it.
Among the glass pipes, temporary tattoo stickers and Rastafarian jewelry at Buried Treasures, a shop tucked in an alley in Boston, a large poster touts its effects: “Satisfaction guaranteed or your money back.”
Jeff Luciano, who owns salvia wholesaler NAP & Associates in upstate New York, said the number of retailers that his company sells to has increased by 50 percent since last year,
“We are seeing a solid increase in sales over the past 12 to 18 months,” he said. Brian Del-Rey, the President of Club13, another large salvia distributor, added: “Interest has increased significantly in the last calendar year.”
Canadian Fred Lemire, 37, compared it to wearing an itchy wool sweater which was too small and feeling like his head was spinning. Luckily, he said, it lasted only 5 minutes.
Lemire’s friend Jean-Sebastien Lachapelle, 33, who smoked salvia leaves with him, said he felt like a lid was closing in on him and the couch he was sitting in was going to swallow him. Both men said the experience wasn’t pleasant.
“It’s a very interesting compound,” said Roland Griffiths, a professor of neuroscience at John Hopkins University, who will conduct the first controlled trials to characterize salvia’s effects on humans. “It provides a window into brain function and may have therapeutic implications.”
Thomas Prisinzano, an assistant professor of medicinal and natural products chemistry at the University of Iowa, said salvia may help doctors treat cocaine addicts.
He is doing trials on rats to test Salvinorin A, the active ingredient in salvia divinorum leaves, as a remedy to cocaine and methamphetamine addiction. The research is funded by a grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
“You can give a rat free access to cocaine, give them free access to Salvinorin A, and they stop taking cocaine,” Prisinzano said, explaining that the goal of his project is to change the structure of the Salvinorin A molecule to retain its anti-addictive properties, while eliminating the hallucinogenic effects. There are currently no anti-addiction medicines for cocaine and methamphetamine users.
Although politicians have compared salvia to the hallucinogenic drug LSD, Prisinzano said the plant has more in common with opiates, such as morphine.
It works by affecting natural opioid receptors in the brain, places where morphine and related opiates work. “It’s definitely a pain killer, at least in animal studies, just like a typical opiate,” he said. “It appears to alter hormone levels like other opiates.”
But unlike morphine and heroine, Prisinzano said he hasn’t seen any studies showing that salvia is addictive.