Smoking Out 

Tennessee bill bans hallucinogenic herb salvia.

Just 20 miles north of Memphis in Atoka, Tennessee, 17-year-old "Carl" pulls out his bong. But the herb he's smoking is salvia, a hallucinogenic type of sage indigenous to Oaxaca, Mexico.

Though it's been likened to drugs from marijuana to LSD, Salvia divinorum is unique for one reason: It's still legal.

But Governor Phil Bredesen may soon sign a bill that outlaws the sale of salvia in Tennessee for human consumption. The bill has already passed in the state House and Senate, and its sponsor, Senator Tim Burchett, is confident it will be signed into law.

The bill probably won't lead to a huge crackdown on salvia, because a comparatively small amount of people use it. The legislation is meant to make parents aware of the drug's potential dangers.

"There have been some misrepresentations in the media that it's just some common thing," said Burchett. "It's not that popular. But I'm one of those who believes in closing the barn door before the cows get out. ... In certain hands, it could be very dangerous, even lethal."

Tennessee isn't the first state to ban salvia. Last year, Louisiana and Missouri outlawed the drug. Soon after, Delaware did so. Bills are also pending in Oklahoma, Alaska, New Jersey, and New York, foretelling what may soon be a patchwork of state laws.

Studies suggest that salvia is non-addictive and has low toxicity. A salvia buzz usually lasts about 5 to 20 minutes -- modest in comparison to most drugs. And while salvia's effects depend on the dosage and on the user's personal chemistry, it's often more like forced meditation than a trip into fantasyland.

"The experience was close to an intense daydream," said Carl. "Some call it hallucinating, but I think it's different because you don't actually see things. It's more like you're inside your mind. ... Salvia is not a social drug. It's a by-yourself, introspective drug."

Scientist Ara Dermarderosian at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia has spent decades studying the drug. Dermarderosian said that while salvia has medicinal value in some cases, it should not be used otherwise.

"Like LSD, you could have a heavenly reaction, or you could have a hellish reaction," Dermarderosian said. "It's very difficult to know which way one it's going to go."

Guy Yarbro, owner of the Green Orb on Madison Avenue, said he sees little point in banning salvia.

"I have no idea why it's being outlawed," he said, adding that several customers bought it regularly until he stopped selling it a month ago due to Burchett's bill. "It's a sage. People in South America have been using it for years and years."

Some say that legislation banning salvia reflects a cultural bias, as there are fewer prohibitions on more addictive substances such as alcohol and nicotine. Others question how effective the bill will be. Salvia has no odor and is easy to grow, so enforcement will be difficult.

"The main reason I initially tried salvia is because it was legal," said Carl, who first learned of salvia on the Internet and has several friends who smoke it. "I kept using it because it was a very nice experience that lasted a short period of time."

Once local smoke shops stop selling salvia, Carl can buy the herb on the Internet, where it sells for $5 to $50 a gram.

"It isn't hard to find," said Carl, "but in today's world, that shouldn't be a surprise. I could just as easily get my hands on 'shrooms, pot, LSD, cocaine, Ecstasy. You can get whatever you want. It's just a matter of wanting it."

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