An obscure hallucinogenic herb from Mexico has become the latest fashion in
the world of recreational drug-taking.
Suppliers are using a loophole in the law to sell the powerful drug - known
as Lady Salvia or the magic Mexican mint - to young people.
Users have reported sensations of travelling through time and space,
assuming the identities of other people and merging with inanimate objects.
Experts say they are risking their minds, and perhaps their lives, by taking
Salvia divinorum, a type of sage used for thousands of years in Mexican
Indian rituals, is legal in Britain and America and is available on the
Originally found in only one square mile of the Oaxaca region of Mexico, it
is either chewed or smoked and causes a short but intense high. In New York's
Greenwich Village, it has triggered a mini-renaissance of 1960s psychedelic
culture; there is even a rock band called Salvia.
In Amsterdam, where large-scale indoor marijuana growing is now outlawed,
cannabis growers have switched to salvia, flooding the European market.
In Britain there are about a dozen suppliers of dried salvia leaves. Most
do not advertise it as a drug but as incense, mainly through fears that they
will be sued if people are damaged by their experience of taking it.
Experts say the leaves of the plant are often super-impregnated with the
active hallucinatory ingredient salvinorin A to make it up to 20 times
stronger. This enhanced leaf sells for up to £80 a gram.
The drug's increasing popularity, coupled with scientific acknowledgment of
its mind-bending powers, has prompted the Home Office to review its legal
status. But it could take years to ban it.
Dr Tim Kendall, an expert based at the University of Sheffield, said:
"When you take salvia you are playing with fire. People can be very
damaged in terms of their personal functioning. They frequently have
flashbacks that intrude into their life, which can be almost like a
post-traumatic stress problem after very bad experiences."
In 1994 Daniel Seibert, a Californian ethnobotanist, first isolated the
psychotropic part of the herb and tested it on a human - himself - with an
accidental overdose of 2mg of pure salvinorin A.
"One minute I was sitting on my couch expecting nothing to happen and
the next I was in a deep out-of-body experience," he said. "I was
panicking because I felt I must have died."
"After a little while I regained sensory awareness and opened my eyes
and looked around me and realised that I was in my grandparents' home from
when I was a child. I had come back into the wrong place in my life history.
It was extraordinary. The certainty and the detail made it so real."