Issue Date: February 02, 2004

Tales from the Salvia dark side

By Nicole Gaudiano
Times staff writer

Picture yourself in a kind of force field that's pulling you strongly toward its source, outside your house. You feel uncomfortable. You feel possessed by something.

That's how one user of Salvia divinorum described his experience on the Web site, "The Vaults of Erowid.”

Another user of the hallucinogenic herb felt his head spinning around and then it seemed as though he lost contact with his body. "I began to think I had someone else in my head trying to stop me from coming back to reality,” the user wrote.

Another: "I began to hear more voices from the park behind my house (giggling and yelling) so, without thinking, I ran out there. Still in my boxers, I found nothing but darkness. I was terrified so I ran through the woods to my best friend's house (about a mile away) … There he put a fan on me (I was sweating rivers) and in about 10 minutes I calmed down.

"Salvia was the most terrifying experience I have ever been a part of,” he wrote. "I went absolutely insane.”

Salvia divinorum, known to induce out-of-body experiences, sensations of traveling through time and space, and feelings of merging with inanimate objects, is legal to possess.

Proponents say Salvia can be used in a way that's safe and conducive to meditation and self-reflection. But anecdotal evidence may suggest otherwise.

While the herb is new to the U.S. drug scene -- it surfaced within the past two years -- it's even newer to the military. Drug investigators at Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., came across it at drug paraphernalia stores off base last fall. Based on intelligence from the "head shop” owners, they estimate more than 100 airmen are buying the herb.

No evidence of use has been found at Tinker so far, though airmen on the base have been warned that it's against Air Force policy to take mind-altering drugs -- even if they are legal.

To research the drug, Ven Sova, of Tinker's Joint Drug Enforcement Team, said he turned to "The Vaults of Erowid.” After reading through a few testimonies, he said, "My impression is most of them were scared to death of this stuff. They had such a traumatic experience, they weren't likely to go back and use it again.”

While proponents call the herb all-natural and introspective, Jim Mock calls that rationalization.

"Timothy Leary was saying the same things about LSD back in the '60s,” said Mock, a drug-recognition expert and retired police officer.

Inducing self-reflection only is part of what a hallucinogen can do, he said. The other part can depend on the person's mind-set and the setting in which it is taken, he said. When people take the drug when they're depressed, he said, it's going to give them a bad experience.

Daniel Siebert, a self-taught botanist who sells the herb on the Internet, said he's taken it in various contexts. He visited the Mezatec Indians in Mexico and smoked the plant with a traditional healer, but he's also experimented with it at home.

"I find it helpful when I'm trying to examine things,” he said. "It's almost like going to a therapist and talking things out.”

One Erowid writer claimed to have had discussions with the plant about the plant's own feelings and wrote the plant was "very intelligent.”

Siebert said using the herb is best suited for a quiet, comfortable, safe environment -- and the experience isn't always pleasant.

"It's not something people would want to do in a social setting or party. It puts you in a quiet, meditative state. At high enough doses, you lose awareness of your physical environment, and you're not aware that you have a body. If you take even more, you lose consciousness and black out for a while. Too much is not a good thing.”

During his experience with the drug, he perceived himself standing in the middle of his elementary school playground with teachers and children.

While LSD produces bizarre visions, Salvia's are more natural and familiar, like in a dream, he said.

But try telling that to one Salvia smoker who wrote on Erowid: "Grass grew from the backs of my hands, at least it felt like that.”

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