Justice officials in Kentucky are pushing to criminalize a popular and potent hallucinogenic herb called Salvia that some users report gives them out-of-body experiences.
Salvia divinorum, which is usually smoked or chewed, is outlawed in 13 states, but is legal in Kentucky. It is available online and at head shops across the state.
The fact that users nationwide have posted more than 5,000 videos of themselves getting high on You Tube is drawing the attention of state legislators across the country, including state Rep. Will Coursey, D-Benton.
Coursey has introduced a bill that would make it a misdemeanor to possess, cultivate or traffic in Salvia.
John Mendelson, a physician and pharmacologist at California Pacific Medical Center Research Institute, said users tell him that the experience usually lasts about 10 minutes and can be disturbing because users think their body is turning into an object, like a cube or a stone.
"It's a short-lived high," said Coursey.
The lawmaker said he was especially troubled by reports that when the herb wears off, users often can't remember what they did.
Coursey said he heard about the drug in talking with youth group leaders in Western Kentucky who encouraged him to file the legislation.
House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, is co-sponsoring the bill.
"During my time in the legislature, and especially as attorney general, I have heard far too many stories of Kentuckians getting trapped in the drug culture, and it appears that Salvia could be the next gateway drug for many," he said. "We need to stop that before it gets a foothold in the state."
A report from the National Survey of Drug Use and Health found that 1.8 million Americans age 12 or older had used Salvia.
The Kentucky bill, said Jennifer Brislin, a spokeswoman for the state Justice Cabinet, "is something that we've been pushing."
"We see it as a growing problem," she said. "We are just trying to stay ahead of the curve."
Coursey said that Kentucky State Police officials and Van Ingram, acting director of Kentucky's Office of Drug Control Policy, are among the bill's proponents.
"The last thing we need in Kentucky is another substance for people in Kentucky to be abusing," said Ingram.
Ingram said he's heard anecdotally of its use by students on Kentucky campuses.
Scott Saville, who works at Botany Bay on Winchester Road in Lexington, says the herb is popular, but he doesn't see many repeat customers because smoking Salvia can have disconcerting effects.
"Some people who try it don't use it again," he said.
Online vendors suggest that people not use Salvia alone and have someone who is sober sitting with them.
Mary Morgan, owner of Sqecial Media, a store near the University of Kentucky campus, says she won't sell Salvia because it is mind-altering.
"We get asked for it a zillion times a day, but we don't sell it," Morgan said.
Under Coursey's bill, possession of Salvia would be a Class B misdemeanor, punishable by up to 90 days. Cultivation of Salvia would be a Class A misdemeanor, which could bring up to 12 months in jail. Trafficking in Salvia would also be a misdemeanor, and the penalty would depend upon the amount.
Mendelson, the medical researcher, said the effects of using Salvia remain unclear. Until there's more research, he thinks Salvia should be regulated, but not criminalized.
Despite the short-term sensations of discomfort, Mendelson said, there have been no reports nationwide of trips to the emergency room by users, no traffic accidents as a result of Salvia reported and no overdoses. Physicians have reported that one woman had a psychiatric episode from mixing marijuana and Salvia, he said, and a medical examiner in one suicide case in Delaware noted that the suicide was a user of Salvia.
"We don't have a lot of evidence that Salvia is harmful," Mendelson said.
In fact, Mendelson said, researchers think that some components of Salvia could be helpful in treating depression, pain and drug addiction.
The Lexington police department hasn't had recorded complaints about Salvia, said a spokesman, Officer Chris Sutton. But Sutton said the department supports the legislation because it aims to make the public safer.
"If it has detrimental effects on its users," Sutton says, "it concerns us."
House Bill 228 has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee for its consideration.