SALEM, Ore. - Some young people are turning on, tuning in and dropping out for quick highs on a hallucinogenic drug that is legal and sold openly at novelty stores, smoke shops and adult video stores.
But some state lawmakers say the substance - salvia divinorum - is dangerous and have proposed a bill to ban possessing or selling it.
"From what I understand this drug is at least as dangerous as marijuana or LSD," said Rep. John Lim, R-Gresham, who is sponsoring a bill that would make the plant a Schedule I controlled substance in Oregon, on par with ecstasy or synthetic heroin.
"This drug is not a widely used product, but it is becoming problematic."
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Used for centuries by the shamans, or healers, among Mazatec Indians of Oaxaca, Mexico, in religious and healing rituals, experts say use is on the rise in the United States, driven largely by Internet sales and word of mouth.
The drug's Latin name, salvia divinorum, means "sage of the seers." Users call it Purple Sticky Salvia, Maria Pastora or Sally D.
"It is basically appealing to young kids because it is not illegal to possess in the state of Oregon," said Tim Plummer, a coordinator for Oregon's drug evaluation and classification program.
One Portland retailer is selling a half-gram package, said to be good for five "experiences," for $15.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has listed it and its active constituent, salvinorin A, as "drugs and chemicals of concern." The agency is still investigating patterns of abuse and potential risks for the public.
"It's not something that is done lightly," said Rogene Waite, a spokeswoman for the DEA.
Louisiana, Missouri, Tennessee, Oklahoma and Delaware ban possession, but it is legal under federal law.
At least nine other states are considering bans, including Alaska, California, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota and Utah. The plant is controlled in Finland, Denmark, Australia and Italy.
A 1994 study in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology described users who felt as though they were being turned into "yellow plaid French fries, fresh paint, a drawer, a pant leg, a Ferris wheel."
"It sounds cheesy but I felt like the room I was in turned into an accordion and I couldn't move," said Meara Fleming of Eugene, 20, who said she has tried the drug once.
She said some users "go to another world. My experience was I didn't visually hallucinate. It was just a really, really intense body high where I felt kind of immobile."
Experts and users say the effects can last up to an hour.
At the Silver Spoon, a shop in Portland that sells glass water pipes and sex toys, salvia is a strong seller.
"It has been out for a long, long time and it's just getting popular," said Jeremy Croft, a salesman. "Maybe all the high school and college kids just found out about it."
Although the drug's effects on users are catalogued in detail on Web sites like Erowid.org, an online library of psychoactive plants and chemicals, few toxicological studies have been done.
"It's not toxic as far as we know," said Bryan Roth, a professor of pharmacology at University of North Carolina's School of Medicine. "But it's dangerous in the sense that when people take it they are disoriented. It's not the sort of thing you would want to smoke while you are driving."
Blake Harrison, a criminal justice specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures, said of the drug: "I haven't heard of it being particularly dangerous or abused but as more people become aware of it, I'm sure more states and eventually the federal government will pass legislation."
"I think it's only a matter of time before we find people addicted to this stuff," said Seth Hatmaker, a spokesman for Lim. "If you are looking at a mind-altering drug which is used recreationally, it becomes an escape from reality and then an addiction."
Roth, who is an expert on the plant, said there is no evidence that it is addictive.
But he and the NCSL's Harrison say there are plenty of users who don't enjoy the experience.
"I think it's more like a cough syrup trip," said Harrison. "It's not very fun."