Some of their trips seemed fun: taking hits out of ridiculous bongs in their backyards and laughing hysterically for a few minutes. In one video, before smoking the salvia, a teen acts tough as his friends shout “west side” and “that's that salvia shit.” The teen takes a hit from a bong, stands up, dances like a robot for a few seconds and then falls flat on his back and just stares up at the sky. {mosimage}


Some of the videos were a little scary. There's the one where a grown man smokes the drug in some park, then freaks out and starts falling down (once on top of a small child). There's one where a girl climbs atop her friend's lap and keeps asking to be let down, a horrified expression on her face.


Good or bad, I was not prepared to act like the people in those videos.


I first became interested in salvia almost a decade ago after reading an interview with musician Andrew W.K. in which he described his salvia trip. I went with a friend to a head shop in New York's Greenwich Village hoping to score. The proprietor shook his head and told us he didn't sell it.


Now years later, I was surprised to find out one weeknight after watching a story on TV news that salvia is legal in Michigan. I was not surprised to find out, from the same story, that the state House of Representatives passed a bill that would make it illegal. It's waiting for Senate action.  Under the bill, which would amend the state's drug code, you could face a misdemeanor charge and up to one year in jail and a fine of up to $1,000 for using salvia. Possession, sale, transportation and cultivation of salvia would be a felony, with a punishment of up to two years in prison and a fine of up to $2,000.


According to the House legislative analysis section, outlawing salvia may cost the state, since sending someone to prison for one year costs about $32,000. However, fines levied from potential salvia busts could help libraries, which receive penal fine revenues, the  analysis says.


Salvia divinorum is a sage in the mint family and, according to many media reports, was traditionally used in ceremonies by the Mazatec shamans of Oaxaca, Mexico, to induce spiritual journeys. Salvia started to gain popularity in America beginning in the early '90s. It was widely available in smoke shops, unregulated by law. As with most drugs, as it gained popularity, it started being made illegal. Illinois just outlawed it Jan. 1; and it's illegal in Delaware, Louisiana and Mississippi, and Ohio is moving on legislation similar to Michigan's.


Salvia is just one species in a group of nearly 1,000 types of sage. You could probably find salvia at Horrock's or Wal-Mart, but it wouldn't be the hallucinogenic salvia divinorum. Salvia divinorum is perennial, if it's not exposed to frost, which means it wouldn't grow wildly here, according to the Web site of Daniel Siebert, the Timothy Leary of salvia.


There's a smorgasbord of descriptions of the drug's effects available on the Internet. Some say you'll re-visit your childhood; others say you'll feel connected to nature. Mainstream media often liken salvia to LSD, but chemically the drugs are different. Salvia's effects last, on average, one to 10 minutes; LSD can last for up to 10 hours and is completely synthetic.


Speaker Pro Tempore Michael Sak, D-Grand Rapids, started the salvia ban here. However, the more interesting story is that of the Waterloo Explorers, a group of high schoolers who aspire to be police and ban salvia.


Shawn Warren, a Waterloo Township police officer, leads the Explorers. Warren was shown the crazy salvia YouTube videos last year by a colleague. Shocked, he showed the videos to the Explorers at a meeting as an exercise in drug education. {mosimage}


“I asked if they thought it was legal, and they couldn't believe it was legal,” Warren said. “We talked about it and decided we would do something about it to get it off the streets and out of the schools.”


Warren and the Explorers approached state Rep. Michael Simpson, D-Blackman, and asked if he could do something about it.


A March 5 press release from Simpson announcing that the salvia bill had passed the House described salvia as “unregulated” and “frighteningly easy to buy.” The press release is interesting because Simpson talks so alarmingly about something that is legal. Replace “tortilla chips” with “Salvia Divinorum” in the following sentence from Simpson's release:


“It's time to get Salvia Divinorum off the shelves before someone in our community gets seriously hurt.”


Simpson said that when he saw the effects of salvia, by watching videos on YouTube, he knew right away that something had to be done.


“I was really alarmed to see what this stuff does,” he said. “I just wanted to move quick on this.”


Simpson said that he didn't move to make salvia illegal just because of a few YouTube videos. He consulted with the Michigan Pharmacists Association to see if there was a medical use for salvia. He also said he did research to see if banning salvia would affect the economy.


“The pharmacists said there's no medicinal purpose whatsoever,” said Simpson. “There's no impact on the economic community.”


Buying salvia was not actually very frightening; it was much like buying any product: I handed the clerk my debit card, he charged me $20, and gave me the goods and a receipt.


I called around to different smoke shops in Lansing, discovering that Su Casa didn't sell it because, the clerk said, the store's owner had tried it and didn't like it. I bought salvia at an East Lansing smoke shop. I was asked not use the store's name.


The clerk told me that I should use a water pipe and a torch lighter because salvia, when smoked, is fully released at high temperatures. He offered me a choice between varying strengths (and prices) of Salvia: 5x, 10x and 20x. I bought the 5x, unnerved by the YouTube videos I had just watched. According to Siebert' s Web site, the store bought salvia is fortified with salvia extract. Salvia is evaporated using ethanol or another solvent and dissolved into other salvia leaves. Varying amounts of extract create the “x” factor in the drug. Thus, the 5x salvia I bought was five times as powerful as just a regular salvia leaf. (Siebert, it should be noted, sells salvia on his Web site.)


The salvia came in a round purple container, manufactured by a company called Purple Sticky Salvia. The inside of the packaging warns that the salvia is only incense and not intended for human consumption. I called the Henderson, Nev.-based Purple Sticky Salvia, which sells it as incense but some people “choose to put it in a pipe and smoke it,” a customer service representative told me. The drug comes crushed up, much like dried parsley from your spice rack, and smells like a common cooking herb.


The store I went to wouldn't sell salvia to just anyone. The clerk scrutinized my identification; they don't sell salvia to anyone under 18, he said.


But before I ventured into salvia land, I got a chance to sit down with Warren and two of his Explorer squad leaders, Cody Allred, 16, and Amanda Brown, 18.


After they watched the YouTube videos, much like myself, there were shocked.


“I was just amazed that something like that, that most people know about, can be allowed when it's pretty much the same as most other drugs,” Allred said. “It's like LSD, acid, stuff like that.”

“They could be so high they could jump in front of traffic,” said Brown. “A lot of people think because it's legal it's not dangerous.”


The teens seemed to be most concerned with the personal safety of others. What if someone got in a car high on salvia and then killed someone? What if they killed themselves? You just don't know what you're going to do when you're high.


Brown and Allred said that they knew two girls who had tried it. One imagined herself a sticker, the other a piece of gum on the sidewalk waiting to be picked up.


Asked if they would equate salvia with  crack cocaine: “Mhmm” and “definitely.”


Allred and Warren represented the Explorers when on Feb. 28 they testified in front of the House Health Policy Committee. Allred said he was nervous; he told the politicians about his female friends' sticker and gum experience. Then, the Explorers showed the YouTube videos.

The politicians were “surprised that this is in our schools, that it's a legal substance,” Warren said. “All the representatives were appalled.”


The night I visited the Explorers they were having a pizza party to celebrate the birthday of a member. They meet at the Katz Elementary School, a municipal building in Munith, which is about 20 minutes north of Jackson. Warren is a giant of man, but he was extremely nice and extremely focused on mentoring the Explorers. Allred is cherubic and says jokingly he's going to be a cop in Waterloo so he can bug Warren. Brown, who is graduating from high school this year, aspires to change people's lives as a police officer. While I was photographing the trio, Brown quizzed Warren on whether she would be allowed as a police officer to keep her numerous piercings.


The Explorers, which partner with the Stockbridge Fire Department, will soon be learning how to extricate car accident victims. They've already learned various police practices such as self-defense, shooting a gun, traffic safety, community service, and, of course, drug awareness.


On the Explorers' Web site (the theme song to the television show “Cops” plays when you visit it) is a spot dedicated to the eradication of legal salvia. They feature a YouTube video from a TomBom14. Above the video reads, “This is just one more reason why Salvia needs to be banned, we owe it to our teens to protect them.”


TomBom14 is an average-looking white kid with a Canadian accent, who could be anywhere from 17 to 25 years old. He posts his “Dope Show” videos on YouTube, some of which focus on Salvia. The TomBom video on the Explorers' Web site shows him tripping for about five minutes. He doesn't do anything remarkable; he plays with a magnifying glass, tries to read from a Kurt Cobain book and laughs a lot.


I contacted TomBom14 through his YouTube account, and he had this to say  via e-mail about being featured on the Explorers' Web site:


“I've seen their Web site, and I think that their cause is mislead (sic). They can claim that salvia is bad all they want, but without scientific evidence to show any negative side effects or long term cognitive troubles, I seriously doubt the credibility of their cause. I'm one of those strange people that believes people should have the right to put whatever they want into their bodies, be it salvia divinorum, marijuana, elephant tusks, etc.”


The Explorers don't discount that salvia could be used for medicinal purposes. They know about medicinal marijuana. Warren pointed out that even if salvia is illegal, it can still be studied.


The federal government has not yet banned salvia, but a Drug Enforcement Agency spokeswoman, Rogene Waite, says that the FDA is looking into classifying it as a Schedule 1 substance — that's the same schedule as cocaine, heroin, marijuana and so forth. Just because it's legal, she said, doesn't mean it's safe.


“There's a lot of the anecdotal information to suggest that (salvia) is dangerous,” said Waite. “People shouldn't be experimenting.”


There's also anecdotal information from the scientific community to suggest that salvia may be able to treat drug addiction, depression and diseases such as schizophrenia and Alzheimer's. Not that teens should be allowed to play with it, but some scientists say that making salvia illegal could impede potentially beneficial research.


At least one death has been blamed on salvia, but it's a pretty weak link: Delaware teenager Brett Chidester was experimenting with salvia and later committed suicide — some media reports say his death came months after his use of the drug. His parents are bent on blaming salvia and are suing the company from which Brett bought the drug. The parents have appeared, teary-eyed, on TV news decrying salvia. A Delaware politician quickly capitalized on the situation, sponsoring a bill to outlaw salvia, dubbing it “Brett's Law.”


Sak said that he was made aware of salvia by reading about it in an article, and conducting further research on — you guessed it — YouTube. Sak said he's working with state senators to move the bill into law.


Salvia is “not something I want the citizens of the state of Michigan to have legally available to them,” Sak said.


The top contributor to Sak's last campaign was the Michigan Beer and Wine Wholesalers Association ($5,948 out of $114,686, according to www.Followthemoney.org.) According to that same site, out of the entire House Sak got the most money from the association (with Barb Byrum, D-Lansing, a close No. 2). I wondered whether the alcohol lobby saw Salvia as a threat.


When asked if he was acting on behalf of the alcohol lobby, Sak said that the question was insulting. The only special interest he's working for is the “citizens of Michigan,” he said.


Mike Lashbrook, an association representative, told me that he had never heard anything about salvia, nor had he talked to Sak about it. (The campaigns of the four state representatives who sponsored the Illinois salvia ban benefited from the Association of Beer Distributors of Illinois, an alcohol-lobbying group in that state.)


Sak said the bill is heading into the Senate Health Policy Committee. It's in line behind some health care policy legislation, but Sak expects it to proceed quickly through the Senate once it passes out of committee.


After my meeting with the Explorers, I explained to Warren that I intended to try the drug, to gain a complete understanding of what it does. He told me that he couldn't tell me not to do it, and warned me to have a sober babysitter and that the smoke would damage my lungs.


I decided after I got home from Munith that I had done enough worrying about how salvia would affect me and that I just needed to do it. I resigned to possibly seeing Woody Allen eat my scalp using a flathead screwdriver as a fork.


I enlisted my girlfriend as a sober babysitter and packed an extremely small amount of salvia into a glass pipe. I counted to three, lit the herb with a standard lighter, inhaled and waited.

Nothing.


Feeling more confident, I packed the pipe with double the amount and smoked it.

Nothing.


Feeling frustrated, I packed even more, inhaled it and held it for a few seconds. I started to feel a little stoned, a light euphoria. But I was not tripping.


My girlfriend smoked two pipe fulls of salvia. The second bowl, she said, made her trip. I asked her to describe what she felt, and she gave a vague response.


“Things were just different,” she said. “I saw you and I but I wasn't me.”


I was determined to trip, so I smoked more and more. I ended up smoking probably six bowls of salvia over a 1/2-hour period. By the end, I felt stoned and developed a slight sensitivity to light: the light from a lamp in the corner bulged a little; I saw a vertical streak that looked like a black and white barber shop pole cut the room in half for a split second.


During her trip, my girlfriend repeatedly told me that I too was tripping, even though I disagreed.


I assume that I didn't trip because I didn't smoke enough salvia, smoked it wrongly, or didn't use a potent enough version. But maybe I did actually trip, but just not as hard as I expected from those YouTube videos. I really was expecting purple dragons and little mushroom men, or a complete mental breakdown.  I have not felt the need since Wednesday to smoke salvia again, even though I have a considerable amount left over.


I should note here that the only other time I've tried a hallucinogen was several years ago in college when I ate a “magic” mushroom. Nothing happened then either. I should also note that the last time I smoked pot, I had an anxiety attack; I've never enjoyed marijuana because it always made me paranoid.


Further, I do drink alcohol. Sometimes in excess. I've had had some pretty bad “trips” while drunk; I've had thoughts of suicide (I once drunkenly threw myself in front of a car… a very slow-moving car) and committed crimes like vandalism and theft.


Sak said that if people had questions about the deleterious affects of salvia, they should go on YouTube to watch the videos. I asked him whether he had ever seen a “Girls Gone Wild” video — where drunken college girls are asked to show their breasts, and are rewarded with free T-shirts — and whether that would incite him to try and make alcohol illegal. He said he hadn't had a chance to “review the material.”