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House Call: What is Salvia?

Aired June 24, 2003 - 07:41   ET


BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: I want to bring in our "House Call" right now. Federal agents are concerned about the growing use of an herb that can alter perception and induce visions. The little-known herb is available on the Internet. Dr. Sanjay Gupta is looking into it. He's here this morning at the CNN Center.
Salvia, is that right, Sanjay?

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Salvia Divinorum, Bill. Yes, it's an ancient drug but kind of recent here in the United States. It's an hallucinogen herb that emerged in the U.S. about three years ago.

But now, health experts are issuing some cautions about it.


GUPTA (voice-over): It's not illegal yet, but the Drug Enforcement Agency thinks it may be as dangerous as cocaine, heroin and LSD. It's known by the rather innocuous, almost spiritual name of Salvia Divinorum. It's part of the mint family but resembles sage and contains the hallucinogen, Salvinorum A.

The plant, which can be smoked, chewed, made into a tea or even inhaled, was used for centuries by the Mazatec Indians in Mexico. They used the plant in traditional healing ceremonies for ailments, like headaches and arthritis.

They also say it induces visions and vivid hallucinations, and something called synethesia, where the user hears colors or smells sounds. The effects last about an hour. High doses can cause unconsciousness and short-term memory loss. But the long-term effects of Salvia Divinorum are not well known.

Currently, it is not federally regulated in the United States. It is sold on the Internet and head shops throughout the country. Its costs range from $15 to $120 a gram, depending on potency.

Both the Justice Department and distributors agree, at least for now, this does not appear to be an abused drug. One distributor told us only about 1 in 10 place a repeat order.


All right, so what kind of problems could Salvia Divinorum pose? Well, we are joined by a guest today to help us brush through this. David Nichols is a professor of medicinal chemistry and pharmacology at Perdue University, and he joins us from Indianapolis.

Thank you for joining us, sir.


GUPTA: Yes, the DEA has listed this as a drug of concern, but it is still legal. Is this appropriate? What are the dangers with this drug, sir?

NICHOLS: Well, I think it's a powerful psycho active substance. And I think anytime people are using a powerful psycho active substance, where we don't know what its affects are, you have to be concerned.

GUPTA: Should it be regulated, do you think?

NICHOLS: At this point, it's unclear to me. It doesn't seem to have the properties actually of a cocaine, an LSD or an heroin. But obviously it can have powerful effects on the mind. So, I think there -- it's appropriate to have concerns.

GUPTA: Yes, you know, when you talk about concerns, obviously people are talking about hearing colors and seeing sounds and having these sorts of psychedelic episodes with this. People shouldn't be driving with this. Kids, what about that as terms of regulation?

GUPTA: Well, certainly anyone who is under the effect of Salvia would not be capable of driving or carrying out ordinary activities, I think could injure themselves in accidents.

GUPTA: One of the big concerns, and I think this comes up a lot nowadays, doctor, with the Internet and access to drugs like that. Children can get these drugs. Young adults can get these drugs. What is the obligation do you think of the pharmacology industry, the drug enforcement industry in those sorts of situations?

NICHOLS: Well, clearly the Drug Enforcement Administration is the one that's most concerned with these kinds of substances where there's a recreational possibility and being used widely. I think it's appropriate to have some close look at what's going on there. I don't know how you regulate Internet sales if the drug itself is not regulated. So, once the drug was regulated, I think they could get it off the Internet, if that was appropriate.

GUPTA: You know, another interesting thing is I guess just about any herb, if you take it in large enough concentrations, such as nutmeg for example, can cause problems as well. I mean, is this the beginning of the tip of an iceberg with regards to an herb craze here in the United States, do you think?

NICHOLS: My personal feeling is that it's not. We've known about nutmeg for a long time. You really don't see many people taking, you know, one or two tablespoons of nutmeg. It's a pretty unpleasant type of intoxication. And, in fact, the people I have talked to who have experience with Salvia basically don't see it as a very attractive drug. Maybe they try it once or twice and basically drop it. So, I'm not really -- it's not really clear in my mind it's going to become a popular thing.

GUPTA: Really quickly, how does this particular drug work? I don't quite understand hearing colors and seeing sounds. What's happens? You're a pharmacologist. What happens, you know, with a drug like this?

NICHOLS: Well, basically it disrupts what we would consider to be ordinary processing of sensory information. Normally in the brain you process hearing, vision and so forth in different parts of the brain. And evidently what these kinds of drugs do is they cause a sort of spillover, where the processing becomes very messy, you get a very low signal in a way. And so, things are kind of getting crossed over.

It acts as a particular type of receptor called a cappa (ph) receptor. We don't really know very much about that, but obviously it must be involved in processing sensory information.

GUPTA: All right, and a final thought, short term, you get the obvious effects that you have been talking about. Long-term dangers are really not that well-known yet, right?

NICHOLS: We really don't know very much about the drug at all.

GUPTA: All right, Dr. Nichols, thank you very much for joining us from Indianapolis.

Bill and Daryn in New York, hearing sounds, seeing colors, pretty psychedelic, eh?

HEMMER: Yes, and good to know. Thank you, Sanjay. We'll talk to you next hour.


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