Stoner Science

Our staff risks all to determine if a plant will get them high or if it's just another Internet lie

It all started at the Houston 420 on Washington Avenue. Mind you, I went to college, so I'm no stranger to head shops. But I'd never tried salvia before, so I asked the red-eyed counter jockey for some advice. He recommended a small wooden pipe and a high-powered torch lighter (apparently the run-of-the-mill Bic-variety doesn't generate enough heat). Then we got down to the nitty-gritty. Salvia can be potent stuff, he said, so I probably only needed a couple of grams for my gathering. He gave me directions to an herb shop down the street.

Twelve blocks of muggy heat later, I rolled into Mazatec Garden on Yale. The proprietor was indeed a cool guy, although he pontificated upon stoner science a little too much for my tastes. Salvia is a very fickle herb, he explained, and belongs in a class by itself. In other words, no matter what degree of experimentation you have under your belt (or in your lungs), you never know what's going to happen with salvia. Then his stoner drawl voiced a version of the classic druggie cliché: "I've seen 300-pound men get floored off of one hit and I've seen 90-pound girls smoke a whole bowl without feeling a thing." Most people can expect five to ten minutes of an immediate hallucinogenic high, he said, followed by 30 minutes to an hour of relaxation. He recommended that it be used only in groups of two or three in order to avoid too much chitchat and distraction from the buzz at hand. And of course soft music and low lighting would add to the ambience. No word on black lights and Deadhead posters, but I got the feeling they wouldn't hurt. So I thanked him and headed for the door, giddy about the prospect of living up to the high journalistic standards of Hunter S. Thompson. -- Keith Plocek, Houston Press writer


Actually, it all started with a group message I received on the Education Writers of America list-serve from a reporter at the Janesville Gazette in Wisconsin. "Anyone heard of problems with an herb from south of the border called salvia? It's in the mint family and is not illegal in the states I hear, but it's supposed to have hallucinogenic properties."

Salvia, salvia. A memory stirred. Wasn't that the low-maintenance, high-tolerance plant that garden centers were pushing a few years back in Mississippi? Hadn't I seen it at nurseries in Houston? That semi-interesting factoid drifted in and out of my head under the weight of the day's business until Saturday, where in no less than the esteemed Kathy Huber's gardening column, she too said salvia was a good plant for Houston. Ha, ha. Pretty funny. The Houston Chronicleis promoting a drug plant. This was too good.

I brought it up at our staff news meeting Monday. A few knew about the plant -- one even correctly identified it as a member of the sage family -- but no one had heard of it as a drug. Was this just another urban legend, nothing more than this year's version of smoking banana peels? Any volunteers?

Got one. Then decided that this would be better approached on a more scientific basis as a group project. For those prepared to toke, the commitment was sincere and heartfelt. As one writer put it: "I consider this pure, unadulterated service journalism. We're letting the public know about the possible dangers -- or virtues -- of this obscure drug. This may very well have been the most important thing I've ever done."

I Googled salvia, verifying that it's perfectly legal in the United States, although banned in Australia, and there's been talk of putting the kibosh on it here. Ticktock. It was scientific frontier time now before Congress meets again. The literature on salvia was profuse, tending a bit to the didactic. One guide listed as a must-read was 23 pages long. Tracking through it was enough to reach a glazed state. Along the way I did pick up that there are six levels to indulging in salvia and you could expect a spirit guide to show up somewhere in the journey, just like on an American Indian personal quest.

So with a high sense of mission and history, I went to a garden center in the suburbs (no less) where I bought two salvia plants for only five bucks each (it being close-out time at nurseries), while staffer Keith Plocek went to a head shop for the extract, priced at $15 for 5X and and $25 for the presumably more potent 15X. We could have also ordered the extract off the Internet, but we didn't have time to wait for delivery.

The salvia plants I bought were pretty and bushy with blue flowers at the top. The leaves gave off a faint smell of mint if crushed. I stripped off leaves at home and placed them in a 350-degree oven for six minutes. The dried leaves now looked something like marijuana and smelled like nothing much to me, but they must have sent out some secret signal to my cat, who pounced on the kitchen counter and ate some before I could get to him. I hung around for half an hour to see if we were going to have an out-of-body-and-emergency-trip-to-the-vet experience. All Bam did was go to sleep, so I loaded up the plants and the dried leaves and drove into work.

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