Stoner Science

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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 Chronicle is 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.

And on Wednesday at 3 p.m. a small group of us gathered in our newsroom lounge, put Salvia divinorum in our newly purchased pipe, used our newly purchased lighter and inhaled.

The gray smoke surrounded us. Now it smelled like pot. It wasn't. But it wasn't exactly a nothing, either.

Intense, somewhat intense, rush that didn't last long but a rush all the same — our research scientists reached consensus that they felt something. Some got it right away; others said they needed three or four hits before anything kicked in. Several also got an almost instantaneous mild headache that would nag them for hours.

One volunteer said she felt glued to her chair; she couldn't move. Several others said they felt leaden, suddenly uncoordinated. Legs and arms didn't work right. Lethargy reigned. The presence of our "watchdog baby-sitters" (there in case something went wrong) seemed superfluous, a paranoid level of overprotectiveness. No one was going to dance around and fall down. No one wanted to get up. Still, someone might catch the couches on fire, and since we were sitting on these couches and couldn't seem to get up, that could be trouble.

Giggles. More giggles. A wave of giggles around the room as we pondered the immensity of this. Despite all the literature stressing that salvia was "not a party drug" and was "not marijuana," the biggest general effect was to give us a massive case of the giggles. Salvia was supposed to make people withdraw into their own rooms, into their own heads, with lights down and no intrusions. Introspection time. Talking would divert people from seeing visions.

That's probably why the Indian guide didn't show. We kept interrupting the full experience. In an effort to ramp up, some of the scientists took to chewing the raw and then the dried leaves of the plant — another method of ingestion mentioned in salvia guides.

Stoner music was added. "I didn't notice the music at first, and when I did, it felt strangely ubiquitous, as if it were coming from all corners of the room. I spent a while wondering if this was thanks to the excellent acoustics of the staff lounge or, perhaps more plausibly, the salvia," one explorer noted.

Another adventurer was cramming more and more leaves into his mouth. We consulted the instructions again. He should chew and then wait ten seconds before chewing again. Told he was supposed to keep the juice and the leaves in his mouth for a full 30 minutes before any effect could be guaranteed, he began to look desperate and a little green. Nothing was happening. He even dropped some of the leaves into his cup of chamomile tea, which now looked really nasty.

Then the closest thing to an Indian guide we were to encounter happened by. Actually it was an employee from the business side who did know something about salvia. He looked us over, smiling, then with a puzzled look asked: "You're not chewing the leaves off that plant are you? That's the wrong kind. That's Indigo spires salvia, not Salvia divinorum. That won't do anything." The leaf chewing came to a swift throat- and mouth-clearing end.

Afterward, the scientist reported that "The baked leaves tasted bitter and dry, yielding a dirty aftertaste. The uncooked leaves were more palatable and you could almost convince yourself that it was just part of some really healthy salad dish."

From time to time people from other departments came by to laugh at us. We laughed and they laughed. Everyone was in a good mood, with the exception of one of our "baby-sitters," who kept carping about the "secondhand smoke" and could she "please get some air."

Again, although it smelled like marijuana, salvia didn't share a lot of the same effects. There was no call for munchies, although we did discuss whether salvia could be baked in brownies. While salvia affected motor control, it didn't seem to affect thought processes. People did get high; there was a certain dreamlike quality, but the effects were fleeting. The literature warned strongly against mixing this stuff with alcohol, and no one seemed inclined to do so. We were too tired, although after about half an hour the most dedicated of our cigarette smokers made their way outside for a break and to laugh at drivers parking their cars.

We watched TV along with the music and, this being a newsroom, of course we had it tuned to CNN. Asked to rate the experience on a scale of one to ten, another staffer wrote: "About a nine for an at-work experience. About a five for a party."

In every scientific endeavor there are those for whom a 100 percent effort isn't enough. Keith Plocek agreed to go home that night and try again, away from the chattering newsroom.

I turned off the lights, lit some candles and incense, put on a hippie jam band and popped a borrowed copy of Baraka — the trippy art film now passé among psychedelic types — into the VCR, all in the grand spirit of Cheech and Chong.

My neighbor came over and we proceeded to pound a few hits of salvia. The moment I took my first hit, I was overcome with the immediate sense of wanting more. My whole body suddenly felt flush.

I hit it again, but the bowl was empty. This failure lessened my buzz, as if I was being punished for being greedy.

My neighbor began to complain about Baraka, saying he wanted to watch baseball instead. I couldn't really blame him. After all, it was the ninth inning of a World Series game.

I was quickly losing my buzz. I packed another bowl for my neighbor and then announced that I was going to lie down in my darkened bedroom to smoke my last bowl without distraction. As I got up, I joked that maybe I should sit down in the closet instead. We giggled. He suggested that I stand on my head in the closet, or spin around, and we giggled again.

I entered my room, smoked the last bowl, closed my eyes and sprawled on the floor. I instantly became bored. I recall wondering how I slept in such a warm room every night. I stood back up and fled to the air-conditioned living room, where I hung out with my neighbor and watched the rest of the ball game, feeling slightly more relaxed than usual.

All in all, the experience was very light. It seems to be a capricious substance, one that requires the user to keep working to maintain a buzz. It always had a fleeting sense to it, as if it couldn't be enjoyed fully because the feeling was always moments away from leaving. Though its moments were occasionally powerful, I was nowhere near having any sort of religious experience, pseudo or otherwise. — Keith Plocek

After all this, I called the local office of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. The guy who was handling calls on Friday hadn't heard of Salvia divinorum. I spelled it for him and he said they were going to have to do some research. I felt really edgy. Were we ahead of the DEA on this one? Maybe just in Houston. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported last December that the DEA "considers salvia one of its 'drugs and chemicals of concern.' "

Nearly everyone at the Press said the scientific testing was fun but they probably wouldn't try salvia again. Its most definite plus is that it is legal. But that headache thing was hard to get around. And the next day several people said their sleep had been disturbed by nightmares. One pointed out that not enough testing has been done on salvia, unlike marijuana, which has been tested for decades and never killed anyone. Overall, salvia seemed like a lot of work for a fleeting return.

But as lab-rat work goes, this wasn't bad.

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