Proposal would outlaw hallucinogenic salvia

March 23, 2006

Herb, available legally through many Web vendors, would be placed in same category as heroin, LSD. Brett Chidester killed himself because of salvia divinorum, his parents say.

By MIKE CHALMERS , The News Journal, 03/23/2006

A hallucinogenic herb that may have contributed to the suicide of a Salesianum School senior in January would become an illegal drug under a proposed state law. Salvia divinorum, which is widely and legally available through hundreds of Internet sites, would become a Schedule I controlled substance under Senate Bill 259, putting it in the same category as heroin and LSD. The Senate Health and Social Services Committee sent the bill to the full Senate after a hearing Wednesday.

The bill’s prime sponsor, Sen. Karen Peterson, D-Stanton, named it "Brett’s Law" after 17-year-old Brett Chidester of Pike Creek. He began smoking salvia divinorum last summer, apparently causing him to believe he had gained insights into the universe and that life was pointless. He killed himself by carbon monoxide poisoning Jan. 23.

The teen’s parents, Kathy and Dennis Chidester, urged senators to outlaw salvia because of the powerful effect it had on their son."He was a great student, an excellent son," Kathy Chidester said. "I just think he might have had some mild depression and, combine that with salvia, it was a lethal combination."

If legislators pass the bill, Delaware would become the third state — along with Missouri and Louisiana — to outlaw salvia divinorum. The bill already has 21 co-sponsors in the Senate and House. Congressional efforts to ban salvia have failed, even though the federal Drug Enforcement Agency considers it a "drug of concern" because of its wide availability, potential for abuse and unknown long-term effects. "Kids shouldn’t be able to buy this online," Peterson said.

"It’s the equivalent of LSD, so I figured that’s where it belongs." Salvia’s main ingredient, salvinorin A, is as potent as LSD, making it the world’s most powerful natural hallucinogen, said Bryan Roth, a leading salvia researcher at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.When salvia leaves are chewed or smoked, users experience powerful visions that make them believe they’re in an alternate time and place, he said.

Roth said salvinorin A has been shown to have a depressive effect on mice in the laboratory. There have been no studies linking salvia to suicide and depression in humans, he said. Making salvia a Schedule I controlled substance would not affect its availability for research, he said. "I don’t think we have anything to gain by not scheduling it," Roth said. "If there were more of a barrier there, that’s not a bad thing."

Daniel Siebert, a California botanist who sells salvia online and promotes its responsible use, called Peterson’s bill "premature and a bit misguided." Brett Chidester’s salvia use might have been more a symptom than a cause of his personal problems, said Siebert, who said none of the thousands of salvia users he has talked to ever expressed suicidal thoughts. In fact, some credit salvia for relieving their depression, he said. "I don’t think it’s right to blame salvia for putting those thoughts in his head," Siebert said. "It’s not impossible that he had some crazy trip and decided to act on those crazy ideas, but it’s very unlikely." Police and health officials said salvia is not a widespread or well known drug in Delaware.

Kathy Chidester said she has mixed feelings about her son being the inspiration for a drug law. "It breaks my heart that I need to have a law like that named after my son," she said. "I don’t think Brett would want to be known for a law like that, but I think of it as an honor."