Click to Trip: Risky Drugs Flourish Online

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Psychedelic Drugs Just a Click Away Online

Salvia in Lawmakers' Sights

Among hallucinogenic herbs that are sold online, salvia has received the largest amount of media attention. Broadcast and print media have branded it "the next marijuana" or an "LSD alternative." Sites that sell the herbs say that this media exposure has helped salvia become a top seller. The attention has also brought it scrutiny from researchers and regulatory bodies.

Happy Hippy Botanicals' advertisement for Salvia divinorum.
The abundance of videos posted to YouTube showing people taking salvia may also have contributed to efforts by law enforcement and drug prevention groups to have the substance outlawed.

In 2005, Louisiana became the first state to make possession and use of salvia illegal. As of this writing, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Virginia have followed suit, classifying salvia as a Schedule I drug--the same legal status that ecstasy and LSD have.

In Tennessee, ingesting salvia is a Class A misdemeanor, but possessing the herb is legal. In both California and Maine, possession is legal but sale to a minor is prohibited.

"My hope and goal is to have salvia regulated across the U.S.," Kathleen Chidester says. "To lose a boy so bright, so warm, so intelligent, with so much to offer the world, is incomprehensible to me--and all due to a mind-altering drug that continues to be legal in many states."

Tip of the Iceberg

Salvia may get most of the attention, but it's far from the only psychoactive substance available online. Others include sinicuichi (Heimia salicifolia, a plant), ololiuqui (Rivea corymbosa, a seed), and fly agaric (Amanita muscaria, a mushroom).

Sites selling these products are careful to display disclaimers warning people not to ingest them. One typical disclaimer reads: "None of the products sold are for human consumption." Rather, they are "sold for research, education and propagation purposes only."

But mixed messages abound: Many sites describe the effects of ingesting the substances they sell, and some include customer testimonials about the products. "I felt what it's like to leave my body, and then re-enter it like it was a robot," reads one.

Lawmakers, drug abuse experts, and customers of these sites say that no one pays much heed to the warnings. "These disclaimers are a joke," says Samuels of the Wonderland Center.

"This is a classic case where laws are one step behind the Internet," Samuels adds. "For many vulnerable people, this is an open invitation to experiment and is an accident waiting to happen."

The disclaimer notice on the Bouncing Bear Botanicals Web site.
When PC World asked Bouncing Bear Botanicals owner Sloan about the adequacy of his site's disclaimer (which states that the products on sale at the site are not for human consumption), he replied: "I support any legal adult's right to do what they choose with their own body as long as it doesn't affect a minor or other non-consenting person. I also think they should be held personally accountable for their own choices."

Sloan also pointed out that datura and poppy seeds are sold at thousands of garden centers and other stores offline as well as at his site.

Legal Flashback

DEA spokesperson Waite says that the legal status of naturally occurring psychoactive herbs, seeds, and fungus is subject to change at any time. For example, the DEA might effectively outlaw the substances by deeming them to violate the Federal Analog Act, a component of the United States Controlled Substances Act specifying that any substance "substantially similar" to a Schedule I or Schedule II illegal drug may be treated as if it were also in Schedule I or Scedule II--but only if the substance is intended for human consumption.

To date, government agencies have not used the Federal Analog Act as a springboard for regulating the kinds of naturally occurring substances that we purchased and had tested. They have, however, invoked the act in shutting down Web sites that sold laboratory-made psychedelics. For example, in a 2004 action called "Operation Web Tryp," the agency shut down five Web sites and arrested 10 site operators in California, Louisiana, New York, and Virginia on charges that they were selling lab-made drugs from the same chemical families as LSD (tryptamines) and mescaline (phenethylamines), both of which are Schedule 1 drugs. The chemical compounds were not specifically listed as controlled substances under U.S. drug laws, but prosecutors said that the compounds were substantially similar to their Schedule 1 counterparts and were marketed and sold as recreational drugs.

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