With a few drops of a liquid hallucinogen under his tongue and the smell of incense in the air, Texas resident Frank Ramirez says he can transport himself to a different world. Eyes shut and legs crossed, he first feels warm and flushed. Then the rush of the drug swirls into his head and, Ramirez says, he becomes "one with the room," able to see and talk with long-deceased relatives.
"Sometimes I cry or laugh," Ramirez says. "It's a spiritual trip. A brief glimpse into a beautiful world we don't even know yet."
Ramirez is on drugs, but as a resident of Texas he is breaking no laws. He has been ingesting Salvia divinorum, a once-obscure member of the mint family that ascetic Central American shamans have used for centuries. Now the herb is as easy to buy on the Internet as a best-seller, and it is celebrated in countless YouTube videos starring dazed and confused-looking high school and college-age kids. Traffic to sites that sell salvia and other drugs is increasing.
When it comes to buying powerful mood-altering drugs online, salvia is just the tip of the iceberg. At a time when authorities are cracking down on illegal sale of steroids and prescription drugs online, substances such as kratom and Mexican prickly poppy, which pack a psychedelic and narcotic-like punch, are flourishing on the Internet. Authorities are beginning to take note.
Many of these substances are legal in much of the United States, but the situation is changing quickly, especially for salvia. At this writing, 13 states have regulated salvia in some way, and bills to regulate the drug are pending in several others, including Texas. Federal officials are also considering regulations on the drug.
Online shops such as Bouncing Bear Botanicals, Psychoactive Herbs, and Purple Sticky Brand sell a panoply of substances capable of delivering a powerful high. At Psychoactive Herbs, for example, you can buy kratom, which the site describes as an "opium substitute" that produces feelings of euphoria. As recently as last fall, eBay sellers were auctioning Salvia divinorum, a fast-acting and powerful hallucinogen that researchers say is comparable to LSD, for about $15 a gram (in September, eBay instituted a ban on the sale of salvia).
PC World purchased 19 supposedly psychoactive substances from a variety of online sources, and then we asked researchers at the National Center for Natural Products Research (NCNPR) at the University of Mississippi to analyze the products we received and to explain the risks involved in taking them. Their verdict: Most of the substances--for the most part a variety of roots, mushrooms, and leaves from around the world--really can get you high. But some could also make you very sick or even kill you.
"With some of these substances it's like playing Russian routlette with your life," says Dr. Ikhlas Khan, assistant director of the NCNPR. "With others the risk is on par with smoking one [tobacco] ciagrette." It's impossible to know the specific risk without asking a lab to test what you have, he says, adding: "There is a lot of misiniformation about these substances on the Internet and what their effects are on those that take them."
Not Your Father's Morning Glory Seeds
Determined teens and thrill-seekers of all ages have always experimented with legal ways to get high--eating morning glory seeds, for example, or smoking catnip. But experts say that the Internet has changed things: Just as it has made other previously hard-to-find products more accessible, it is making substances formerly used only by obscure Amazon shamans easy to learn about, find, and buy.
Search for "salvia" on YouTube, and you'll find hundreds of video testimonials from people who have taken the drug. Hands-on types can visit sites such as NeuroSoup to view step-by-step tutorials on how to squeeze venom from Colorado River toads and extract from it a powerful hallucinogen.
Can't find a Colorado River toad locally? Bouncing Bear Botanicals will sell you a live one for $150 or an "adult male and female pair" for $250.
The owner of Bouncing Bear Botanicals, Jon Sloan, says that sales at his site have grown considerably over the past year, but he declined to reveal specific sales figures. Other sites, including Shaman's Garden and Herbal Fire Botanicals, didn't respond to our requests for comment.
Techniques used to increase the potency of herbs have improved in recent years. Experts say that sellers have learned to isolate and amplify many of the psychoactive elements within naturally occurring herbs, subsequently selling extracts of the substances at 10X or 30X the normal potency. Salvia is sold in extracts at concentrations of up to 60X and kratom at concentrations of up to 30X. "This isn't the stuff that kids were buying just years ago. This stuff has been engineered to deliver a much more potent high," says Dr. Howard Samuels, executive director of the Wonderland Center, a drug rehabilitation center in Los Angeles.
Sloan says that the Internet's reach to places such as Central America has also enabled indigenous tribes to go online and sell their native herbs to distributors. "All of a sudden, with a used PC and dial-up Internet account, these isolated tribes have a way to sell plants they have easy access to," Sloan says.