In January 2006, 17-year-old Brett Chidester zipped himself into a tent in his father's garage in Newark, Delaware, lit a charcoal grill, and asphyxiated himself. Any child's suicide is tragic, but for Brett's mother the pain is all the worse because she believes his death could have been avoided: She blames it on his regular use of Salvia divinorum--a plant with psychoactive properties that is nevertheless legal in many states--which he purchased online.
"He was fearless and had no qualms about trying salvia because, as he said to me, ‘Mom, it's legal; there can't be anything wrong with it,'" says Kathleen Chidester, who is now an outspoken advocate for movements to make Salvia illegal.
Kathleen Chidester believes that salvia sent Brett, her only child, into a bout of depression coupled with dissociation from reality that led him to take his own life. A national honor-roll student, Brett was athletic and popular with his peers. There was no obvious outward indication of his inner struggles, his mother says.
According to his parents, Brett purchased salvia online. His mother says that she later learned from Brett's girlfriend that he had been smoking salvia once or twice a week during the seven months prior to his death.
"He told his girlfriend that he felt [salvia] was addictive and that he wasn't able to stop," Kathleen Chidester says. "He also told her the night before he died that he felt there was something wrong with him, but he couldn't figure out what it was.
"I believe the use of salvia was reshaping Brett's mind, distorting how he viewed himself and the world around him," Chidester adds. "I think he just snapped."
In one of eight notes Brett left behind, he wrote: "Salvia makes me realize that humans have no reason to be on Earth. We are all just grains of sand on reality beach."
The exact role that salvia played in Brett's death is unclear.
Though police officers investigating the death found salvia in Brett's Toyota Tacoma truck, Kathleen Chidester says, an autopsy found no traces of any illegal or controlled substances, or of salvia, in Brett's system.
Chidester's death certificate however, lists Salvia divinorum use as "a contributing cause of his death," says Jay Lynch, communications director for Delaware Health and Social Services.
Medical research regarding long-term effects of Salvia is lacking, but Dr. Howard Samuels, executive director of the Wonderland Center for treatment of addiction, says that repeated use of hallucinogens can promote a dissociation from reality even when the individual is not currently taking a drug.
"The bottom line is, we don't know enough about salvia to understand the long-term effects," Samuels says.
To Kathleen Chidester, however, salvia's role in Brett's death is clear.
"I don't believe Brett's was the first salvia-related suicide, and I don't believe his will be the last," Chidester says.
Both Kathleen Chidester and Brett's father, Dennis Chidester (the two are divorced), are suing Priority Placement Worldwide, the company that they say shipped the salvia to Brett after he ordered it online. Neither parent would comment on the case, but their attorney, Gary Nitsche, says that they are suing for damages based on a claim of wrongful death. Charles Brown, who represents Priority Placement Worldwide, says that the merits of the Chidester's case are shaky, given the lack of scientific data showing that salvia is harmful.
Since her son's death, Kathleen Chidester has worked tirelessly with states such as California, Florida, and Illinois to criminalize the sale or use of salvia. Her efforts began in Delaware, where the legislature in 2006 enacted a statute called "Brett's Law" that classifies Salvia divinorum as a Schedule I controlled substance, making its possession, use, or consumption punishable as a class B misdemeanor, carrying a minimum $500 fine.
"My hope and goal is to have salvia regulated across the U.S.," Chidester says. "It is my son's legacy and I will not end my fight until this happens... 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."
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