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LIVE FROM THE HEADLINES

New Recreational Drug Poses Questions For DEA

Aired June 24, 2003 - 19:28   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: The continued search for ways to alter our mental reality has brought a new method of escapism into the news. It's a herb that may look like an innocuous member of the mint family but as Dr. Sanjay Gupta explains, this stuff Salvia Divinorum could be more dangerous than it looks.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It's not illegal yet, but the Drug Enforcement Agency thinks it may be as dangerous as cocaine, heroin and LSD. It's known by the rather innocuous almost spiritual name of salvia divinorum. It's part of the mint family, but resembles sage, and contains the hallucinogen salvinorin A.

The plant, which can be smoked, chewed, made into a tea or even inhaled was used for centuries by the Mazitec Indians in Mexico. They used the plant in traditional healing ceremonies for ailments like headaches and arthritis. They also say it induces visions and vivid hallucinations and something called Synistesia (ph), where the user hears colors or smells sounds. The affects last about an hour. High doses can cause unconsciousness and short term memory loss but the long term affects of salvia divinorum are not well-known.

Currently, it is not federally regulated in the United States. It is sold on the Internet and head shops throughout the country. Its cost range from 15 dollars to 120 dollars a gram, depending on potency. Both the justice department and distributors agree at least for now, this does not appear to be an abused drug. One distributor told us one in ten, places a repeat order.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN, Atlanta.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: Well, so is salvia an innocent herb or dangerous weed slipping through a legal loophole that needs closing? To learn more about both sides of the issue we're joined by Daniel Siebert from Los Angeles. He sells salvia on the Internet and maintains an informational web site.

Daniel, thanks for being with us.

DANIEL SIEBERT, SALVIA SELLER: Nice to be here.

COOPER: There's a controversy about this. On the one hand you have these drug agents saying it's as dangerous as cocaine, LSD. What do you think?

SIEBERT: I don't see a parallel at all. That's a gross exaggeration. Salvia divinorum produces a deep introspective state of awareness. It's a kind of meditative herb. It has no resemblance to cocaine, LSD.

COOPER: You sell it on the internet. Who are your customers?

SIEBERT: Well, I do sell salvia but that's secondary to what I do.

My Web site is primarily an educational resource. But, to answer your question, most of my customers, and I represent only one vendor out of many, most of my customers are mature adults who are interested in using salvia for introspective, for seeking self awareness. They use it as a meditative tool.

COOPER: And how do you verify that?

SIEBERT: Through correspondence. Most my customers correspond with me and tell me about their experiences and they tell me about themselves.

COOPER: And what is it that people are seeking who take this?

SIEBERT: Well, like I said before, it produces a deeply introspective state of awareness. It's not something you'd take recreationally. You don't take it in a social environment. You wouldn't go to a party or anything like that. Because it makes you sit calmly in one place and focus your attention inwardly. That's not something that people -- this is not conducive to a party atmosphere. Something like that. Doesn't appeal to young people.

COOPER: Do you think there should be any restrictions on the sale of this?

SIEBERT: I think it's appropriate to restrict it in a manner similar to alcohol. Like alcohol, it shouldn't be sold to minors. Like alcohol, people should not drive on it. They shouldn't do it in public. It's appropriate to have some kind of legislation to penalize people who use it inappropriately but there shouldn't be a restriction on a -- complete restriction on its use.

COOPER: All right.

SIEBERT: People -- it's not causing, it doesn't seem to be causing serious problems for people.

COOPER: All right, Daniel Siebert. Thank you for joining us. Appreciate your perspective.

SIEBERT: Yes, you're welcome.

COOPER: To get the other side of the debate, we head now to St. Louis, Missouri where Carol Falcowski joins us, live. She's director of research communications of the Hazleton Foundation. Thanks for being with us, Carol.

CAROL FALCOWSKI, DIRECTOR OF THE HAZLETON FOUNDATION: Yes.

COOPER: You studied the drug. Do you think it should be banned?

FALCOWSKI: This is a strong what hallucinogenic drug that detaches people their immediate environment. It produces profound hallucinations. In my thinking there is no question that its a threat to the individual health of the person, the public health, and the public safety when people are in this altered state.

COOPER: But is there any evidence at this point there's a problem out there? Are we seeing it in emergency rooms? Are doctors talking about it? Have you come across it?

FALCOWSKI: Well, it's very new on the scene so we haven't but it's hard to document, is more accurate, but its abuse has reported in Hawaii, California, Washington, Wisconsin, here in Missouri, as well as New York.

And I think the real danger lies particularly in the fact -- in the fact, that it's sold to young people over the Internet. You know, he said "I just sell it to adults." You have no way of knowing on the internet who you are selling it to and it's just another recreational drug of abuse.

I think there are a lot of people today who were part of the flower child movement or remember the 1960s when hallucinogenic drugs exploded on the scene. To me, most of those people recall at least one person who has been significantly damaged by the affects of hallucinogenic drugs. And I, for one, don't think we can afford another generation lost in that way.

COOPER: Do you think it's matter of time before it's outlawed?

FALCOWSKI: I would hope so. I think it represents a threat to the public safety, particularly now in an age when kids get information and misinformation about drugs on the Internet. Including the fact that drugs are a predictable proposition. There is nothing predictable about this. It's a botanical drug, and as such, it has varying levels of potency. You have no way of knowing how it is going to affect an individual person. And there are many people from the 1960s who have been damaged in very long term ways by hallucinogens just like this.

COOPER: Alright, Carol Falcowski, appreciate you joining us for perspective. Thanks.

FALCOWSKI: Thank you.

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