If you saw it in the wild, the salvia plant would look a lot like the shade flower bordering your annual bed. Its leaves might resemble the mint used to make a nice pot of tea.
But if you eat or smoke Salvia divinorum, your head could feel like a balloon being inflated. Your heart would pound and you would probably convulse in a fit of uncontrollable laughter. You could also experience acute anxiety and fear, then depression. If you are prone to mental problems, it could launch a psychotic episode.
Salvia is not sold as a plant in garden stores here. But it is available at some local head shops, co-ops and novelty stores in extract and leaf form.
Maybe not for long.
A bill in the Minnesota Legislature seeks to make the sale and possession of salvia illegal.
"The goal is for people to stop using it and doing other things like operating a vehicle," said the bill's sponsor, Rep. Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights. "We're not going after gardeners here."
Though research is scarce, Atkins added, "one thing is clear: It's akin to LSD as a very potent hallucinogen."
Carol Falkowski, director of the Chemical Health Division of the Minnesota Department of Human Services, agrees legislative action could help prevent potentially serious consequences.
While not long-lasting, the drug could cause people to do things they normally wouldn't do, Falkowski said, and "put yourself and others in danger."
Jake Jacobs, 19, St. Paul, can testify to the plant's potency.
"It's definitely an experience," said Jacobs, who attends college in Iowa. "It's not a party drug, it's not something you can do and carry on a conversation."
Jacobs said the effects begin within a few seconds, with an accelerated heart rate, uncontrollable laughter and light-headedness. It lasted only about five minutes, with lingering effects for 20 minutes.
"It's like everything is being pulled down a tunnel and you lose your equilibrium," he said. "It's physical and psychedelic. It's not something that's very pleasurable."
He said because of that feeling, and the fact not much long-term research has been done, he doubts many people would do it more than as a novelty experience. He won't.
Handful of states ban use
Atkins said the issue came to his attention when he saw news reports of a death potentially linked to the plant.
Brett Chidester, a Delaware teenager, bought salvia on the Internet in 2006, and smoked it. Later, Chidester committed suicide and left a note that read: "How can I go on living after I learned the secrets of life?"
Chidester already suffered from depression, according to reports, but his parents believed his salvia-induced hallucinations provoked his death.
Eight states, including North Dakota, have laws banning its use. (Several varieties of ornamental plants are known as salvia. Salvia divinorum's common name is diviner's sage.)
The extract of the plant can be bought at a few "head shops" across the state, and co-ops occasionally carry the leaves. And it is readily available on the Internet.
Brittany Johnson, manager of Hideaway, a store and hookah lounge in Dinkytown that sells the extract, said that "it's pretty popular, actually."
The extract ranges in price from $8 to $35 per gram, depending on potency. Johnson said she's aware of the legislation and her store will "just stop selling it" if it becomes law.
Some question the efficacy of trying to restrict salvia.
"There are a ton of plants sold here that can be hallucinogenic," said Paige Pelini, owner of Mother Earth Gardens in south Minneapolis.
Mike Hibbard, horticultural adviser for Bachman's, said Salvia divinorum is "not something that grows [in Minnesota]. You won't find that plant at any legitimate garden store," he said. "You can buy the seeds on the Internet. I don't know if they can stop sales unless you can stop the Internet."
Law enforcement's suggestion
The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension has had only two samples sent to the lab, mostly by officers wondering what it is.
Dave Bjerga, assistant superintendent of the BCA, said the bill probably wouldn't affect law enforcement much.
In fact, the BCA has suggested that if the bill continues through the Legislature, it should instead address the active hallucinogenic chemical, Salvinorin A, instead of the plant, to make it easier to prosecute.
Bjerga said alcohol, marijuana and cocaine will continue to be the agency's focus, and agreed that people know about scores of natural hallucinogens, including some kinds of toads, that cause euphoria.
"But that doesn't mean people are going to go out and lick a toad," he said.
Jon Tevlin • 612-673-1702