When some people smoke or chew the plant leaves of Salvia divinorum, they experience strange things. They might turn into paint on a wall. They may leave their bodies and float to the ceiling. They sometimes merge with objects: one user described being a Ferris wheel. They visit ice palaces or labyrinths made of green crystals. They might travel back in time to a place in childhood. Some experience a sense of egolessness and a deep connection with nature.

Brett Chidester, a 17-year-old student from Delaware, thought that he had discovered “the secret of life” after experimenting with Salvia divinorum for several months. When his parents became aware of what he was doing, he explained that the herb was perfectly harmless, legal everywhere, and easily available on Internet sales websites. When Brett agreed to stop using the drug, his parents had no reason not to trust their son, who was an all-A student with plenty of friends and extra-curricular activities.

The problem was that once Brett discovered “the secret of life,” he committed suicide. He did so in January 2006 by using a charcoal grill in a tent and allowing himself to breathe in carbon dioxide. He reportedly wrote that “once you know the secret of life, it is not worth living,” and “existence in general is pointless.”

Brett’s parents have sued the Internet company that provided the drug to their son. They also were an impetus behind legislation to make salvia divinorum illegal. “Brett’s law” passed in Delaware and similar initiatives are being introduced in other states.

Today Salvia divinorum is illegal in Delaware, Louisiana and Missouri, and there is pending legislation to make it illegal in 25 more states by mid-2008.

Salvia divinorum is sometimes called “the new LSD,” although it is not nearly as powerful nor is it related to LSD in a chemical sense. LSD is a synthetic chemical; Salvia divinorum is a cultigen or a plant created by man. LSD “trips” can last eight to ten hours. Salvia divinorum generally works in the first minute or so and only lasts about five to fifteen minutes.

The drug is an entheogen or a psychoactive substance used in religious ceremonies. Mazatec shamans in the Oaxaca region of Mexico drink Salvia divinorum as a tea to induce mystical states during healing ceremonies. The plant has hollow square stems and purple and white flowers and grows in large clusters to about three feet. Americans generally chew the leaves or smoke them in water pipes.

There have been a few studies of Salvia divinorum, but they are not peer-reviewed. Berkeley researcher Matthew Baggott interviewed 500 people who had tried the drug and found that about 60% reported that the drug had either a moderate or no effect on them. However, 80% of respondents said they would definitely use it again. Proponents argue that the drug is harmless and non-addictive.

The problem is that Salvia divinorum is gaining in popularity, not just among those in the drug culture but also among high school and middle school students, particularly in the Midwest, Northeast and Pacific regions. The federal Drug Enforcement Administration classifies it as a “drug of concern” and is piling up reports of its abuse. Most police believe it is just a matter of time before users start showing up more often in emergency rooms after they harm themselves or others. Driving under the influence of Salvia would be very dangerous.

Medical professionals worry that people with undiagnosed mental problems could have disassociative or even psychotic reactions after using Salvia divinorum. After all, it took decades to understand the long-range effects of LSD. Many users were rushed to mental institutions years after using LSD after they experienced psychotic “flashbacks.”

Parents need to know that Salvia is an herb readily available on almost 30,000 Internet websites. It is relatively cheap: less than $10 a dose. The closer it becomes to being banned, the more teenagers will stock up on it.