Save Me

One newly illegal substance, two short trips, and a different approach to the war on drugs

Deep in Hialeah, among body shops, crisscrossing highway ramps, and tall, scattered palm trees, is a porn shop. You can find the same old skankiness here — whips, midget porn, ice trays shaped as tiny penises, and, of course, the Jack Rabbit. But in a glass case that snakes around the store's center next to a display of clit rings are 12 tiny metal tins neatly stacked in two small towers of six. Although the tins vary in color, they all include the same printed phrase: "1 Gram Pure-Certified Salvia Divinorum."

The phrase would be perfectly fine if this weren't Florida and it weren't August 2008. But now the place is in danger of getting busted.

Salvia divinorum, as well as its main psychoactive ingredient, Salvinorin A, became Schedule I controlled substances July 1, 2008. As with marijuana or LSD, selling or possessing the stuff could earn you five years in jail.

The little-known herb, native to Oaxaca, Mexico, and used by the indigenous Mazatec shamans during spiritual healing rituals, is a member of the mint family, and its Latin name, Salvia divinorum, literally translates to "sage of the seers."

The skin shack's clerk is a handsome and barely legal kid who looks like he could easily double as masturbatory material for the muffled moans that creep out of the sex shop's small hall of spank rooms. What does he think about the drug? "I heard this stuff is crazy," he says, two periwinkle eyes wide, "like you trip and shit."

Then he tosses a tin of 10x (Salvia usually comes in strengths of 5x, 10x, etc., which loosely determine the concentration of Salvinorin A added to untreated Salvia divinorum leaves) into a black plastic bag and charges me 20 bucks. As I begin to leave, he asks, "Have you ever done it before?"

I can't answer him; I've never tried it. So I head to — where else? — the gated apartment complex of some friends in Kendall. The place is shrouded in greenery and filled with senior citizens.

A couple of cheek kisses later, Ezra (not his real name), a tall, lean waiter/drummer/air guitarist in his 20s, pauses the PlayStation 3 game he is intently playing — Skate, in which one virtually skateboards as opposed to actually skateboarding — and picks up a tiny glass pipe he and his roommate John (not his real name) affectionately call "The Bishop."

Ezra taps the pipe clean, pushes a fresh screen into the bowl, and fills it with a dried black herb that emits a strong spinachlike odor. He lights the bowl with a long grill lighter, sucks in the smoke, holds it in his lungs, and, without exhaling, decides he has to take a leak.

Fifteen seconds later, laughter erupts from the bathroom. I run over and find Ezra squatting down, slapping the floor. "The tiles!" he shouts, presenting the small beige squares like Vanna White, and then slapping them again. "Can you feel the tiles?"

Uh, yeah.

"It feels like they're crawling up my legs, like I'm becoming part of the floor."

He squints.

"Whoa," he says. After only a minute, his trip is over.

John, who's also in his 20s and looks like the offspring of Elvis and Brutus from Popeye, sparks up the Bishop. He gets a bad case of the giggles but says he's not quite tripping. Sitting Indian-style on a gray couch, he jabs his beefy forearms into the air like a kangaroo... if the marsupial were drunk and forced to box. "I feel like half my brain shut off," he laughs, digging his chin into his chest.

Mary Brandenburg, a Democratic state representative from Lake Worth, would most certainly not approve of our activities. Neither would Sen. Evelyn Lynn, a Republican from Daytona Beach. They persuaded the legislature to outlaw the herb. "It seems to be attracting very young teens," Brandenburg says. "As long as it was easy to purchase it, and it was legal, it was easy for them to leap to something else."

On the other hand, a report by the Center for Substance Abuse Research at the University of Maryland says, "It is still unclear whether Salvia divinorum causes long-term effects on the brain or on the rest of the body. [There] have been no reports of health problems or hospitalizations as a result of Salvia use, few dangers related to its use have been identified, and no evidence exists that it is addictive."

So while John walks around the apartment claiming he feels like someone is "grabbing and pulling" his ankles, I take a drag off a fresh bowl. It tastes more like dirt than weed. I hold the soil smoke in my lungs, count to 30, and look at John.

"When is this supposed to kick... shit."

The trip begins in my mouth. A tingling sensation expands across my head and trickles down the rest of my body. Suddenly my arms shoot straight out in front of me. Ezra and John ask what's going on, but I can't articulate anything. It's as if I'm in a dream.

My arms seem like they're being pulled, endlessly, like a Stretch Armstrong doll. I point at the skateboarding character Ezra is playing on the TV screen. Wherever the character moves, my finger follows. It's as though virtual skate guy is tugging me.

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