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Moves to Market
Sun Mar 10,12:01 PM ET
By WILL WEISSERT, Associated Press Writer
HUAUTLA DE JIMENEZ, Mexico - This sweltering corner of the
Sierra Mazateca Mountains has seen some unusual visitors
lately, thanks to a fernlike plant with thick stems and fluffy
A British businessman showed up with a sack of pesos, asking
to trade them for a sack of leaves. A Spanish importer offered
a theater-style TV and satellite service in exchange for three
seedlings. A couple from Mexico City spent four days asking
questions, learning how to dry the plant's stems and extract
its bitter juice.
All were trying to grab a piece of the small but growing
market for Salvia divinorum, a legal hallucinogen that packs a
more powerful psychedelic punch than peyote, psyllocybin
mushrooms or any other natural hallucinogen.
"More and more people come here and ask to try it. Others ask
me how they can grow it," said Alejandro Martinez, a
24-year-old student who grows more than 700 Salvia plants next
to a mountain stream. "I had coffee plants, but now I'm
planting Pastora in their place."
Known to locals as "Maria Pastora," or "Mary the Shepherdess,"
Salvia is a member of the mint family and a distant relative
of cooking sage that grows naturally only around Mazatec
Indian settlements in this remote corner of Oaxaca state.
Internet sites around the world hawk the herb as "legal
ecstasy," boast of its wild popularity on the streets of New
York's Greenwich Village and encourage would-be buyers to
experience a Salvia trip before authorities declare it
But for dozens of Mazatec healers, Salvia is a powerful and
sacred plant with curative powers and frightening
"One has to be very delicate with Pastora. It is the most
dangerous plant we have," said Aurelia Catarino Oseguera, a
56-year-old shaman who speaks only Mazatec. "It opens doors in
your head that let you see God, and that can be frightening."
Users say Salvia can produce vivid hallucinations and
out-of-body experiences, but can also make them feel like
inanimate objects and cause short-term memory loss.
Its unpredictable effects make even regular users nervous. One
Internet chat room participant warned those trying Salvia to
be ready for "the most intense experience humanly possible
next to death."
"This is not a party drug. It's a drug that takes you to a
very deep and introspective place, and that's not always a fun
place to be," said Daniel Siebert, creator of a Malibu,
Calif.-based Web site devoted to selling and researching
"With high doses its effects happen so fast and are so intense
that you don't have time to really understand what's going on
and you spend your time trying to get back to reality."
The Mazatecs believe that people who disrespect an animal, a
river or any other feature of nature can find themselves
cursed with illness. They must seek the advice of a shaman who
offers patients psyllocybin mushrooms or Salvia to discover
what they did wrong.
Herbal healers say rubbing Salvia on skin can heal burns and
make scars disappear. They say wearing the sage on the head
for 20 minutes can cure any headache.
"For our ancestors, Pastora was the most important plant there
was," said Arturo Ortiz, a 38-year-old healer whose one-room
shack is cluttered with an assortment of pickle jars filled
with herbal concoctions for afflictions from foot pain to
cardiac arrest. "Its juices have more power to heal than
outsiders can understand."
Since the early 1960s, this scruffy coffee-growing city of
50,000 has been famous in hard-drugging circles, attracting
thousands of hippies looking for a shaman to guide them on a
magical mushroom trip.
The promise of psychedelic romps brought Bob Dylan, the
Rolling Stones and Pete Townsend to Huautla. Locals even swear
that the Beatles arrived here by helicopter to celebrate Ringo
Starr's birthday in 1968.
But fresh mushrooms are available only during the rainy season
between May and August. Four-foot-high Salvia plants grow
Catarino has overseen the mushroom trips of hundreds of
foreigners inside a fiberglass-roofed barn plastered with
statues and pictures of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary. She
said so many tourists have come asking for Salvia recently
that she now refuses to give it out.
"When you die, everyone has to pay for what they did in life,"
said Catarino, who still grows Salvia in her garden to treat
sick neighbors. "If I give Pastora to people who don't need
it, I will pay for it and be punished when I die."
Salvia's growing popularity has spawned a cottage industry of
local coffee farmers who grow the plant for export, said Juan
Campos, an anthropologist at the National Indigenous
Institute's Huautla office.
"There is some evidence that ritual use is declining and that
some Mazatecs are growing the plant for sale," he said, adding
that shipping the sage out of the country is legal as long as
exporters obtain a permit from Mexico's forestry service.
Martinez, the student who makes extra money pairing tourists
with their desired drug, said he now meets five foreigners a
week who are looking for Salvia.
"Two years ago nobody wanted Pastora," he said. "Wait two more
years and everyone is going to be like me: They are going to
be selling it to lots of people."
Martinez offers foreigners the eight to 30 Salvia leaves it
takes to get high for $5.50.
"There has been a spike in sales lately but it's not usually
something that lasts," they said. "People who are curious buy
it once, find they don't like it and don't buy it again."
The administrator of another lower quality online Salvia
distributor said that despite its high price, the sage
generates only about $5,000 in annual sales.
"It is not a top-selling item," said the distributor, who
spoke only on condition of anonymity because he didn't want
his cyberspace competitors to know his share of the Salvia
Rogene Waite, spokeswoman for the U.S. Drug Enforcement
Agency, said agents are gathering information on Salvia but
there is "no kind of timetable" on banning it.
Martinez said the longer the sage stays legal, the more people
will come here looking for it.
"The attitude now is, 'Why not try it?'" he said. "Many of us
hope that doesn't change."