updated 7/25/2006 7:13:17 PM ET 2006-07-25T23:13:17

Hunter knows how to mellow out on marijuana. It's something he does all the time. But the first time he smoked the leaves of a plant dubbed the "magic mint," he felt as if he'd been slammed into another dimension.

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As drug trips go, this one was more terror than pleasure.

"The first time I did it was with a lot of people," recalls Hunter, a Toronto university student who asked that his real name not be used. "That was probably a bad idea because I did it and before I even knew what was happening, I was just like transported into another world.

"Then someone was around me and they just tapped my shoulder, and I forget if I was annoyed by that, but it felt like spikes going into my body. I felt like I was being stabbed, but obviously it was the Salvia."

Salvia divinorum, that is — a member of the sage family of plants that has been used for hundreds of years by the Mazatec indigenous people of southern Mexico as a medicinal herb and means of divination.

Today, it continues to be used in shamanistic rituals. But it has also become popular among the university and college crowd in Canada and the United States — although for many, once is enough, experts say.

What may be surprising, given its powerful hallucinogenic effects, is that cultivating, selling or using Salvia divinorum are all perfectly legal in Canada and most of the U.S.

In Canada, neither Salvia divinorum nor its main active ingredient, salvinorin A, are regulated under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, says Health Canada spokeswoman Carolyn Sexauer. The substance can be imported and sold provided no health claim is made regarding its effects.

"Health Canada is collecting data regarding evidence of abuse of this substance and its dependence potential, and we continue to monitor Salvia divinorum," Sexauer says.

The Diviner's Sage, as it's sometimes called, is sold in specialty "head" shops across Canada and the United States, and can be ordered over the Internet. Most of it comes from Mexico.

But the plant is not a substance to be smoked lightly, says Chris Bennett, co-owner with his wife, Renee Boje, of Urban Shaman in Vancouver, which specializes in plants used for shamanistic and religious purposes, including peyote and Salvia.

"We have a self-imposed age limit of 19 in our store," says Bennett, explaining that anyone under that age will not be sold psychoactive plants. "When people do come in and they start talking about, `Just get me ripped,' we start explaining what our shop's about. We start laying a rap on them about the spiritual use and the history of the substances. And they generally get uncomfortable and leave."

At Urban Shaman, about two grams of dried Salvia leaves sell for $8 and a 10-times stronger extract goes for about $25. But prices vary widely across the continent, depending on the source.

Bennett says it takes about 10 deep inhalations of Salvia smoke to achieve its full effect, which is short-lived as drugs go, lasting anywhere from 10 minutes to half an hour.

Salvia-induced hallucinations are as individual as the people who partake of the plant.

When he first smoked it, Bennett says the world around him went flat, "like the second dimension." Another user described having a sense that he had become a native in the Amazon jungle and then merged with a tree. Others experience panic because they find the cosmic ride too intense.

"There's a real dissolvement of the ego . . . that sometimes can be quite frightening for people who have a hard time letting go. But for people who have an easy time letting go, it can be quite a blissful experience."

Dr. Bryan Roth, director of the psychoactive drug screening program at the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health, says the chemical structure of the plant's active ingredient is "totally unique."

Roth, whose lab at Case-Western University in Cleveland was the first to map its molecular makeup five years ago, says salvinorin A is a "kappa-opiate agonist" that binds to a single type of receptor in the brain.

"It's amazing that this drug targets that particular receptor," he says. "Most drugs are not so selective. LSD hits about 50 receptors."

As a result, Salvia is creating a real buzz among scientists in the pharmaceutical arena. While pure salvinorin A is unlikely to have any use as a medication, its derivatives could be useful, and about 200 have been isolated so far, says Roth. Compounds that could block the effects of Salvia may be candidates for treating depression, schizophrenia or Alzheimer's-induced dementia.

"It's a really, really hot area in medical chemistry right now," says Roth.

When it comes to recreational use, Roth is reluctant to pronounce Salvia divinorum "dangerous," although he doesn't encourage people to smoke the leaves or extract (or take any other mind-altering drug, for that matter) — and he's never used it himself.

"The big problem with it from a safety standpoint is that people are pretty incapacitated when they take a hefty dose. They're pretty much disoriented in space and time and they could wander off a building or walk in front of a car and not know where they are."

That's why Bennett of Urban Shaman warns that anyone taking Salvia "should always have somebody there with them. That's a Number 1 rule.

"Because you enter into a waking kind of dream state in which you lose your critical judgment in a similar way you might in a dream. So you want to make sure a person remains sitting down or lying down."

That's advice Hunter can relate to: the second time he smoked the plant's dried leaves, he did it alone in his room.

"I remember looking at what was like a spinning top, like a Jewish dreidel. It was spinning and the faster it spun, I felt like I was spinning with it. And then all of a sudden I looked down and I was it. I became it.

"For a second, I thought I went insane because if you don't have someone around to, like, hold you down, you might get a little bit panicked. It can be a terrifying experience."

Still, Hunter says that when he feels ready, he may try Salvia again.

"It's strictly about information, no pleasure," he concedes. "You can't call it a high. You go just into an altered stare of being, really. You feel the effects of life through different eyes."

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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