Cassie Walde was looking for a bit of enlightenment the day she lit up a pipe full of salvia. Instead, it nearly killed her.
It was February 13, 2010, and the then-20-year-old was home alone in her Burnaby, B.C. apartment. Feeling emotional and a bit anxious, Walde decided to smoke salvia. A friend had purchased the hallucinogen, which is legally available throughout Canada, at a local smoke shop.
Walde had smoked salvia twice before, achieving a state of heightened self-awareness that salvia can produce. But this time turned out very differently. She was smoking near her open bedroom window, so she could blow the smoke outside.
“Immediately as I blew it out I thought -- I had this like terror feeling. It was just, you know, in the pit of your stomach, like, horrible mistake. Like I should not have done this,” Walde told W5.
While salvia can send users into a dream-like state, completely detached from reality, sometimes, those hallucinations turn terrifying. This was one of those times.
“I thought that I was lying down the whole time, for some reason, and that there was this crowd of people around me and they were all demanding me to tell them who I was,” she said.
Walde has no recollection of what happened next -- or how or why. But she plunged out her third story bedroom window, landing face first with full-force on the cement pad below.
“I think that I was screaming before I even opened my eyes,” she recalled.
Rushed to Vancouver General Hospital, doctors performed an emergency tracheotomy. The X-rays showed horrific injuries. Walde had shattered her jaw and lost eight teeth. She also broke her leg, several ribs and a vertebra.
Walde couldn’t speak. The only way she could communicate with her family was through notes, conveying to them that she had smoked salvia and gone out the window.
“I don’t want to die. So scary. I learned my lesson,” she wrote. “I can’t believe I’m not dead, Mom. I can’t believe I’m still alive.”
Salvia, official name Salvia divinorum, is an herb in the same family as sage, which is often used to spice foods. For generations it has been used by Mazatec shamans in Oaxaca, Mexico, to alter states of consciousness and induce visions as part of spiritual and healing ceremonies. They traditionally chewed the salvia leaves and it generally took about two dozen leaves or more to feel the hallucinogenic effects.
Today, salvia is marketed as a “natural high” and sold in so-called head shops and online in highly concentrated doses, and when smoked is 10, 20 and even 100 times more potent than the leaves.
According to the most recent Ontario-based survey from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, released in 2011, more kids in grades 7 to 12 have tried salvia than ecstasy, cocaine and LSD.
And the latest Canadian Alcohol and Drug Use Monitoring Survey by Health Canada, suggests that more young people aged 15 to 24 have tried salvia in their lifetime than crack or cocaine and speed.
According to numerous studies, salvia users can experience mild to strong hallucinations. But at higher doses, they can experience dramatic time-distortion, vivid imagery and intense hallucinations.
The major concern about salvia use is the harm that can result to users injuring themselves while under its powerful influence. Extreme hallucinations can leave users incapable of controlling their physical movements.
W5 wanted to find out just how common salvia use is among young people. We went online and found thousands of videos posted on media sharing sites like YouTube of individuals claiming to be on salvia trips.
The most notorious salvia experience, posted online by the gossip site TMZ, features pop star and then-Disney actress Miley Cyrus, or Hannah Montana to her legions of fans. The video, shot by a friend, shows Cyrus smoking what she later admitted was salvia.
But the Cyrus video is tame compared to others that show users apparently having bizarre and often frightening experiences. Users seem disoriented. Some scream uncontrollably. And in the most distressing, reminiscent of Cassie Walde’s experience, someone appears to jump out of a window.
Despite the research about salvia, which suggests that it is one of the most potent natural hallucinogens, and that it can trigger short and potential long term psychosis, the drug is classified in Canada as a Natural Health Product, not a controlled substance.
Beyond the law
For six years, Constable Sara Foote worked as a high school liaison officer in Durham region just outside Toronto giving speeches about drug awareness to students. But when it came to salvia, she was the one needing an education.
What Constable Foote learned from the students is that many had tried salvia. But far more worrisome for the Durham Regional Police officer is that the drug is legal and easily accessible.
“When youth can go into a convenience store and buy a bag of candy or a package of gum and salvia, it seems ridiculous,” she said in a recent interview with CTV’s W5.
So Constable Foote has made it her mission to keep salvia off the shelves by persuading shop owners not to sell it.
But when W5 went looking for salvia we found it easily. At website after website, it was readily available with no one controlling its sale. Moreover, in cities across the country, W5 readily found stores selling it.
W5 also sent a producer with a hidden camera into shops in downtown Toronto to show just how easy it is to buy salvia, no questions asked.
One vendor warned us about using sharp objects while on Salvia. “I wouldn’t cut a tomato with a sharp knife, you know. I’d probably miss and cut off my finger,” he said.
Another told us: “The cops don’t do anything about it. You can buy it anywhere.”
He’s right. While police warn about salvia use they’re unable to stop the sales, unlike other hallucinogens like LSD, PCP and Ecstasy.
Seven years ago, just over the border in Wilmington, Delaware, Brett Chidester purchased salvia online from a distributor in Vancouver.
Brett was a confident, talented and seemingly carefree 17-year-old. According to his mother, Kathy, he loved music and sports, especially skateboarding. What’s more, he was an academic all-star.
Though outwardly Brett was popular and achieving at school, Kathy didn’t notice that her son had become troubled. She found out that he had been smoking salvia and told him to stop. He didn’t.
One afternoon, on a day off from school, he went into the garage, zipped himself into a tent and lit a charcoal grill. He died a short time later of carbon monoxide poisoning.
The Deputy Chief Medical Examiner of Delaware wrote on Brett’s death certificate that “Salvia Divinorum Use” had contributed to his death.
After he died, police found salvia amongst Brett’s belongings. And Kathy Chidester discovered a receipt from the Vancouver-based distributor that he had ordered from, online.
She also found his suicide letter in which he wrote: ‘‘How could I go on living after I know the secret of life? It took me 17 years, but I figured it out. I can’t tell it to you here, of course. That kind of info could cause chaos.”
Following his death she began lobbying politicians in Delaware. The result was a law that criminalized the sale and possession of salvia. It was called “Brett’s law.” Since then other states in the U.S. have followed, with legislation of their own.
Back in Canada, Health Canada has been studying the effects and risks of salvia for almost a decade. W5 obtained a copy of a report “Salvia divinorum -- a potential drug for abuse” from Health Canada. Two years ago, the department did propose adding salvia to its list of controlled substances, but so far, no action.
For more than a month, W5 asked for an interview with Health Canada. Their response: “Health Canada will continue to survey the prevalence of Salvia use and monitor new information … as it emerges.’
However, we still wanted to know why salvia is so easily available, so we tracked down Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq at a photo-op in Ottawa.
In her response, it appeared that the Minister was confusing salvia with the process for approving prescription drugs. “It takes time to go through any scientific review. The data has to be presented, the people that are applying and whatnot, there’s a process in place -- it does take time,”” said Aglukkaq.
But days later, she sent us a statement, which included, “Our government is always looking at ways to protect Canadians” and “we remain committed to listing Salvia as a controlled substance.”
After extensive rehabilitation and four operations to repair her shattered jaw, Cassie Walde is finally looking ahead to her future. “I’ve just learned that -- how much I can actually endure in life. Because it is a really hard thing to go through,” she said.
Her mother, Linda McRae, can’t believe the issues around regulating salvia are still being debated. “Is there not a way to regulate it, so that you don’t have children, young people, buying this?”
With files from Victor Malarek