"As soon as we make one drug illegal, kids start looking around for other drugs they can buy legally. This is just the next one," said Florida state Rep. Mary Brandenburg, who has introduced a bill to make possession of salvia a felony punishable by up to five years in prison.
Some say legislators are overreacting to a minor problem, but no one disputes that the plant impairs judgment and the ability to drive.
Native to Mexico and still grown there, Salvia divinorum is generally smoked but can also be chewed or made into a tea and drunk.
Called nicknames like Sally-D, Magic Mint and Diviner's Sage, salvia is a hallucinogen that gives users an out-of-body sense of traveling through time and space or merging with inanimate objects. Unlike hallucinogens like LSD or PCP, however, salvia's effects last for a shorter time, generally up to an hour.
It is not the same as the ornamental garden plant known as salvia.
No known deaths have been attributed to salvia's use, but it was listed as a factor in one Delaware teen's suicide two years ago.
"Parents, I would say, are pretty clueless," said Jonathan Appel, an assistant professor of psychology and criminal justice at Tiffin University in Ohio who has studied the emergence of the substance. "It's much more powerful than marijuana."
Salvia's short-lasting effects and the fact that it is currently legal may make it seem more appealing to teens, lawmakers say. In the Delaware suicide, the boy's mother told reporters that salvia made his mood darker but he justified its use by citing its legality. According to reports, the autopsy found no traces of the drug in his system, but the medical examiner listed it as a contributing cause.
Mike Strain, Louisiana's Agriculture and Forestry Commissioner and former legislator, helped his state in 2005 become the first to make salvia illegal, along with a number of other plants. He said the response has been largely positive.
"I got some hostile e-mails from people who sold these products," Strain said. "You don't make everybody happy when you outlaw drugs. You save one child and it's worth it."
An ounce of salvia leaves sells for around $30 on the Internet. A liquid extract from the plant, salvinorin A, is also sold in various strengths labeled "5x" through "60x." A gram of the 5x strength, about the weight of a plastic pen cap, is about $12 while 60x strength is around $65. And in some cases the extract comes in flavors including apple, strawberry and spearmint.
Web sites such as Salviadragon.com tout the product with images like a waterfall and rainbow and include testimonials like "It might sound far fetched, but I experience immortality."
Among those who believe the commotion over the drug is overblown is Rick Doblin of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, a nonprofit group that does research on psychedelic drugs and whose goal is to develop psychedelics and marijuana into prescription medication.
"I think the move to criminalize is a misguided response to a very minimal problem," Doblin said.
Doblin said salvia isn't "a party drug," "tastes terrible" and is "not going to be extremely popular." He disputes the fact teens are its main users and says older users are more likely.
"It's a minor drug in the world of psychedelics," he said.
It's hard to say how widespread the use of salvia is. Because it is legal in most states, law enforcement officials don't compile statistics.
A study of released last month by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services found just under 2 percent of people age 18 to 25 surveyed in 2006 reported using salvia in the past year. A 2007 survey of more than 1,500 San Diego State University students found that 4 percent of participants reported using salvia in the past year.
Brandenburg's bill would make salvia and its extract controlled substances in the same class as marijuana and LSD.
Florida state Sen. Evelyn Lynn, whose committee unanimously passed the salvia bill on Tuesday, said the drug should be criminalized.
"I'd rather be at the front edge of preventing the dangers of the drug than waiting until we are the 40th or more," she said.