If you went to college in the ’90s, you’ve probably heard of salvia divinorum. Its popularity understandably coincided with the rise of the internet — it’s legal, you can buy it online from your dorm room, and it’ll get you through a drought on your weed supply.

The only problem was that it never seemed to do much. Wannabe-hippies seemed to always have big bags of the stuff, which resembled finely ground green newspaper, taking bong hit after bong hit of the junk straight to their lungs. I remember a guy known as “Fiji Tom” telling me he’d “ridden through the ocean on a purple dolphin” after a few monster tokes from his Frankenstein water pipe. A skeptic was I.

Salvia divinorum, in its original state, is a plant that grows naturally in the Oaxaca region of Mexico. A member of the sage genus and mint family, the white-and-purple-flowering plant’s Latin name translates to “sage of the seers.” Although I’d written it off as a hardly effective, lousy alternative to marijuana, a bit of research shows that salvia does have a long history of shamanic use and, when pure, can certainly alter perceptions.

Drugs aren’t my bag, but I’m down to try most things once, as long as they’re okay with our all-knowing federal government. Exchange Factor on Meeting Street carries salvia in half-gram packages, enough for “five experiences,” so I dropped by and picked up enough to freak out a handful of eager guinea pigs. Six of us gathered at the beach one recent Saturday, carefully reading the suggestions on the packaging.

“Always use in a safe environment, free from clutter or anything that may be distracting.” Sand and surf, check. “Sitting or lying down is a must.” Not a problem. “Never attempt to operate any form of heavy machinery or moving vehicle while using this product.” Okey dokey. “It is extremely important that the product be used in accordance with its color-coded potency system. This allows users to become comfortable with the effects associated with each specific level before proceeding onto the next. Disregarding this suggestion may lead to a less than favorable experience.” Uh oh…

Salvia and reality don’t mix

Some quotes from an experience on Folly Beach:

“It feels like my body wants to explode, but it’s not a bad thing. It’s an explosion of tingling.”

“What is that pounding? My hands are so heavy. This is witchcraft.”

“As I gather my thoughts I realize I need more hands. My head is lower than my feet, but my brain is in the clouds.”

“When I talk or make noise it sounds like crying noises, like when you try to talk and you’re crying really hard. I’ve got heavy, floaty hands. I’m trying to focus on dog bones and they keep zooming in and out.”

“There is no way I could walk. It keeps increasing and I can’t control it. Now I can breathe and take it all in. I feel as though I can’t write, finish a sentence, or stop laughing.”

“I didn’t feel like the spiritual journey happened that was expressed on the box.”

“I feel like I’m in a ball.And I’m being raked.”

The salvia at Exchange Factor comes in five colors. Green (Personal Discovery), Yellow (Deep Self-Exploration), Red (Visionary Quest), Purple (Beyond), and Blue (Infinity). The Blue carries an asterisk next to it that reads, “Please note that the Blue level was created as an addendum to the expanded Salvia Zone program and is reserved for extremely veteran salvia users with clear and specific meditative objectives. It is not intended for novice or recreational use.” Then in bold, “Caution is required.”

I had Red and Blue. None of us were “veteran Salvia users.” So, we mixed, made Purple, and packed a pretty glass bubbler with the fine, deep green powder, resembling nothing like the papery crap I’d seen in college. Everyone had a notebook and a pen ready to scribble whatever thoughts came to mind during the experience, which is advertised as a three to five minute “Gust,” followed by a mellower 15- to 20-minute “Glide,” leading into “the Glow” that can linger for up to two hours.

For a substance advertised as facilitating meditative experiences, the “Gust” was comprised of uncontrollable laughter on everyone’s part, several “WTFs,” and in my case, buckets of tears streaming uncontrollably from my eye ducts. Everyone commented that their hands felt heavy, but that their whole body had the sensation of floating. “I’m swimming in mercury,” I scratched onto my pad.

About when the six of us approached the “Glide,” or the moment where the nonexistent walls stopped caving in and the mind reconnects with the body, three military fighter jets skimmed over the ocean, shaking everyone back into brief confusion.

After 10 minutes or so, we were able to communicate and understand reality again. Our cells were done comfortably exploding and the weight of the liquid world was lifted. No one felt like they’d been on a “spiritual journey,” just an interesting, albeit brief, experience.

Although it’s legal, salvia shouldn’t be considered a viable or safe alternative to breaking the law by smoking weed. Hitting it at a stoplight would inevitably result in promptly driving your car into somebody or something. It’s fascinating, it’s mind-out-of-body, and it certainly fucks you up. If you’re into an “ether walk” style of altering your perceptions, you might dig it.

Nancy Reagan’s war will probably come salvia’s way soon, but until then, um… have fun kids.

See a video of our salvia experience at www.CityPaperTV.com.