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No Evidence Needed? War on Salvia Divinorum Heating Up -- YouTube Videos Play Role

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #529)
Drug War Issues
Politics & Advocacy

Nearly a year ago, we reported on mounting efforts to ban salvia divinorum in states and localities around the country. Since then, the war on the hallucinogenic plant has only intensified, despite the lack of any evidence that its use is widespread or that it has any harmful physical effects on its users.

salvia leaves (courtesy
Salvia is a member of the mint family from Mexico, where it has been used by Mazatec curanderos (medicine men) for centuries. Within the past decade, awareness of its powerful hallucinogenic properties has begun to seep into the popular consciousness. Now, it is widely available at head shops and via the Internet, where it can be purchased in a smokeable form that produces almost instantaneous intoxication and a freight train of a trip lasting a handful of minutes.

Fueled largely by the appearance of salvia-intoxicated youths on YouTube (there were some 3,500 such videos at last count), law enforcement's reflexive desire to prohibit any mind-altering substances, and legislators' wishes to "do something" about youth drug use, efforts to ban the plant are spreading. While some states have stopped at limiting salvia's use to adults, most recently Maine, more have banned it outright. Legislative measures affecting salvia have been filed in 16 more states too, as well as a number of towns and cities.

In 2005, Louisiana became the first state to ban salvia, making it a proscribed Schedule I controlled substance. Since then, Delaware, Michigan, Missouri, North Dakota, and Tennessee have joined the list. (Tennessee bans ingestion -- it's a Class A misdemeanor -- but not possession. All the others excepting North Dakota have placed it in Schedule I.) In Oklahoma, only concentrated salvia is banned. Salvia is also a controlled substance in Australia, Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Italy, Spain and Sweden.

The press has also played a role in stoking fears of salvia and misstating its popularity. "Salvia: The Next Marijuana?," asked the Associated Press in a widely-reprinted story earlier this month.

Chris Bennett, proprietor of Urban Shaman Ethnobotanicals in downtown Vancouver, just laughed at the "salvia is the next marijuana" meme. "Anyone who says that is demonstrating their complete lack of knowledge of either salvia or marijuana," he said. "There is just no comparison. Cannabis is a mild relaxant and euphoric, while salvia is a very fast-acting visionary substance where some people report out of body experiences."

Researchers say that while salvia's effects on consciousness may be disquieting, the plant has not been shown to be toxic to humans, its effects are so potent is unlikely to be used repeatedly, and its active property, salvinorin A, could assist in the development of medicines for mood disorders. While action at the state level would unlikely affect research, a move by the DEA to put it on the controlled substances list could.

There are hazards to messing with hallucinogens, one expert was quick to point out. "It's an hallucinogen, and while its hallucinogenic actions are different from those induced by LSD and other hallucinogens, it has the liabilities that hallucinogens do," said Bryan Roth, a professor of pharmacology at University of North Carolina's School of Medicine, the man who isolated salvinorin A. "When people take it, they are disoriented. If you don't know where you are and you're driving a car, that would be a bad experience."

Still, said Roth, while it may make you freak out, it isn't going to kill you. "There is no evidence of any overt toxicity, there are no reports in the medical literature that anyone has died from it. The caveat is that there have been no formal studies done on humans, but the animal data suggests that it doesn't kill animals given massive doses, and that's usually -- but not always -- predictive for human pharmacology."

The DEA has been evaluating salvia for several years now, but there is no sign that it is ready to take action. "Salvia is a drug we are currently looking at to see if it should or should not be scheduled," said Rogene Waite, a spokesperson for the DEA, which is tasked with evaluating potential drug "threats." The agency has initiated the process of evaluating the eight factors listed in the Controlled Substances Act in determining whether or not to schedule a drug, she said. "There is no time frame or limit on this process," she said, providing no further hint on when or if ever the DEA would move to add salvia onto the federal list of controlled substances.

But legislators across the land are not waiting for the DEA. In California, Assemblyman Anthony Adams (R-Hesperia) introduced a bill that would ban salvia for minors at the urging of the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department, he told the Riverside Press-Enquirer. "If you have the opportunity to get in front of an emerging drug, I think, geez, you should do that," said Adams, whose district includes San Bernardino and Redlands.

On the other side of the country, Massachusetts state Rep. Vinny deMacedo (R-Plymouth) is cosponsoring legislation that would criminalize salvia possession. "I believe by not making this drug illegal we are sending a message to our youth that it is okay, and there is no way that a drug that causes such mind altering effects on an individual should be considered legal," deMacedo told the Plymouth News.

Again, legislators took action after being alerted by law enforcement. DeMacedo said he agreed to sponsor the bill after hearing from Plymouth County Sheriff Joseph MacDonald. "I'd never heard of it before," deMacedo said. "It creates this psychedelic-type, mind-altering high, similar to LSD. I thought, 'You've got to be kidding. Something like this is legal?'"

In Florida, Rep. Mary Brandenburg wants to save the kids by sending anyone possessing salvia to prison for up to five years. "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," she explained.

While legislators attempt to stay ahead of the curve by banning any new, potentially mind-altering substances at the drop of hat, their efforts are misdirected, said Urban Shaman's Bennett. The YouTube kids may be the public face of salvia, but they are only a minority of users, he said. "It's all ages," he said, adding that his store does not sell to people under 18. "Every time there is some media attention, I get a bunch of middle-aged people coming in and asking for it."

Salvia is not a party drug, said Bennett. "The most serious users are people seeking a classic shamanic experience, seeking a visionary experience as part of their spiritual path. They feel they're accessing a higher level of consciousness," he explained. "And even they don't seem to use it more than once a month or so."

For all the commotion surrounding salvia, there is very little evidence of actual harm to anyone, said Bennett. "You'll notice you don't hear anybody talking about organic damage to the human organism," he said. "This is all purely fear and loathing of people having a visionary experience."

What little data there is on salvia use and its effects tends to bear him out. There are no reported deaths from salvia use, with the exception of a Delaware teenager who committed suicide in 2006 at some point after using it. (That unfortunate young man is widely cited by the proponents of banning salvia, even though there is no concomitant wave of salvia-linked suicides. Also, he was reportedly taking an acne medication linked to depression and had been using alcohol.) Users are not showing up with any frequency in mental hospitals or hospital emergency rooms.

While the YouTube kids may present a problematic public face of salvia use, there's not much to be done about that, said Bennett. "You can't control that," he shrugged. "And so what? Some kids are having a powerful visionary experience for five minutes on YouTube. Why is that somehow more threatening than watching someone in the jungle take ayahuasca or something on National Geographic?"

Bennett, for one, has no use for a ban on salvia -- or any other plant, for that matter. "We have a fundamental natural right to have access to all plants, and I don't care if it's salvia or marijuana or poppy or coca. That's just as clear-cut as our right to air and water," he said.

But Bennett's perspective is not one widely shared by legislators in the US. Instead, they reflexively reach to prohibit that which they do not understand. And the very "kids" they claim to be saving will be the ones going to prison.

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.


Kyle Westerman (not verified)

For the ignorance that the U.S. legislators are showing in their movement to ban this "drug". This powerful entheogen should be used and respected by mature people, I can agree with that. However is it illegal for a youth to smoke cigarettes when it is clearly only for sale to 18+ year olds? No. Kids will always find a way to alter themselves so its time to stop blaming plants and start finding a better way to control drug use and stop the drug war. Regulation and taxation of plant based, all natural drugs IMO is the best idea. This entire movement against salvia makes me want to vomit.

Fri, 03/28/2008 - 2:15pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Like a lot of people I smoked salvia and didn't get any effect. There are specific techniques you must follow to get the full blast. Probably just smoking pipe after pipe would do it also, like about seven of them. Daniel Siebert, the guy who "discovered" Salvia for the West, mentioned chewing wad after wad of it in your mouth. But my memory is hazy: Check out the interview with this guy on for more and better info, as well as his website.

Geffulah El Haquim

Fri, 03/28/2008 - 7:13pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

"Plymouth County Sheriff Joseph MacDonald. "I'd never heard of it before," deMacedo said. "It creates this psychedelic-type, mind-altering high, similar to LSD. I thought, 'You've got to be kidding. Something like this is legal?'""
SAY WHAT! Why do idiots like this want to make everything illegal? legal prescription drugs kill way more people than the illegal ones do! Heres why, because politicians get a lot of money from "legal" drug companies! seems the less harmful it is the more they fight to ban it.
personally I have never heard of the stuff, but the sure fire way to get our kids to try it is start trying to make laws against it. teens are naturally rebellious and will try it just because they want to rebell.
I say, You've got to be kidding, someone like this wants to control people even more than our government already does? reminder mr sheriff, of your oath of office, protect, uphold, and defend the laws of the constitution. stop trying to take away the rights of the american people.
Let's not create more need for prison space, let non violent drug offenders out, and keep the pedophiles and other violent criminals in! I just call it "common sense", but in our government, "sense is not very common"!
Drugs that kill, you buy at the pharmacy.
Drugs that don't kill get you raped in prison!

Fri, 03/28/2008 - 9:37pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

banning/prohibiting. salvia only drives it underground and increases the price (same old story)
it is easily grown and there'll be a burgeoning 'criminal' market for it with the cops crashing doors and the fed's stealing money & property from plain old folks that don't believe their lies.
that's how the mafia (government) works. they'll steal anything they can from the people like; freedom, money, property, their future, their family, their kids (oh the kids parents were growing salvia; take the kids.

Mon, 03/31/2008 - 9:47am Permalink
Giordano (not verified)

Knee-jerk reactions from a few politicos are all it takes in the U.S. to start the process of arbitrarily persecuting people for their private, harmless activities. It’s an old routine. The persecutors are usually anti-rationalists, people who have few clues about anything, much less the objects or behaviors they ban. Unlike most of the illicit drugs that are consumed, those who promote fear and persecution as solutions to a particularly benign activity or targeted belief system are ultimately the true poisoners of societies.

Altering one’s state of consciousness appears to be the main object of fear in the case of salvia and other drugs, apart from any health considerations. The fear is that an altered state of mind will open an individual’s perspectives on themselves and the world around them, and in so doing help sustain those who advocate an open and tolerant society, one that extends its good will beyond the confines of its national boundaries. Salvia probably won’t do this, but it is sufficient that some people think it will.

There are losers in any open society. War mongers and political criminals are marginalized, as is the judicial industrial complex. Various religions whose existence is thought to depend upon isolating their members from society, and worldliness in general, view such cerebral freedoms as an assault upon their value systems, and in some cases, as out-and-out competition. An openly aware and skeptical public makes it difficult for corporations to steal. All parasitic bureaucracies become suspect. The intolerant are forced to pursue professions that actually benefit society, as opposed to living the simple life of feeding off the public dole by making others suffer for no legitimate reason.

Life in an open society may be more demanding and difficult, in that a person is expected to exercise in some intelligent way their own responsibilities, but it certainly beats what Americans have now.


Mon, 03/31/2008 - 1:48pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi, I never post here but Im an avid reader. I'm an enormous fan of salvia, finding it to be the perfect drug for psychonaughts who chase after these out of body experiences and the oneness with the universe that is induced by such experiences. Several times a Salvia smoker and a habitual cannabis smoker I find the prohibition of such "drugs" distasteful. and well, wrong. Granted, I feel highly addictive drugs like pharm's and H should be carefully watched, however if one even watches the youtube videos (if one can, as they are all mostly a mass of giggle fits by immature psychonaughts), I don't see harm in feeling out of body, or even just laughing your ass of for five minutes, they do say afterall, that laughter is the best medicine. There is the enormous difference between marijuana, saliva, and sedatives. I've never seen anyone laugh for 10 minutes straight on Vicodin, or Percocets, or OxyContin, or cocaine for that matter. Nor have I heard of it altering one's conciousness in the same fashion as marijuana or salvia. The fact of the matter is, 5 years for possession of Saliva or Marijuana does not seem merited. Even high grade pot will only last for a couple hours, such as sour diesel, or KB. Longest I was stoned was for 4 hours, longest salvia trip, 30 minutes, longest cocaine high, 3 days. Please. can we knock some sense or experience into these politicians?

Mon, 03/31/2008 - 4:09pm Permalink
tokerdesigner (not verified)

drcnet needs to publish true practical information on how to toke moderate dosages of riefer, salvia and other herbs (25 mg. per smoke). Rolling a .5 g.- 1-g. joint exposes users to heat shock, carbon monoxide surplus, and other toxins that produce health problems blamed on the salvia or the riefer.

Mon, 03/31/2008 - 9:28pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

When people are considering whether or not to try drugs they should thoroughly research them first. has been doing a great job of educating people for years, and that's a great thing, and to now be able to complement that knowledge with seeing the effects of a drug on video, that's even better.
Prohibitionists have an understandable fear that if drugs were legal too many people would use them. What i think is that we don't need to make drugs illegal to keep most people away from them. Society has its own natural mechanisms for doing that. If a drug makes people unbearable to be around (like crack), for example, everyone will get pissed at anyone who does crack. Most people would not want to be crackheads just because everyone talks badly about crackheads. Crack doesn't need to be illegal for everyone to talk badly about crackheads. People would talk less badly about cokeheads than they would about crackheads, and appropiately so. Every drug would get condemned to the extent that it needs to.
Apart from the social outcast aspect, there is also the aspect of social knowledge about drugs. If a drug is very harmful and people know of its effects, most people will choose not to use it. If drugs were legal, drug education would be much more honest. There would be less demonization, there would be more videos on the web, and one would also be able to see more drug users in real life (nowadays, they walk among us but we can't know who they are because they are forced to hide it from us). I believe there should be coke bars, for example (bars where they sell alcohol and cocaine). If there were, we would be able to clearly see the effects coke has on people. A first time coke user would go to one of these places and meet old time cokeheads and see what their bodies and minds are like. They would be able to see whether they really want to be like them or not.
I'm sure many people who saw the salvia videos (kids and adults alike) did not like what they saw. Some did like what they saw, and i think fine for them. They should thoroughly read up on it and decide whether they want to do it or not. Criminalizing it is unnecessary. The more people know about it, the more society will use its natural mechanisms to appropiately supress or allow its use.

Tue, 04/01/2008 - 6:16am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Kudos to the DEA for taking their time and keeping salvia legal so far. Let's hope it stays this way.

Tue, 04/01/2008 - 5:58pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

I find it to be repulsive, it tastes like dead fish and is not an enjoyable experience...for me. I have tried it at least 6 times of varying strengths and always found it to be uncomfortable at best interesting. I have decided it is not for me, but on the other hand my roommate can handle more than anyone Ive seen with little affect to him, he finds it enjoyable but on rare occasions. I also have met those who smoke it habitually, they are strange, disconnected, and easily thrown into saliva flashbacks when they use alcohol or cannabis. Despite my personal hatred for saliva and my belief that is is mentally damaging with continuous use, i think it there is no reason to ban it entirely. Words of advice for the curious, never alone, never in public, take off all your jewelery before you use it, a lot of people forget what it is and tear it off, and finally be comfortable in a place where if you needed to you can scream without disturbing people. My recommendation is just don't try it, but thats me.

Tue, 04/01/2008 - 7:22pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Stupid people who post videos on youtube are going to ruin it for everyone. The more videos that get posted i think the less time we have until it becomes illegal.

Mon, 04/07/2008 - 10:59am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

I feel the point of this story is being missed. I think we have to start battling the issue from a different angle if we are ever going to win against this gestapo type of governing.

Although the use of drugs by young people has always been a coming of age type ritual, and lord knows I was the always a band leader, I think the whole fight is constantly being won by, "the otherside" because of their always easy use of kids a a reason to protect us from the evil drugs.

Somehow we need to change our battle strategy. It's not the fact that these kids tried Salvia that really bothers me. It's that the site YouTube would allow these kid's, intoxication recordings, to be posted. As a parent wouldn't this be the more disturbing fact? Tell me why someone under 18 is even allowed to post something like this on a family type site. ( Am I being naive?)

I enjoy changing my consciousness as much as the next guy, which should be ok, as long as that person is of legal age.

I am sure it's been thought of, but we need to continue to revisit the idea, or maybe, I'm just rambling having just smoked a nice fatty.

Sat, 04/19/2008 - 4:21pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

When I first saw, salvia was cool cause the trips were short and everyone seemed to just laugh it off and enjoy the experience. But as I have been reading.. the more they ban it, the more popular it will become

Tue, 04/07/2009 - 10:56pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Wow, this list was perfect timing. But reading through, I’ve noticed that I’ve done many of these things already. Still, there were a few new things for me to add to my regime.
Keep up the excellent work! Your website helps to keep me from boredom as well.

Wed, 05/06/2009 - 4:30pm Permalink

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