Salvia Divinorum

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Editor's Note: Eric B. Wilhelm is an intern at StoptheDrugWar.org. His bio is in our "staff" section.

As the recent frenzy over the herb salvia divinorum and attempts to ban it have heated up in a number of states, the opportunity to honestly and realistically discuss the matter in terms of drug policy has been mostly lost in favor of irresponsible journalism and knee-jerk political reactions.

Opportunistic politicians have come out with particularly harsh demands for criminalization in order to appear protective of troubled youth, while journalists stand by, failing to challenge orthodox prohibitionist assumptions. One example of rampant alarmism and distortion is the March 11 article by the Associated Press entitled "Is Salvia the Next Marijuana?" Without even detailing how this widely distributed piece is unbalanced and lacking, we can merely examine the title to see the way that utterly misleading beliefs about drugs are perpetuated by the media.

It's really quite simple why salvia is so far from being "the next marijuana." The offending article itself establishes early on that the herb "is a hallucinogen that gives users an out-of-body sense of traveling through time and space or merging with inanimate objects." Even the most dishonest drug warrior wouldn't claim marijuana does anything like that to users. Other recent articles quote users who say the salvia high is simply not fun or long-lasting enough to make people want to try it more than once.


Marijuana lasts much longer, often induces euphoria and laughter, and merely alters the user's perceptions a bit -- it does not immediately "blast them into outer space." Because the dissociative and hallucinogenic qualities of salvia are so intense and jarring to the psyche, few choose to consume it very frequently. The tens of millions of Americans who use marijuana generally are not looking to dissociate themselves from their bodies or their surroundings, but often to do the very opposite - to enhance their experiences or simply to relax in their surroundings. Anyone who has any doubt that the use of a hallucinogen will never overtake marijuana use can check the Monitoring the Future survey of drug use by high school students. The most recent data shows that for every 12th grader who used ANY hallucinogen (LSD, magic mushrooms, PCP, mescaline, salvia etc.) in the past month there are 11 who have used marijuana in that time.

Looking beyond the absurdity of claims that salvia may become the "next marijuana," in terms of popularity or frequency of use (as implied by the media hype), there are a few ways in which salvia may become quite similar to America's favorite illegal drug. As salvia becomes a banned drug in more and more states, illicit drug dealers will no doubt pick up the slack in demand. Curious adolescents will no longer have to find their way to the head shop across town in order to buy some -- trying to convince someone 18 or older to actually buy it if they are underage -- because their neighborhood drug dealer might be offering it to them the next time they score some pot. Alternatively, salvia users who grow their own plants in their home or garden, which is reportedly an easy task, will soon become the subject of the kind of SWAT raids that often claim the lives of innocent people. By the way, this little bit of gardening will get you a mandatory minimum of 2 years in prison in Louisiana.


I have to wonder whether concerned citizens who are passionately calling for outright criminalization have truly considered what the potential results of their demands. In some states the possession of salvia is a felony, which could include years in prison and hard labor. We ought to seriously consider whether we want the government and police to be deciding how to deal with young people who begin experimenting with this substance or if the guidance or punishment should be left up to parents. Is hard labor really what a bored and curious young person needs to "straighten them out"? And what about the users of salvia who claim to be consuming the drug responsibly and for the purpose of gaining spiritual insight or to foster deep introspection? How will society at large benefit from spending our collective resources tracking down and imprisoning them?

If it makes no sense criminalizing salvia, how can we justify the rest of the War on Drugs? There is no way to arrive at a rational drug policy without asking such questions. As it stands though, challenging conventional beliefs about drug laws is about as alien to most politicians as salvia trips, so the task of thinking clearly and demanding change belongs to the people.

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

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.

https://stopthedrugwar.org/files/salvialeaves.jpg
salvia leaves (courtesy erowid.org)
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.

Salvia Divinorum: Virginia House Passes Ban

A bill to ban the hallucinogenic herb salvia divinorum was approved by a vote of 98-0 in the Virginia House of Delegates Tuesday, paving the way for the Old Dominion to join the handful of states and localities that have already criminalized the member of the mint family. The measure now moves to the state senate.

https://stopthedrugwar.org/files/salvialeaves.jpg
salvia leaves (photo courtesy Erowid.org)
Salvia divinorum produces powerful but short-lived psychedelic effects. Once obscure, it has become increasingly well-known thanks to Internet-spread word of mouth. While the DEA considers it a "drug of interest," the agency has yet to move to designate it a controlled substance, and it remains freely available over the Internet or at various retail outlets in locales that have not banned it.

Sponsored by Delegate John O'Bannon (R-Henrico), HB21 would move salvia from unrestricted status to a Schedule I controlled substance under Virginia law. O'Bannon said he introduced the bill after receiving suggestions he do so from law enforcement.

"It's really not a pleasant thing to take. It can cause bad trips, dysphoria and sweats," O'Bannon said, in remarks reported by The Commonwealth Times, the student newspaper at Virginia Commonwealth University and the only Virginia media outlet to pick up the story.

Which is why, despite all the hullabaloo, salvia has not emerged as a popular drug. Most users are quite happy to limit themselves to using it once or twice.

O'Bannion demonstrated an idiosyncratic view of individual liberties as he discussed his bill. "I'm respectful of individual liberties and public good. I think what's happening is this is becoming a drug that can be misused," O'Bannon said. "Putting it on the Schedule I will not harm anybody," he said, but would make "a reasonable balance between public safety and civil individual liberties."

Of course, putting salvia on Schedule I, where its users would be subject to the same prison terms as the users of other proscribed drugs, would harm those people unfortunate enough to be arrested with it. But O'Bannion and his fellow delegates apparently didn't consider the impact that being caged in jails or prisons for long periods of time has on individual liberty.

Legislation: Illinois Joins Short List of States Banning Salvia Divinorum

As of January 1, possession of salvia divinorum in Illinois will be a felony. Before the legislature passed a bill this year, the obscure Mexican mint with hallucinogenic properties had been unregulated and freely sold at tobacco stores, "head shops," and even gas stations.

https://stopthedrugwar.org/files/salvialeaves.jpg
salvia leaves (photo courtesy Erowid.org)
"We decided to move forward rather than waiting for someone to be killed because of it," said state Rep. Dennis Reboletti (D-Elmhurst), the bill's sponsor. He told the Chicago Tribune it was necessary for Illinois to regulate the herb tightly because the federal government had failed to act. The DEA considers salvia a "drug of concern," but has so far not moved to schedule it under the Controlled Substances Act.

Salvia has traditionally been used in religious ceremonies by Mazatec Indians in southern Mexico, but in recent years, it has spread to the US and other countries, where it is easily available over the counter or via the Internet. At high doses, salvia can produce intense hallucinations, but those effects are short-lived, with a "trip" being over in a matter of minutes. It is not a drug experience that most users wish to repeatedly revisit.

But for Reboletti and his peers, the risk of teens and college students from salvia use are so great that it must be banned. "It's very likely that you could hurt yourself or hurt others while in this drug-induced state," he said.

But others said that given salvia's spiritual and medical uses and potential, banning it is too harsh. Crystal Basler, owner of a religious supply store in Carbondale, told the Tribune most of her customers were medical -- not recreational -- users. "Some people describe [the effect] as they get very relaxed, kind of like taking an anti-stress pill," Basler said. "The leaf is very, very mild. There's no reason to ever make the leaf illegal. A lot of women buy it for PMS depression."

Salvia should be regulated, but not banned, she said. "I'm a big fan of it being regulated," Basler said. "But it shouldn't be illegal because you're interfering with people's right to choose in terms of their health care and religious following."

Salvia has already been made a Schedule I drug under state laws in Delaware, Louisiana, and Missouri, as well as a handful of towns around the country. Bills to ban it have also been brought in Alabama, Alaska, California, Florida, Iowa, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Texas, but have so far not succeeded.

Salvia Divinorum: Vermont Town Gets Fight Over Sales Ban

Last week, Drug War Chronicle reported on an escalating campaign to criminalize salvia divinorum, the fast- and short-acting hallucinogenic Mexican member of the mint family whose use has seeped into the popular consciousness among North American psychonauts in the past decade. The story opened with the town of Middlebury, Vermont, declaring a public health emergency to stop a local tobacconist from selling the potent herb.

https://stopthedrugwar.org/files/salvialeaves.jpg
salvia leaves (photo courtesy Erowid)
Now, the store owner is fighting back. The day our story ran, James Stone, proprietor of the Emporium Tobacco and Gift Shop, announced he will appeal the order and has hired an attorney to fight it. "If they had come to me first, I would have worked with them," Stone said.

But that's not what happened. The town council acted on the matter without notifying Stone, who only learned of the ban when a reporter called him the next day. The council acted after Police Chief Tom Hanley reported that the town school resource officer had become aware that teenagers were using salvia. While Hanley could not name any cases where anyone had suffered any adverse effects from ingesting the drug, he urged the council not to take that chance. "It's a tragedy waiting to happen," he said.

Hanley also made the odd claim that the hallucinogenic effects of salvia, which last for less than 20 minutes, can be extended for several hours if the user is drinking alcohol. "You can't have kids with developing brains putting this stuff in their bodies," Hanley warned. "The effects are different for different individuals and you just don't know what's going to happen."

But the Middlebury ban is not just against sales to minors. It is a total ban.

Salvia has been a "substance of concern" for the DEA for several years, but remains legal under federal law. Five states and a handful of municipalities have criminalized it, and similar efforts are afoot in seven other states this year. But Middlebury is unique in having chosen the public health emergency route.

That's raising eyebrows among civil libertarians. "It sounds very arbitrary and very broad and very subjective," said Allen Gilbert, executive director of Vermont's chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. "How does one person make the determination that something is a danger?" Gilbert said.

Feature: The War on Salvia Divinorum Heats Up

Middlebury, Vermont, this week declared a public health emergency to prevent a local business from selling it. It's already illegal in five states -- Louisiana, Missouri, Tennessee, Oklahoma and Delaware -- and a number of towns and cities across the country, and now politicians in at least seven other states have filed bills to make it illegal there. For the DEA, it is a "drug of concern."

https://stopthedrugwar.org/files/salvialeaves.jpg
salvia leaves (photo courtesy Erowid)
It is salvia divinorum, a member of the mint family from Mexico, where it has been used by Masatec 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.

As law enforcement and politicians stumble across it and the phenomenon of its recreational use, they are reacting in the classic fashion with moves to outlaw it. In Delaware, grieving parents of a teenager who committed suicide after using salvia managed to push a bill through the legislature. In Ohio, police who stumbled across it while investigating counterfeit goods raised the alarm, even though they had never had any problem with it. The cops responded predictably. "It's something we feel should be outlawed," Lorain County Drug Task Force Capt. Dennis Cavanaugh told the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

But researchers say the while salvia's effects on consciousness may be disquieting, the plant has not been shown to be toxic to humans, that 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.

Salvia is a popular item at the Urban Shaman Ethnobotanicals in downtown Vancouver, and media attention only spurs sales, according to proprietor Chris Bennett. "We're selling about 50 grams of the 10x every couple of weeks," he told Drug War Chronicle. "It's mainly young people -- although we don't sell to anyone under 18 -- but it's not limited to them. Whenever I get quoted in the media about salvia, I get a slew of new middle-aged customers who want to try it."

Once or twice is usually enough, said Bennett. "It's very powerful -- you can forget you even smoked it -- very intense, and the onset is very rapid," he explained. "There is also a lot of variation from person to person. Four people can be sitting in a room taking it, and one would be laughing, one would be afraid the world was ending, one would feel like he was two-dimensional, and one would say that everything seems to be made out of Legos. I hear a lot of people say that one."

Like many other purveyors of salvia, Urban Shaman provides an information sheet with each purchase. "We tell people they should have a sitter. If you're on salvia and end up on the balcony, you might think you can get downstairs by jumping," said Bennett. "You want to have someone there with you; it's irresponsible to use it by yourself," he said. "We also recommend a quiet environment. The experience can be influenced by background noise, which can be distorted or misinterpreted. Setting is important."

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."

"I'm unaware of any studies suggesting that salvia is toxic," said Thomas Prisinzano, assistant professor of medicinal and natural products chemistry at the University of Iowa. "Unlike other hallucinogens, it acts by stimulating opioid receptors, and basically produces an hallucinogenic experience that peaks in less than 15 minutes. It produces a subpopulation that finds it very unpleasant and never wants to do it again."

Nor, because of its intense effects, are you likely to get strung out on it. "There doesn't appear to be much potential for dependence or addiction, although no one has investigated this in any detail," Roth said. "The typical person I talked to didn't like the experience; it is too intense for someone looking for a mini-LSD-like experience. It's very rapid in onset and very intense, so it's not normally considered a party drug."

Even Bennett, whose clientele could be expected to contain some serious psychedelic adventurers, confirmed that it is not a drug that most people come back to again and again. "Even those who are interested in it don't use it very often, maybe once a week to explore head space, but those salvianauts are few and far between," he reported. "Most people try it once or twice and have no desire to try it again. It is the ones who use it with a purpose or for a spiritual quest or vision that seem to find it most useful," he said.

"There is a subpopulation using it for spiritual rather than recreational purposes," agreed Roth. "That seems to be the cohort that is using it more than once or twice."

While the DEA did not return Chronicle calls for comment on the current status of salvia, it has moved slowly. It has classified the plant as a "drug of concern" for several years now, but has yet to act to place it under the Controlled Substances Act. The plant's limited potential dependence could be one reason. Another could be that it is still relatively rare and unlikely to ever develop into a drug with a mass following.

That's fine with the scientists, who could see regulating salvia, but not prohibiting it. "The distribution of salvia should be regulated," Roth said. "We regulate nicotine and alcohol, and the effects of those compounds on human consciousness and perception is quite modest compared with salvia. That this is available over the Internet to young children is a bit irresponsible. They could engage in some dangerous behavior while taking it. We don't sell alcohol over the Internet."

But while Roth called for salvia to be regulated, he didn't want to see it added to the list of drugs proscribed by the Controlled Substances Act. "I'm against making it a Schedule I compound," he said. "Once you schedule something, it makes scientific research more difficult, and there is considerable potential for derivatives of the active ingredient to have great medical utility. Scheduling it makes it more difficult for those of us trying to relieve human suffering."

If salvia were prohibited, his work would suffer, said Prisinzano. "This would hurt clinical researchers more than me, and there is an effort underway to do clinical trials on humans before a review board now," he said. "But it would make it more difficult for me to get leaves. Right now we get them from head shops on the Internet."

Perhaps legislators in states like Iowa, Illinois, New Jersey, Oregon, and Texas, where prohibition bills are on the table, should calmly reassess the scope of the salvia menace and place such legislation on the back burner where it belongs. Or replace them with reasonable regulatory measures. But that's probably asking too much.

DEA: Mind-Altering Drugs are Available in Stores, But Don’t Buy Them

Someone needs to remind the DEA and CBS 4 in Denver that many people actually enjoy doing drugs.

DEA Warns Over-The-Counter Drug Is Like Acid
encourages people not to take salvia. It also identifies by name several stores you shouldn’t go to because they sell it and describes vivid hallucinations you can avoid by not smoking it.

The thing is, suggesting that a drug is "a lot like taking acid" and complaining that it is available "at the Head Quarters on South Marion Street in Denver" is a curious way of discouraging salvia experimentation. I wonder how the proprietors of Head Quarters feel about local news exposing them for selling potent legal drugs and giving away their location.

Dave Chappelle once did a skit in which he played a crack addict addressing a group of school children about the dangers of crack. During the course of his presentation, he inadvertently provided numerous details about where crack could be purchased, at which point the students all started taking notes.

This is just like that, except it’s not supposed to be funny.

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