On August 28th, 2005, Missouri became the first state in the Union to list Salvia divinorum as a Schedule I substance under House Bill 633. The Schedule I listing classified Salvia divinorum and its active constituent salvinorin A as an illegal drug with no medical value and a high potential for abuse and addiction. The Missouri ruling reflects a widespread suspicion of salvia in political circles in America and the Western world— a suspicion which has little to do with the plant’s actual effects or chemical profile, and a lot more to do with the West’s prejudice against psychoactive substances of unknown effect. The mainstream news media has also thrown fuel on the fire by spreading misinformation and sensationalism about salvia’s effects and safety, creating the perception that Salvia divinorum is a dangerous drug, comparable to LSD or cannabis in its underground popularity, that possesses a high potential for misuse. But is it?
The mainstream media has been both victim to and perpetrator of widespread misconceptions about salvia’s psychoactive effects and its popularity as a recreational drug. Stories in the news have claimed that Salvia divinorum is supplanting marijuana as the underground drug of choice for teens and young adults, alarming many Americans who had already been primed by the government’s longstanding (and ineffective) prohibition on cannabis use to regard any herbs compared to cannabis to be harmful. Furthermore, politicians seeking to ban Salvia divinorum have been swayed by news stories painting salvia as “cheaper than marijuana, stronger than LSD, as fast-acting as crack cocaine, and legally available to minors” (Lamattina 2004).
Salvia divinorum is actually a part of the mint family and bears no physical resemblance to marijuana. The wild comparison of salvia’s effects to those of LSD, although it has been repeated several times in the media, is equally spurious: though Salvia divinorum is psychoactive at half a milligram compared to 10 milligrams for psilocybin and 250 milligrams for mescaline, LSD is still much stronger at an active dose of 50 micrograms (five-hundredths of a milligram) (Sullum 2009). Furthermore, while salvia’s effects last perhaps fifteen minutes when smoked, and between 30 to 90 minutes if the leaf is chewed, LSD’s effects last between eight to twelve hours.
A few teen and young adult users of Salvia divinorum also inadvertently contributed to the bad press by posting videos of themselves on the social media sites Youtube and Facebook smoking the herb and then acting in delirious or irresponsible ways. A few young salvia users even videotaped themselves driving after taking the drug. While these videos are extreme examples of irresponsible behavior that is youth-induced rather than drug-induced, they still contributed to the backlash against salvia used in any setting whatsoever, including therapeutic and spiritual settings, and increased pressure on the government to ban the plant totally.
Bad publicity also ensued from the continued media coverage of the suicide of 17 year-old Brett Chidester, whose parents believed that his use of salvia worsened the teen’s depression and ultimately led to his death. Media outlets have claimed that Chidester included ruminations about his experimentation with Salvia divinorum in the body of his suicide note, including the following passage: “salvia allows us to give up our senses and wander in the interdimensional time and space… Also, and this is probably hard for most to accept, our existence in general is pointless” (Chalmers 2006). While perhaps sobering, these notes were never part of Chidester’s suicide note, which didn’t mention salvia at all. Furthermore he had told his parents that he had ceased his use of salvia months before his death, making it unlikely that it was even an indirect factor in his decision to end his life.
It is highly unlikely that Salvia divinorum, or any other psychedelic, would induce clinical depression, psychosis or suicidal feelings in a mentally healthy person. Salvia researcher Daniel J. Siebert states that Chidester “must have already had some thoughts about suicide. I don’t think salvia’s just going to put thoughts into people’s heads. Mentally healthy people don’t decide to take such a drastic action based on [an idea] they had in a drug state.” Instead, psychedelics, “basically amplify a lot of your own internal stuff. If you’re already having some kind of dark thoughts, a psychedelic experience could amplify that” (Sullum 2009).
As of 2011, Salvia divinorum has been banned outright in Missouri, Louisiana, Delaware and Illinois; numerous motions to classify salvia as a Schedule One controlled substance have also been introduced in other states but have stalled, been voted down or have died in committee. A bill (HR-5607) to declare Salvia divinorum and salvinorin A a Schedule One substance at the federal level was introduced by Joe Baca (D-CA) in 2002, but faced opposition from the Center for Cognitive Liberty and Ethics, which sent a delegation of representatives armed with an in-depth report on salvinorin A to Congress (Boire et. al. 2002) to argue against the bill. The Center’s representatives included Siebert, a Salvia divinorum researcher who has published papers on the plant’s pharmacology, effects and safety (Siebert 1994). HR-5607 also faced protests from scientists who argued that banning Salvia divinorum and its active constituent would interfere with important ongoing research into its therapeutic potential. The bill did not pass.
The government’s position is that Salvia divinorum is both addictive and harmful to users’ physical and mental health, but the scientific study of salvia reveals a far different—in fact, antithetical— picture of the properties of this psychoactive herb. By weight, Salvia divinorum is “the most potent naturally occurring hallucinogen” (Imanshahidi and Hosseinzadeh 2006). However, scientific studies have shown that the consumption of salvia is not toxic to human health, and that its chemical structure and action in the brain are unique among known entheogens. A longitudinal study using mice measured the potential toxicity of salvinorin A by administering the chemical by subcutaneous injection in doses far higher than what a person would typically consume (Mowry et al 2003). The study recorded no evidence of histological changes— a technical term meaning organ and/or tissue damage— in the mice, even at very high doses of salvinorin A.
Most classic hallucinogens such as LSD and mescaline are classified as alkaloids, organic chemicals with a nitrogenous base. However, salvinorin A, identified as the compound responsible for Salvia divinorum’s potent hallucinogenic effects by Siebert in 1993 (Marushia 2002; Siebert 1994a), is a diterpenoid— an organic lipid-based compound derived from terpines. It is the first such diterpine hallucinogen ever discovered, with markedly different activity in the brain compared to alkaloid-based entheogens.
Salvinorin A binds to kappa opioid receptors in the brain, which mediate the drug’s deliriant, dysphoric and dissociative effects. It is also a partial agonist for the D2 receptor, a subclass of dopamine receptors in the brain. Unlike “classic” hallucinogens like LSD and mescaline, salvinorin A does not react with the 5HT-2a serotonin receptor, the principle molecular target for most alkaloid-based entheogens.
In contrast to media alarm which portrays Salvia divinorum as a toxic drug threatening our youth, the scientific literature paints a much different picture; one of salvinorin A’s huge potential as a therapeutic drug for physical ailments and mental disorders. Salvinorin A’s action in the brain as a kappa opioid agonist has opened up broad avenues of research into using Salvia divinorum or its chemical derivatives to treat everything from drug addiction to chronic pain (Harding et al 2006). The kappa opioid receptor is one of five in a class of receptors in the brain that bind opium-like compounds and regulate their effects. Chemicals like salvinorin A that act on these receptors can alter a subject’s perception of pain (acting as an analgesic), consciousness and motor function, and have beneficial effects on mood.
A small modern study (Viren 2007) that administered salvinorin A in low, non-psychoactive doses revealed its potential to treat rheumatism, headaches, anemia, and diarrhea resulting from intestinal inflammation. The drug was effective in arresting excess intestinal motility selectively in inflamed tissue due to its binding action with kappa opioid and cannabinoid receptors in the body (Capasso et al 2006).
A 2004 survey of 500 Salvia divinorum users by Matthew Baggott found that 25.8% of the study group reported an improvement in their mood and “anti-depressant-like effects” (Baggott 2004) lasting up to 24 hours after taking salvia. Only 4.4% of salvia users in the study group reported persisting (up to 24 hours) depressive-type effects after taking salvia, and almost all users surveyed did not experience any hangover or withdrawal symptoms.
In his open letter to Congress protesting Bill Hr-5607, Daniel Siebert observed that, “kappa opioid receptor agonists [like salvinorin A] are of particular interest to pharmacologists because they provide effective pain medications that are not habit-forming and do not produce dependence. In fact, there is a growing body of evidence that… kappa opioid receptor agonists are actually ‘aversive’— the opposite of addictive. This is an important advantage over most powerful analgesics currently prescribed” (Siebert 2002).
Kappa-opioid receptors have shown immense promise in mediating remission from addiction to substances such as cocaine and heroin, which act on the brain’s mesolimbic reward pathways to produce intense feelings of pleasure and euphoria. When activated by a k-opioid agonist such as salvinorin A, these receptors have been shown in rats to naturally act as control mechanisms against addiction. In a news interview, Thomas Prisinzano, a University of Iowa assistant professor of medicinal and natural products chemistry, said, “You can give a rat free access to cocaine, free access to salvinorin A, and they stop taking cocaine” (Masis 2007). Prisinzano added that at the time of the study the team was working to develop ways to alter the structure of salvinorin A in order to eliminate its hallucinogenic effects while retaining the chemical’s addiction control mechanisms. Developing a non-psychoactive version of salvinorin A that still interacts with k-opioid receptors would be a first step to creating medications to treat addictions in users of cocaine and heroin (Masis 2007). There are currently no effective pharmaceutical medications to treat cocaine and heroin addiction.
The frequent attempts at the state level to ban Salvia divinorum aren’t surprising on the surface, given most U.S. politicians’ opposition to any substance that could be classified a “hallucinogen” or “psychoactive”. The well-known exceptions are alcohol and tobacco, both of which are legal and ubiquitous and both of which under strict definition are also psychoactive substances. It may come as no surprise to many readers that some of the politicians who have been most vocal in advocating that salvia be banned received substantial campaign contributions from the tobacco, beer, wine and liquor industries in their home states (National Institute on Money in State Politics 2006). Combined with the general level of harmful misunderstandings about the effects and toxicity of Salvia dinivorum, these kinds of financial incentives make it unlikely that the political establishment in the U.S. will consider a softer stance toward salvia and other psychedelics in the near future, despite this magical mints enormous medicinal and therapeutic potential.
Baggott, Matthew. “A Survey of Salvia divinorum Users.” Erowid Extracts 6 (June 2004): 12-14.
Boire, R.G., Russo, E., Fish, A.R., Bowman, J. “Salvia divinorum – Information concerning the Plant and its Active Principle – (re. H.R. 5607)”, 2002.
Borrelli F., Capasso F., Capasso R., Izzo, A.A., Siebert D.J., Stewart D.J., Zjawiony J.K. “The hallucinogenic herb Salvia divinorum and its active ingredient salvinorin A inhibit enteric cholinergic transmission in the guinea pig ileum.” Neurogastroenterology and Motility 18 (2006): 69-75.
Briner, Wayne, Micheal Mosher, and Mark Mowry. “Acute physiologic and chronic histologic changes in rats and mice exposed to the unique hallucinogen salvinorin A.” Journal of Psychoactive Drugs 35 (July 2003): 379-382.
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Lamattina, Diana. “A Legal High: Drug for Sale Locally, Effects Sketchy”, The Ithaca Journal Online, July 31st, 2004.
Masis, Julie. “Mexican Drug gains U.S. Following”, Reuters Online, February 28th, 2007, http://www.alertnet.org/thenews/newsdesk/N24424552.htm
Sullum, Jacob. “The Salvia Ban Wagon: How does terrible drug policy get made? The rush to ban a psychedelic herb provides a textbook case”, Reason Magazine, December 2009, http://reason.com/archives/2009/11/19/the-salvia-ban-wagon/singlepage
Viren, Sarah. “Officials Eye Growing Popularity of New Drug: “Magic Mint” Salvia Drug Gains Attention”, Houston Chronicle, August 23rd, 2008.