News: A Legal High

Salvia gains popularity in local drug culture

Jul 12, 2007 at 2:06 pm
Sean Hughes

Legal for now, salvia is a potent hallucinogen available in local stores.

Salvia is a recreational drug that has highly disorienting, hallucinogenic effects, and it's legal in 45 of 50 states, including Ohio. It has slowly crept into the drug culture since it began to be sold commercially in the mid-'90s and is growing in popularity in Greater Cincinnati.

Salvia is normally sold at head shops such as The Smoke Shop in Clifton, where it's a hot commodity.

"It's pretty insane the amount that we sell," says one Smoke Shop employee, who declined to be named. "We sell it every single day up to a dozen times."

The salvia clientele at The Smoke Shop is "definitely more male than female," with the average age of the user being "between 18 and 35 normally," according to the employee.

Although it wasn't prevalent in Western culture until about a decade ago, salvia divinorum is not by any means a new drug. A paper published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology in the early 1980s, "Ethnopharmacology of ska Maria Pastora," states that the plant has been used for both medical and ritualistic purposes by the Mazatec Indians of the Oaxaca region in Mexico for centuries.

In ceremonies, the Mazatec would orally consume up to 100 leaves of salvia, which they often referred to as "ska Maria pastora," meaning "leaves of the Virgin Mary, the Shepherdess."

While this oral method of salvia use is still practiced in Oaxaca, it is eschewed in the United States and other Western nations in favor of smoking.

A personal trip
The first documented account of salvia came in 1939 during a study of the Mazatec Indians. Yet according to Daniel Siebert, an ethnobotonist and creator of the Salvia Divinorum Research and Information Center, the drug itself didn't begin to enter Western culture until the 1990s.

Siebert was the first person to identify the psychoactive constituent of the plant, diterpenoid, or as it's more commonly known, Salvinorum-A. The discovery has led to the practice of extracting the Salvinorum-A.

It's now the norm to see head shops selling the highly potent extract of Salvinorum-A, which is normally sold in forms with 5X, 10X or 20X the potency of the leaves as they would be naturally found. This extract is smoked in a pipe to get the maximum effects of the drug.

The Smoke Shop sells only the extracts of salvia with various levels of Salvinorum-A concentration. A bag of 5X strength of Salvinorum-A is sold for a little more than $20.

"If you smoke it, the onset will be quicker because it's being absorbed along the lung tissue," says Robert Goetz, a clinical pharmacologist at the Cincinnati Drug and Poison Center.

Goetz, the center's resident expert on salvia, has very few positive things to say about the drug besides its lack of addictiveness.

"I don't believe that this drug's addictive, but as far as I know it doesn't have any legitimate medical use," says Goetz, who was adamant that he doesn't "want to be associated with anything that advocates its use."

Goetz sees salvia as being a more personal drug than marijuana, cocaine or ecstasy.

"It's unlikely that this will ever be a social thing," he says. "This seems to be a much more personal and isolated experience."

Goetz declines to say whether salvia should be banned.

"I don't know why it should be out there," he says. "I really don't."

The variability of salvia's effects on the mind has led to a good deal of confusion as to what exactly the drug does. The most common comparison that salvia elicits is to LSD, but this is shaky at best.

LSD is a completely synthesized drug that was first created in laboratories in the 1950s, while salvia is a naturally occurring substance. In addition, LSD's effects can last for up to eight to 10 hours, while an experience with salvia normally peaks five minutes after ingestion and lasts for, at most, 45 minutes to an hour.

Proponents of salvia use compare the drug to entheogens such as peyote and certain types of psychoactive fungi instead of hallucinogens like LSD.

Don't try it alone
Regardless of what the actual effects of salvia are, advocates acknowledge that its intensity can lead to dangerous behavior. The Web site advises users to "make sure you are in a safe and private place with people you know well" while smoking it.

"If you are new to salvia or if you are taking a high dose, always make sure a sitter is present," the Web site says. "There is a risk of a person losing awareness."

This sitter is supposed to be sober and experienced with salvia.

"His role is to keep you from hurting yourself or others, without interfering too much in the experience," the Web site advises.

Salvia has not passed completely under the radar of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and state legislators. It is banned on some level in Delaware, Louisiana, Missouri, Oklahoma and Tennessee.

Salvia isn't included in the federal Controlled Substances Act, but DEA is evaluating the drug. Outside the United States, salvia has already been made illegal in Western nations such as Australia, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Spain and Italy.

Legislation to criminalize salvia has been proposed in many other states. In Ohio, State Rep. Thom Collier (R-Mount Vernon) proposed a bill in May to classify salvia as a Schedule I drug. This classification is reserved for drugs with a high potential for abuse, with no accepted medical purpose and deemed unsafe for use under medical supervision. Other Schedule I drugs include marijuana, heroin, ecstasy, psychedelic mushrooms, LSD and peyote. ©