|Three well established Salvia divinorum plants.|
Three well established Salvia divinorum plants.
Epling & Játiva
Salvia divinorum, also known as Diviner's Sage, María Pastora, Sage of the Seers, or simply by the genus name, Salvia, is a powerful psychoactive herb. It is a member of the sage genus and the Lamiaceae (mint) family. The Latin name Salvia divinorum literally translates to "sage of the seers". The genus name Salvia is derived from the Latin salvare, meaning "to heal" or "to save".
Salvia divinorum has a long continuing tradition of use as an entheogen by indigenous Mazatec shamans, who use it to facilitate visionary states of consciousness during spiritual healing sessions. The plant is found in isolated, shaded and moist plots in Oaxaca, Mexico. It grows to well over a meter in height, has large green leaves, hollow square stems with occasional white and purple flowers. It is thought to be a cultigen. Its primary psychoactive constituent is a diterpenoid known as salvinorin A - a potent κ-Opioid receptor agonist. Salvinorin A is unique in that it is the only naturally occurring substance known to induce a visionary state this way. Salvia divinorum can be chewed or smoked to produce experiences ranging from uncontrollable laughter to much more intense and profoundly altered states. The duration is much shorter than for some other more well known psychedelics; - the effects of smoked Salvia typically lasting for only a few minutes. The most commonly reported after-effects include an increased feeling of insight and improved mood, and a sense of calmness and increased sense of connection with nature, though much less often it may also cause dysphoria (unpleasant or uncomfortable mood). Salvia divinorum is not generally understood to be toxic or addictive. As a κ-opioid agonist, it may have potential as an analgesic and as therapy for drug addictions.
Salvia divinorum has become increasingly well-known and more widely available in modern culture. The rise of the Internet since the 1990s has seen the growth of many businesses selling live Salvia plants, dried leaves, extracts and other preparations. During this time medical experts, accident and emergency rooms have not been reporting cases that suggest particular health concerns and police have not been reporting it as a significant issue with regard to public order offences. Yet Salvia divinorum has attracted increasing attention from the media and some lawmakers.
Media stories generally raise alarms over Salvia's legal status, headlining for example with not necessarily well supported comparisons to LSD. Parental concerns are raised by focus on Salvia's use by younger teens; - the emergence of YouTube being an area of particular concern in this respect. The isolated and controversial case of Brett Chidester, a 17-year old Delaware student who committed suicide in January 2006, has received continued attention. He reportedly purchased Salvia from a Canadian based Internet company some four months prior to taking his own life; his parents consequently blame this for his death. Salvia divinorum remains legal in most countries and, within the United States, legal in the majority of States. However, some have called for its prohibition. Most proposed bills have not made it into law, with motions having been voted down in committee, failed, died or otherwise stalled. Other more recent bills are as yet still at early proposal stage. There haven't been any publicised prosecutions of anti-Salvia laws in the few countries and States where it has been made illegal.
Salvia divinorum is native to certain areas in the Sierra Mazateca of Oaxaca, Mexico, where it is still used by the Mazatec Indians, primarily to facilitate shamanic visions in the context of curing or divination, but also remedially at lower doses for example as a diuretic, or to treat ailments including diarrhea, anemia, headaches, rheumatism, and a semi-magical disease known as panzon de borrego, or a swollen belly.
It was first recorded in print by Jean Basset Johnson in 1939 as he was studying Mazatec shamanism. He later documented its usage and reported its effects through personal testimonials. It was not until the 1990s that the psychoactive mechanism was identified by a team led by Daniel Siebert.
The history of the plant is not well known, but there are three possibilities as to its origin. Since it is found in one small area and only one indigenous group uses it, it is either native to this area, is a cultigen of the Mazatecs, or is a cultigen of another indigenous group.
Gordon Wasson tentatively postulated the plant could be the mythological pipiltzintzintli, the "Noble Prince" of the Aztec codices. Wasson's speculation has been the subject of further debate amongst ethnobotanists, with some scepticism coming from Leander J. Valdés, and counterpoints more supportive of Wasson's theory from Jonathan Ott.
The identity of another mysterious Aztec enthoegen, namely that of "poyomatli", has also been suggested as Salvia divinorum. Here too there are other candidate plants, notably Cacahuaxochitl (Quararibea funebris), again suggesting that there is no overall consensus.
Salvia divinorum has large green leaves, hollow square stems and white flowers with purple calyces. The plant grows to well over a meter in height. Unlike other species of salvia, Salvia divinorum produces few seeds, and those seldom germinate. For an unknown reason, pollen fertility is reduced. There is no active pollen tube inhibition within the style, but some event or process after the pollen tube reaches the ovary is aberrant.
Partial sterility is often suggestive of a hybrid origin, although no species have been recognized as possible parent species. The ability to grow indistinguishable plants from seeds produced by self pollination also weakens the hybrid theory of origin, instead implying inbreeding depression, or an undiscovered incompatibility mechanism. The plant is mainly propagated by cuttings or layering. Although isolated strands of Salvia divinorum exist, these are thought to have been purposely created and tended by the Mazatec people. For this reason, it is considered a true cultigen, not occurring in a wild state.
The active constituent is a trans-neoclerodane diterpenoid known as Salvinorin A, chemical formula C23H28O8. Unlike other known opioid-receptor ligands, salvinorin A is not an alkaloid — it does not contain a basic nitrogen atom.
When considered by weight alone, salvinorin A is the most potent naturally-occurring psychoactive compound known. It is active at doses as low as 200 µg. Research has shown that salvinorin A is a potent and selective κ-Opioid (kappa-Opioid) receptor agonist. It has been reported that the effects of salvinorin A in mice are blocked by κ-Opioid receptor antagonists. This makes it unlikely that another mechanism contributes independently to the compound’s effects. Salvinorin A is unique in that it is the only naturally occurring substance known to induce a visionary state via this mode of action. Salvinorin A has no actions at the 5-HT2A serotonin receptor, the principal molecular target responsible for the actions of classical hallucinogens.
Salvinorin's potency should not be confused with toxicity. Rodents chronically exposed to dosages many times greater than those to which humans are exposed did not show signs of organ damage.
Many other terpenoids have been isolated from Salvia divinorum, including other salvinorins and related compounds named divinatorins and salvinicins. None of these compounds has shown significant (sub-micromolar) affinity at the κ-Opioid receptor, and there is no evidence that they contribute to the plant's psychoactivity.
Mazatec shamans crush the leaves to extract leaf juices from about 20 (about 50g) to 80 (about 200g) or more pairs of fresh leaves. They usually mix these juices with water to create an infusion or 'tea' which they drink to induce visions in ritual healing ceremonies.
Dry leaves can be smoked in a pipe, but most users prefer the use of a water pipe to cool the smoke. The temperature required to release salvinorin from the plant material is quite high (about 240°C). A regular flame will work, but the direct application of something more intense, such as the flame produced from a butane torch lighter, is often preferred.
Many people find that untreated dried Salvia leaf produces unnoticeable or only light effects. More concentrated preparations or extracts, which may be smoked instead of natural strength leaves, have become widely available. The enhanced leaf is often described by a number followed by an x (such as "5x," "10x," etc). The multiplication factors are generally indicative of the relative amounts of leaf used in preparation. The numbers therefore may also be roughly indicative of the relative concentration of the active principle salvinorin A, but the measure should not be taken as absolute. Potency will depend on the naturally varying strength of the untreated leaf used in preparing the extract, as well as the efficiency of the extraction process itself. Extracts reduce the overall amount of smoke that needs to be inhaled, thus facilitating more powerful experiences.
The method of chewing the leaves may also be employed. However, salvinorin A is generally considered to be inactive when orally ingested, as the chemical is effectively deactivated by the gastrointestinal system. Therefore, the 'quid' of leaves is held in the mouth as long as possible in order to facilitate absorption of the active constituents through the oral mucosa. Chewing consumes more of the plant than smoking, and produces a longer-lasting experience.
Duration of effect
If Salvia is smoked the main effects are experienced quickly. The most intense 'peak' is reached within a minute or so and lasts for about 1-5 minutes, followed by a gradual tapering back. At 5-10 minutes, less intense yet still appreciable effects typically persist, but giving way to a returning sense of the everyday and familiar until back to recognizable baseline after about 15 to 20 minutes.
Chewing the leaf makes the effects come on more slowly, over a period of 10 to 20 minutes, the experience then lasting from another 30 minutes up to one and a half hours.
Psychedelic experiences are necessarily somewhat subjective and variations in reported effects are to be expected. Aside from individual reported experiences there has been a limited amount of published work summarising the effects. D.M. Turner's book "Salvinorin - The Psychedelic Essence of Salvia Divinorum" quotes Daniel Siebert's summarisation, mentioning that the effects may include:
- Uncontrollable laughter.
- Past memories, such as revisiting places from childhood memory.
- Sensations of motion, or being pulled or twisted by forces.
- Visions of membranes, films and various two-dimensional surfaces.
- Merging with or becoming objects (for example a Ferris wheel).
- Overlapping realities, such as the perception of being in several locations at once.
A survey of Salvia users found that 38% described the effects as unique. 23% said the effects were like yoga, meditation or trance.
Media reporters rarely venture to take Salvia for themselves but one firsthand journalistic account has been published in the UK science magazine New Scientist:
- "the salvia took me on a consciousness-expanding journey unlike any other I have ever experienced. My body felt disconnected from "me" and objects and people appeared cartoonish, surreal and marvellous. Then, as suddenly as it had began, it was over. The visions vanished and I was back in my bedroom. I spoke to my "sitter" - the friend who was watching over me, as recommended on the packaging - but my mouth was awkward and clumsy. When I attempted to stand my coordination was off. Within a couple of minutes, however, I was fine and clear-headed, though dripping with sweat. The whole experience had lasted less than 5 minutes."
There have been few books published on the subject. One notable example is Dale Pendell's work "Phamako/Poeia - Plants Powers, Poisons, and Herbcraft", which won the 1996 Firecracker Alternative Book Award and has a chapter dedicated to Salvia divinorum. It includes some experience accounts:
- "It's very intense, I call it a reality stutter, or a reality strobing. I think that having been a test pilot, and flying in that unforgiving environment with only two feet between our wingtips, helped to prepare me for this kind of exploration."
Pendell expresses some concerns about the use of highly concentrated forms of Salvia. In its natural form Salvia is more balanced and benevolent, and quite strong enough, he argues. High strength extracts on the other hand can show "a more precipitous, and more terrifying, face" and many who try it this way may never wish to repeat the experience.
Some have written extensive prose and/or poetry about their experiences. Some describe their visions pictorially, and there exist examples of visionary art which claim to be Salvia inspired. Others claim musical inspiration from the plant. An example is the song "Salvia divinorum" by 1200 Micrograms.
After the peak effects, normal awareness-of-self and the immediate surroundings return but lingering effects may be felt. These short-term lingering effects have a completely different character than the peak experience. About half of users report a pleasing 'afterglow', or pleasant state of mind following the main effects. Researchers (Baggott, et al) from the University of California Berkeley and California Pacific Medical Center Research Institute conducted a survey of 500 Salvia users which identified that they 'sometimes or often' experience certain effects, including:
Increased insight, 47% Decreased insight, 1.8% Improved mood, 44.8% Worsened mood, 4.0% Increased Connection with Universe or Nature, 39.8% Decreased Connection with Universe or Nature, 5.4% Increased sweating, 28.2% Decreased sweating, 1.6% Body felt warm or hot, 25.2% Body felt cold, 6.4% Increased self-confidence, 21.6% Decreased self-confidence, 2.4% Improved concentration, 19.4% Difficulty concentrating, 12.0%
Other commonly reported effects include feelings of Calmness, 42.2%; Weird thoughts 36.4%; Things seeming unreal, 32.4%; Floating feelings, 32%; Mind racing, 23.2%; and feeling Lightheaded 22.2%.
Contrasting studies suggests no overall consensus so far with regard to the long-term effects of Salvia divinorum on mood. It is well-established that some k-opioid agonists can cause dysphoria in humans, and research using rats in forced-swim tests (where they're forced to swim in a narrow cylinder from which they cannot escape) has been used to suggest that Salvia divinorum may have "depressive-like" effects. However, Baggott's survey of 500 people with firsthand experience of Salvia found that 25.8% of respondents reported improved mood and "antidepressant-like effects" lasting 24 hours or longer. Only 4.4% reported persisting (24 hours or more) negative effects (most often anxiety) on at least one occasion. A report has been published detailing an individual case of Salvia divinorum use as self-medicated treatment for depression.
The Baggott survey found little evidence of dependence in its survey population. 0.6% percent of respondents reported feeling addicted to or dependent on Salvia at some point, and 1.2% reported strong cravings. About this the researchers said - "there were too few of these individuals to interpret their reports with any confidence".
Most users report no hangover or negative after-effects the next day. This is consistent with the apparent low toxicity of Salvia indicated by research conducted at the University of Nebraska.
The relatively recent emergence of Salvia divinorum in modern Western culture in comparison to its long continuing traditions of indigenous use elsewhere contrasts widely differing attitudes on the subject. Opinions range from veneration of the plant as a spiritual sacrament or "a gift from the gods", to the idea of it as a dangerous threat to society, needing to be banned as quickly as possible in order to "spare countless families the horror of losing a loved one to the relentless tentacles of drug abuse".
News media has taken an escalating interest in Salvia divinorum - particularly in the United States - where an increasing number of newspaper reports have been published and television news stories broadcast. These stories generally raise alarms over Salvia's legal status. Headlining for example with comparisons to LSD, or describing it as "the new pot" for instance, with parental concerns being raised by particular focus on Salvia's use by younger teens. Without necessarily providing much further context or supporting evidence story headlines may also include 'danger' keywords, such as - "Dangerous Herb is Legal..." or "Deadly Dangers Of A Street Legal High". Such reports may mix journalistic opinion and prejudgment of the issue. - In a major ABC news report aired on July 11, 2007, the anchors are seen to exchange expressions of incredulity when referring to a Salvia story with the following introduction - "Now, an exclusive I-Team investigation of a hallucinogenic drug that has begun to sweep the nation. What might amaze you is that right now the federal government is doing nothing to stop it".
Another reported issue of concern has been the emergence of YouTube, about which, in an interview with California based newspaper the San Francisco Chronicle, published on June 27, 2007, Daniel Siebert was quoted as saying - "Those videos are certainly not going to help the situation. They make Salvia look like some horrible drug that makes people nuts and dangerous [...]" and "The sad thing is it creates this public image where people don't realize there are sensible ways to use something like this."
Despite its growing notoriety in some circles, media stories generally suggest that the public at large are still mostly unaware of Salvia, with the majority perhaps altogether having never even heard of it. With regard to their coverage of proposals to make Salvia illegal in the US state of Maine, Bangor Daily News ran an on-line poll which posed the question "Do you think the state should outlaw the sale of the drug salvia?". While this has ~300 reader responses it should however be noted - as the poll itself says, that it's - "not a scientific survey and should not be used as a gauge of public opinion. It reflects only the opinions of bangordailynews.com readers who have chosen to participate".
Again, although published responses may not necessarily be representative of public opinion as a whole, some news agencies generally support reader and viewer feedback in connection with their stories.
A particular focus of many US media stories is the long-running coverage of the case of Brett Chidester. Chidester was a 17-year old Delaware student who committed suicide in January 2006 by climbing into a tent in which a charcoal grill was lit. He died of carbon-monoxide poisoning. Reportedly, some months before this, Brett's mother had found out and questioned him about his Salvia use. Brett said that he had ceased his experimentation, but his parents do not believe that he was telling the truth. They have argued instead that Salvia caused depression and must have been largely to blame for his death. Some of Brett's earlier writings about his Salvia experiences have been used to suggest that it made him think "existence in general is pointless". Some media stories have referred to these earlier written experience reports as if they were part of Brett's suicide note. In any case, law was soon passed in Delaware classifying the herb as a Schedule I controlled substance in that state. This legislation was named "Brett's law" (formally referred to as Senate bill 259).
It was reported on August 3, 2007 that Chidester's parents intend suing 'Ethnosupply' - a Canadian based Internet company that sold Salvia divinorum to Brett some four months before his death. The parents allege that the distributors knew Salvia could be dangerous and failed to warn their son. The lawsuit seeks unspecified punitive damages for their pain and suffering, lost future earnings, funeral expenses, etc.
Although the Chidester story has been given continued exposure by US media, there has not been anywhere else, either before or since this controversial incident, any other reported cases involving or alleging Salvia divinorum as a serious factor in suicide, overdose, accidental, or any other kind of death.
Salvia divinorum is legal in most countries and, within the United States, legal in the majority of States. However, some politicians have called for its prohibition. Most of these proposals have not made it into law, with motions having failed, stalled or otherwise died. Examples include the United Kingdom; the United States at national level; and at a more local level within States such as Alaska, Oregon and Wyoming. Some recent bills are still at the proposal stage.
A reason for Salvia's mostly favorable legal status so far is that there has been little evidence to suggest that its use is problematic. Salvia divinorum is understood to be nontoxic and nonaddictive. Despite this, countries such as Australia (the first country to ban it) and a few American states have created anti-Salvia laws. Some politicians have argued that Salvia effects are "LSD-Like" and that this alone is sufficient grounds for prohibition. Many Salvia media stories also headline with comparisons to LSD. However, while LSD and Salvia's active constituent salvinorin A may have comparative potencies, in the sense that both can produce their effects with low dosage amounts, they are otherwise quite different. LSD is a synthesized drug not found in nature whereas salvinorin occurs naturally in plant form. The two substances are not chemically similar or related. They are ingested in different ways. They produce different effects, which manifest themselves over different timescales. The effects of Salvia when smoked typically last for only a few minutes as compared to LSD, whose effects can persist for 8-10 hours. Media story references typically do not report this significant difference in timescale and in particular do not mention Salvia's much shorter duration of effect.
Some arguments against Salvia made by politicians have been of a preventative or imitative nature. Senator Randy Christmann (R) stated - "we need to stop this before it gets to be a huge problem not after it gets to be a huge problem" and Assemblyman Jack Conners (D) argued -"Salvia divinorum use may not be a runway epidemic, but it certainly is a phenomenon that warrants attention. We should take preventive steps now to prevent wholesale problems later on…" In October 2005 MP John Mann raised an ultimately unsuccessful Early Day Motion calling for Salvia divinorum to be banned in the UK, saying - "The Australians have clearly found a problem with it. There's obviously a risk in people taking it."
Opponents of such prohibitive measures argue that this is due to an inherent prejudice and a particular cultural bias rather than an actual balance of evidence, pointing out inconsistencies in attitudes toward other more toxic and addictive drugs such as alcohol and nicotine. While not objecting to some form of legal control, in particular with regard to the sale to minors or sale of enhanced high-strength extracts, most Salvia proponents otherwise argue against more prohibitive measures. Some countries and States such as Missouri have imposed the strictest Schedule I or equivalent classification against Salvia divinorum even in its natural and untreated form.
Those advocating consideration of Salvia divinorum’s potential for beneficial use in a modern context argue that more could be learned from Mazatec culture, where Salvia is not really associated with notions of drug taking at all and it is rather considered as a spiritual sacrament. In light of this it is argued that Salvia divinorum could be better understood more positively as an entheogen rather than pejoratively as a hallucinogen. Other entheogenic plants with continuing traditions principally of spiritual use include peyote (and other psychoactive cacti), iboga, virola, ayahuasca (an admixture of plants containing DMT + MAOI), and various types of psychoactive fungi. US legislation specifically allows two of these to be used in a spiritual context. The Native American Church is allowed to use peyote and Uniao do Vegetal (or UDV) is permitted ayahuasca. Although not consistently granted (varying from state to state), the principal grounds for such concessions are constitutional, with further grounds following from the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
There have not been any publicized prosecutions recorded under any Salvia laws. Legislation may prove difficult to police. The plant has a nondescript appearance; the leaves are not distinctive and it does not have a distinctive odor like other illicit plants such as cannabis. Salvia divinorum looks like and can be grown as an ordinary houseplant without the need of special equipment such as hydroponics or high-power lights.
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