This article originally appeared in High Times magazine. I would be happy to discuss the research that is presented in the article, and I welcome your questions and comments. I spent a good part of the past year working as the Guest Editor at MAPS (www.maps.org), and am very excited about all the new scientific research into psychedelic drugs. I look forward to hearing what the Reality Sandwich community thinks about my article and the future of psychedelic drug research.
Within around thirty seconds of smoking the dark herbal extract the effects rapidly began, and I felt my entire sense of identity suddenly shift. I was instantly transformed from a human being into a tiny disembodied speck of consciousness — completely bewildered as to what I was and amnesic of my former identity. I was suspended in a hyperspatial dimension, a crystalline network of pulsing energies, that was filled with countless other miniature beings like me. I found myself inside of a kind of space within space, that appeared to transcend the whole three-dimensional universe. Suddenly, my identity shifted again, as a portion of the space and beings around me folded and twisted into me, becoming a part of me. More and more layers of the space around me continued folding in and becoming a part of my expanding sense of identity — until, finally, I was my familiar human self again. This strange and somewhat unsettling experience was the result of my smoking an extract made from the hallucinogenic leaves of the Salvia divinorum plant.
Although the Latin name for the Mexican sage Salvia divinorum literally translates as “sage of the seers,” this powerful hallucinogenic plant goes by a number of other names, such as Shka Pastora (“Leaves of the Shepherdess”), Diviner’s Sage, ska María Pastora, yerba de Maria, Magic Mint, Sally-D, and salvia. Until fairly recently, this innocent-looking member of the mint family — whose hallucinogenic powers can dwarf those of magic mushrooms and LSD — was virtually unknown outside of a small region of Central Mexico, where it has been used as a shamanic healing tool by the Mazatec Indians in Oaxaca for at least hundreds of years. The Mazatec shamans use salvia to facilitate divinatory or visionary states of consciousness during their spiritual healing sessions when psilocybin mushrooms aren’t in season. According to ethnobotanist Daniel Siebert, “The Mazatec shamans primarily take it ceremonially as a tool for gaining access to the supernatural world or what they believe to be the realm of divine beings and supernatural entities.”
The Salvia divinorum plant is a sprawling perennial herb found in moist, isolated, and shaded regions of Oaxaca, where it grows to well over a meter in height. Salvia has hollow square stems, large green leaves, and occasional white and purple flowers — but only rarely produces viable seed. There’s nothing particularly striking about the way that this plant looks, and it easily blends in with ordinary house plants. Like corn and bananas, salvia is thought to be a cultigen. This means that it is not known to grow in the wild. It may have been bred in cultivation, or it may have grown wild in Central Mexico at one time. Salvia leaves contain the extremely potent dissociative psychedelic compound salvinorin A.
Salvia has had a relatively hidden existence for most of its history — known only to the Mazatec Indians, and a small handful of anthropologists, who were dubious about its psychoactive properties. However, since the mid-1990s it has been widely available in the U.S., Europe, and other parts of the globe, largely as a smokable herb. Salvia’s popularity is primarily due to the discussion of its psychoactive properties on the internet, and improved methods of ingestion that have been developed, as well as vendors promoting its sale as a legal hallucinogen online, where many businesses sell live Salvia divinorum plants, dried leaves, extracts, and other preparations.
The late ethnobotanist Terence McKenna was one of the first westerners to start publicly discussing salvia’s strange hallucinogenic effects during the mid-90s, not long after ethnobotanist Daniel Siebert discovered the psychoactive properties of salvinorin A in 1993 — as well as the proper methods for ingesting it to obtain hallucinogenic effects. Salvinorin A does not appear to be active when eaten, and it may be destroyed in the digestive system, but it can be smoked or absorbed sublingually through the mucus membranes in one’s mouth.
However, salvia’s current popularity is also a bit mysterious, since so many people find its effects unpleasant. Everyone who tries salvia agrees — this is definitely no party drug — and a large percentage of people, it seems, have no interest in even trying it a second time. “Only a small percentage of people actually buy it more than once. It’s not fun in the way people normally seek out drugs,” said Rick Doblin, Ph.D., director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. According to Brian D. Arthur, who founded the online herbal supply company Mazatec Garden, there are few repeat customers for his salvia products, “maybe twenty percent or less; most are new customers.”
Arthur thinks that salvia’s current popularity isn’t mysterious at all; he thinks it’s due to all the mainstream media stories about it. He said, “Salvia’s popularity is primarily due to the constant barrage of sensationalist media stories. The New York Times, The LA Times, USA Today, The Today Show, Dr. Phil, and The Doctors have all prominently featured salvia. Salvia has been regularly featured by the media since 2001 as a ‘dangerous new internet drug’. Every time a mainstream article comes out, sales skyrocket.”
Salvia is considered by most who use it to be a serious shamanic tool. Unlike LSD, magic mushrooms, or cannabis, even mild salvia journeys are far too otherworldly to be used in a social context. YouTube is filled with disturbing videos of reckless teenagers smoking salvia for the first time, then spacing out and acting weird and disoriented for around five minutes, while their friends laugh and tease them. The Mazatec shamans would be seriously appalled, I’m sure, but this type of careless use also concerns respectful psychonauts and research scientists — not only because these people may be endangering themselves, but also because they are placing the plant’s legal status in jeopardy.
Salvia’s legal status varies considerably from country to country, and within the U.S. it varies from state to state. In the past few years, a number of states have either made salvia illegal, or have restricted its sale to adults over the age of eighteen, yet it remains precariously unscheduled on a federal level — although the Drug Enforcement Administration is closely monitoring it and is considering listing it as a controlled substance. Salvia divinorum and salvinorin A are specifically scheduled or controlled in only a few countries. Both are illegal for personal use in Australia and Denmark, while other countries — such as Belgium, Finland, Italy, and South Korea — have certain restrictions in place.
U.S. states that have laws banning the sale of salvia include Louisiana, Missouri, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Delaware, North Dakota, Illinois, Kansas, Virginia, Florida, and Mississippi. In Maine and California, the sale of salvia to minors under eighteen is prohibited. The legal status of salvia changes frequently, and Siebert said that he thought that the future legal status of salvia looked “bleak.” To stay up to date on salvia’s legal status around the world see: www.sagewisdom.org/legalstatus.html
Salvia’s Possible Medical Applications
Some scientific researchers are concerned that legal restrictions on salvia, or its primary psychoactive component salvinorin A, will prevent them from being able to easily study the plant’s possible medical properties, while doing little or nothing to prevent misuse of the plant by young people, as has happened in the past with other psychedelics. Salvinorin A is unique among psychedelic substances in how it targets the brain, which could make the plant, or its derivative chemicals, useful for treating a number of different medical conditions.
Pharmacologically speaking, salvinorin A appears to be a relatively safe compound. No one has ever suffered a life-threatening pharmacological reaction from it, and no long-term negative physical effects have been observed. According to pharmacologist Oliver Grundmann and colleagues at the University of Florida, animal studies with salvinorin A demonstrate a lack of evidence of any short or long-term toxicity, and the Mazatec Indians have used it safely for many generations. Salvinorin A has unique psychoactive properties and unusual neurochemical activity in the brain, which has lead a number of scientific researchers to speculate that it may have valuable medical properties and applications.
Rick Doblin said that although he wasn’t aware of any current clinical studies on salvinorin A, restrictions could make future research on the drug “much more difficult.” This would be unfortunate, as a number of researchers think that salvinorin A, or its chemical analogs, may not only have possible applications as an antidepressant, but may also have potential as an analgesic and as a therapeutic tool for treating stimulant drug addictions, some types of stroke, and Alzheimer’s Disease.
Although there aren’t currently any human studies being conducted with salvinorin A, a significant amount of animal research is currently underway. The painkilling properties of salvinorin A and its analogs are currently being studied by Tom Prisinzano, a medicinal chemist at the University of Kansas, and Bruce Cohen at Harvard Medical School has been developing chemical analogs of salvinorin A for their possible antidepressant and mood modulation properties. Bryan Roth and colleagues at the University of North Carolina think that salvinorin A shows promise in providing new insights into the working of the brain, drug dependence, and psychosis.
Many people who have tried salvia report an improved mood afterwards, and this lasting antidepressant effect may offer a new route of treatment for clinical depression. In one survey published on Erowid.org, Matthew Baggott found that 44.8 percent of salvia users reported an improved mood afterwards, and 25.8 percent experienced “antidepressant-like effects” lasting twenty-four hours or more after use. Other commonly reported aftereffects include an increased feeling of insight, a sense of calmness, and an increased sense of connection with nature.
Daniel Siebert and a number of researchers think that salvinorin A’s unique pharmacological properties may lead to new types of pain medications, and a number of pharmacologists are currently trying to create chemical analogs of salvinorin A that have pain-relieving or antidepressant properties without mind-bending psychedelic effects. However, some psychotherapists think that salvinorin A’s consciousness-altering effects may also have useful medical applications, and that the unusual states of mind that it engenders may have the potential to enhance certain forms of psychotherapy. A number of different psychedelic drugs are currently being studied to assess their ability to enhance the psychotherapeutic process and help people suffering from difficult-to-treat psychiatric disorders. Siebert and others think that salvinorin A’s hallucinogenic properties might be useful in this regard as well.
Salvinorin A is an organic chemical called a diterpenoid, which is a potent k-opioid (kappa-opioid) receptor agonist in the brain. This was determined by Bryan Roth and colleagues in 2002 at the National Institute of Mental Health, and it means that salvinorin A binds to a specific type of opiate receptor in the brain, but does not activate the mu-opioid receptor that morphine acts on, which makes morphine euphoric and addictive. Unlike the actions of the “classical psychedelics,” salvinorin A has no actions at the serotonin 2A receptor — which is the principal molecular target responsible for the psychedelic effects of LSD, psilocybin, DMT, and mescaline — and it is the first non-alkaloid psychedelic ever discovered. Salvinorin A also has effects that are nothing like the traditional opiates, and it is the most potent natural psychedelic known. Like LSD, salvinorin A is active in the microgram dosage range; a few hundred micrograms — a mere speck, the size of a very small grain of salt — is enough to launch most people into the far reaches of hyperspace.
Although the traditional use of salvia by the Mazatec Indians in Oaxaca involves chewing the leaves, most westerners smoke them. Smoking dried salvia leaves in their natural state is often ineffective since the plant doesn’t produce salvinorin A in very large quantities. Because of this, extracts are made of the leaf, which are then reapplied to the leaf to increase its potency. These extracts vary in potency from around five to sixty times the average amount of naturally-occurring salvinorin A, and the resulting grades of salvia leaf are usually referred to by a number followed by an x (such as “5x,” “10x,” etc.). This is generally indicative of the relative amounts of leaf used in preparation, but reports seem to indicate that they vary considerably in consistency. Although the numbers may be roughly indicative of the relative concentration of salvinorin A, 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, and the efficiency of the extraction process.
What Does an Experience With Salvia Feel Like?
When smoked, experiences with salvia are often reported as being relatively brief in duration, with the peak rarely lasting more than five or ten minutes — although subjectively, this may feel much longer. The experience usually begins around thirty seconds after holding the smoke in one’s lungs, and one is completely back to baseline after around thirty or forty minutes.
Chewing on a quid of rolled salvia leaves as the Mazatec shamans do, or allowing an alcohol-based, sublingual herbal tincture of the plant to soak under one’s tongue for around fifteen minutes, produces a different type of experience than smoking it. The effects come on gradually over a period of fifteen minutes, are gentler, and they last significantly longer — generally for a full hour or two. People disagree as to whether smoking or sublingual absorption is preferable. In my personal experiments with the substance, I far preferred the sublingual tincture. I found the experience much easier to work with, and it’s a gentler ride. However, others prefer the rapid onset, brief duration, and greater intensity that come with smoking it.
While under the influence of salvia, people often report radical shifts in perception, seeing visions with their eyes closed and visual changes with eyes open. Sometimes people find themselves laughing uncontrollably, even though they don’t find anything to be particularly funny. Time and space can become distorted in strange ways. The sensation of being pushed, pulled, twisted, or taken into alternative dimensions and other realities is common, as is the feeling of other presences, other people, and nonhuman entity contact. The plant itself is often perceived by the user as a female spirit.
Higher doses can cause people to completely dissociate from their body, and people who ingest strong doses need to be watched carefully so that they don’t accidentally harm themselves. With higher doses, sometimes people get up and walk around, completely oblivious to their physical surroundings, and start bumping into furniture and walls. Experienced salvia users insist that a sober sitter always be present when one is experimenting with the plant. With strong doses of salvinorin A, all thinking in the brain shuts down, although a very lucid awareness remains, and people become completely immersed in another world. Often people completely forget that they are under the influence of a psychoactive substance. After the experience ends, many people describe feeling an “afterglow,” an upbeat, life-affirming antidepressant effect that lasts for around a day or more.
However, many people find the effects of salvia to be unpleasant, and some people have had extremely frightening reactions to it. People can experience states of terror and panic — perhaps more so than with other, more gentle psychedelics, such as LSD or magic mushrooms. Although subjectively altogether different, the effects of salvinorin A are comparable to the super-psychedelic intensity of the powerful hallucinogenic substance DMT. Smoking strong doses of salvia can be psychologically unsettling if one isn’t properly prepared — and even if one is. Psychonauts repeatedly stress that this substance is a powerful shamanic tool and it not for psychedelic novices. Some people have had extremely frightening, utterly hellish experiences with salvia that shook them up for weeks or months afterwards.
Another common experience with salvia is that things that we normally perceive of as inanimate objects appear to be made up of conscious beings or spirits. Like the furniture in the background of Disney films, clocks, toys, and lamps take on personalities, and many people actually feel like they become inanimate objects, such as a chair, a table, or the varnish on a piece of furniture. D. M. Turner describes becoming the side of a house after smoking salvinorin A, and he became concerned that he would stay that way forever. Some experiences can be even more bizarre. One person wrote about an experience where she relived a memory from her early childhood, when she was playing with a cherished toy –only she re-experienced the memory from the point-of-view of the toy that was being played with. Another person wrote me saying that she became the couch in the house where her mother grew up, and — from the furniture’s perspective –watched her mother as a child and then as a teenager, gaining insight into why her mother valued conformity so much.
Because experiences with salvia can seem so strange and alien, some people have considerable difficulty integrating it into their personal lives, or even relating to it as human beings. One person on Erowid wrote, “Whatever it was I was falling into, or becoming, or being snatched up in, it had some vague connection with humanity — but it was like humanity was one small node in its superstructure.” To some people the trip is largely incomprehensible. I’m reminded of a young woman that I watched smoking salvia on YouTube. As she came back from a particularly harrowing journey, she simply repeated, “What the fuck just happened? What the fuck just happened?”
When I began writing this article I started several discussions about salvia on Tribe.net. In one of the discussions “Stuart” wrote “The experience of Salvia divinorum doesn’t compare to any other entheogen. It’s more like… everything in your life experience is images projected on a screen, a screen so omnipresent that you’d never noticed it, and now the screen gets shredded to bits. I couldn’t say it’s a good thing or a bad thing. But it’s a WOW thing, to the greatest degree. If I were to offer it to a friend, I’d make very very sure that the friend understood that one should try this only if one highly highly values WOW experiences.”
Another person wrote me the following words, which, I think, express the views of a lot of people who build up a relationship with salvia, and integrate it successfully into their lives: “…the majority of salvia aficionados have a sacred intention. According to… [Matthew Baggott's] survey on Erowid, seventy-four percent of repeat visitors do so for reasons described as spiritual… I think that the overwhelming impression is that this is sacred…and not to be trifled with… a profound mystical portal of deep and bewildering significance that can bestow peace, healing, gratitude, and wonder.”
Again and again, the most common response that I got from regular salvia users was that they used it as part of a spiritual practice, which echoes the original intention of the Mazatec shamans. J. D. Arthur, I think, explains why this is so in his book Peopled Darkness. Arthur writes, “Salvia can restore, if only for a few moments, our birthright of pure thoughtless awareness that lies quietly beneath the clatter of thought.” What Arthur is describing appears to dovetail with the goal of many Eastern spiritual practices, such as Buddhism and Hinduism.
Learning More About Salvia
Several exceptionally good books, or travelogues, have been written about salvia’s unusual effects. The late psychonaut D. M. Turner wrote Salvinorin: The Psychedelic Essence of Salvia Divinorum, which chronicles his courageous explorations with this strange botanical wonder, and the synergistic combinations that he tried, mixing salvinorin A with other psychedelics. J. D. Arthur’s Peopled Darkness: Perceptual Transformation through Salvia divinorum provides an unusually articulate description of Salvia divinorum’s seemingly-indescribable effects, and a fascinating discussion about how its effects can radically transform one’s perception of reality over time. Martin Ball has also written an excellent book called Sage Spirit: Salvia divinorum and the Entheogenic Experience, and Daniel Siebert is currently completing the definitive book on the subject. Because salvia experiences can be so visually dramatic, its use has also inspired some pretty incredible artwork. For example, artist Luke Brown has done some especially good paintings that seem to capture some visual aspects of the salvia experience.
Hands down, the best source for scientifically accurate information about salvia and salvinorin A is Daniel Siebert’s Salvia divinorum Research and Information Center Web site: www.sagewisdom.org, and his FAQ page and User’s Guide are essential reading for anyone considering trying Salvia divinorum. Siebert also has a free email newsletter called “The Salvia divinorum Observer” that you can sign up for, which covers new scientific findings, pending legislation and changes in legal status, recent media coverage, and other updates about salvia. The Salvia divinorum section on Erowid.org is also an invaluable source of information on this fascinating plant, and the Psychonaut and Salvia divinorum tribes on tribe.net are lively places for discussion on the topic.
David Jay Brown is the author of seven books about the evolution of consciousness, achieving optimal health, psychedelics, and the future –including four well-known volumes of interviews with leading-edge thinkers. To find out more about David’s work visit: www.mavericksofthemind.com
Image by ayadocs, courtesy of Creative Commons license.