From a fiercely guarded secret to a YouTube phenomenon, the Divinorum web-series explores the untold story of a psychoactive plant.
Today it is rare to find someone who has not heard of Salvia divinorum. From the mid-2000s a wave of homemade YouTube videos have depicted thousands of bizarre, humorous, and sometimes disturbing dalliances with enhanced smokeable extracts of this psychoactive plant. However, until around sixty years ago, the only people who knew of the plant came from the Sierra Mazateca, a remote region in the Mexican state of Oaxaca.
La Xka Pastora, as the plant is most commonly known by the indigenous-campesino people who live in this rugged territory, could be found only in this small corner of the world. The Mazatecs venerated it as a highly sacred plant whose ceremonial ingestion was sought out for curative and divinatory purposes. Its use was governed by many restrictions and potential dangers, including madness.
In the first half of the 20th century sparse references were made by outside visitors to the Sierra of a mysterious, magical plant. Its recognition by the wider scientific community came only later in the early 60s via the now legendary New York banker and amateur ethnomycologist Gordon Wasson, better known for revealing to the world the Mazatec’s enduring ritual use of “magic mushrooms”. His now infamous article in Life magazine, which described his encounter with the Mazatec curandera María Sabina, lead to an exposure of the Mazatec’s use of psilocybin mushrooms the likes of which La Pastora evaded until more recently.
Despite Wasson’s interest in the plant never gaining the fervor of his passion for fungi, his enquiries were met with resistance by the Mazatecs, who despite bringing him cuttings, refused to reveal more:
“No Indian in San Jose Tenango was willing to take us to the plants whence the brought back specimens to us… Maria Sebastiana Carrera had supplied us with many details about the use of the leaves and had even chanted the words of the ceremony after her usage. She had declined to admit us to an actual ceremony because her neighbors (and doubtless she herself) would have considered the performance before outsiders a desecration and scandalous”.
Shortly after in 1962 the second samples of the plant taken from the Sierra by Wasson (the first were inadequate) led to its botanical classification and renaming by Schultes and Epling as Salvia divinorum. From its secretive origins in the Sierra, incommensurable conceptions came to emerge of the plant as it traversed cultures and paradigms. What counts as the plant in these contrasting contexts is different in each case; an anthropomorphic spirit, a medicine, a psychoactive substance, a potentially dangerous drug, a legal high. Drawn to this evasive character of the plant we decided to shoot the three-part web series Divinorum, to map the complex processes behind a sacred plant’s insertion into global consciousness. In the first episode we spoke with the Mazatec curandera Josefina García, the psychobiologist José Luis Díaz, the ethnobotanist Daniel Siebert, the late poet Dale Pendell, the psychedelic facilitator Twig Harper, and the psychologist Karl Hanes, who each elucidate their different approaches to and experiences of the plant.
In the ongoing psychedelic revival, Salvia divinorum has been denied the prestige afforded to other psychoactive substances, despite it containing the most potent non-synthetic psychoactive molecule known to date (Salvinorin A). This is partly explained by this unique molecule’s disconcerting effects, which elude easy quantification and classification, making it difficult to measure and administer its therapeutic effects. However, the psychologist Karl Hanes attests to its very effective use as an antidepressant with a number of patients suffering from treatment-resistant depression. A growing body of research also points to its very promising therapeutic application for a number of other conditions.
In episode 2, The Criminalization of a Psychoactive Plant, we elucidate how any role Salvia did play in the psychedelic resurgence, however peripheral, was brought about through its sale on the global market as a “legal high”. This category of so-called New Psychoactive Substances, generally containing synthetic chemicals which produce similar effects to illegal drugs, was an inevitable upshot of prohibitive drug policies.
Salvia extract, a concentrated preparation of the leaf, was incongruously included in this category due to its relative novelty; apart from a small band of ardent psychonauts and researchers, the plant was virtually unheard of. Sold freely over the internet and in growshops, Salvia extract gained popularity for reliably and quickly offering intense, short-lived, non-addictive, very unusual experiences. The latter are very diverse and have been reported to include acute depersonalization, a complete fragmentation of time and space, the user transmuting into their surroundings, and the user even returning to vivid scenes from early childhood.
The tendency of young people to experiment with the boundaries of consciousness here coincided with the advent of video-sharing technology. This lead to the crude formalization of new (sub)urban rituals around the plant, in which the camera became an indispensable prop. A video of Miley Cyrus smoking Salvia extract from a bong, watched on YouTube over a million times, is a particularly celebrated example.
This unprecedented YouTube exposure of recreational drug consumption unleashed a wave of alarmist narratives, while inevitably bolstering sales. Campesinos in several communities in the Sierra Mazateca initially supplied this burgeoning demand, cultivating it intensively in the mountains and selling it to intermediaries, who would then sell it on for hugely marked-up prices. A formidably sacred plant which the Mazatecs traditionally avoided even looking at, was now a cash crop being pawed and harvested by the ton.
Partly led by prohibition drug policies targeting the plant in various countries, and fed by the hysteria and lucrative moralism of mainstream media, this heyday of commercial Salvia divinorum gradually waned. The apparent dangers of consuming the plant proclaimed over this period almost never held up to scientific or medical scrutiny, exemplified in our interview with a representative of Mexico’s National Council Against Addictions (CONADIC). This organization was instrumental in stalled efforts in 2015 to outlaw the plant in Mexico, a country where ambiguous and contradictory legislation fails to protect sacred plant use. The legal implications of indigenous practices which involve Salvia divinorum, as well as the wider failings of prohibition, are addressed in this episode.
To finish the series we decided to return to the origin and talk with the campesinos from the Sierra Mazateca, where the cultivation of the Pastora once promised an important source of income for these communities. The criminalization of the plant around the world, along with pernicious practices of biopiracy, caused Pastora sales and prices in the Sierra to collapse. For the erstwhile coffee growers who turned to cultivation of Salvia after the previous demise of that other precarious industry, the fall in demand came about as mysteriously as it arrived.
Many are today left without answers regarding the machinations of this market, as well as to where their sacred plants eventually ended up. We were often the first to tell them about the plant’s use outside the Sierra as a smokeable, recreational drug, not to mention its retail price. These campesinos have since largely abandoned their plantations, going as far as uprooting and discarding what to some is now regarded a weed. The identity of the plant has been left deeply shaken, stuck awkwardly between the practically irreconcilable perspectives of the sacred and the mercantile.
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