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According to the latest data from the federal government’s National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 1 million Americans used salvia in 2007, up from 750,000 in 2006, the first year the survey asked about the drug. Those numbers make salvia currently more popular than LSD, used by 620,000 Americans in 2007. (In terms of lifetime use, however, acid droppers outnumber salvia smokers by nearly 10 to 1.) Salvia, like other psychedelics, is most popular among 18-to-25-year-olds, 2 percent of whom report past-year use.
As is often the case with drug fads, interest in salvia has been driven partly by the same press coverage that has encouraged legislators to crack down on it. Salvia distributors say they see spikes in sales after anti-salvia articles appear. “Every time there’s a news story on it,” says John Boyd, CEO of Arena Ethnobotanicals in Encinitas, California, “it brings it to people’s attention.”
Still, salvia is much less popular than marijuana, used by 25 million Americans in 2007. It is also less likely to be used more than once. Tiffin University psychologist Jonathan Appel, who co-authored a 2007 article on the rising popularity of salvia in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, says, “We’re talking about a small percentage of people who are using it and an even smaller percentage of people who go back and use it again.”
‘The Worst Substance of This Earth’
Siebert says the prevalence of smoking, which produces quick, intense effects, helps explain why many users report overwhelming experiences they are not eager to repeat. High doses are another factor, since vendors compete based on the potency of their fortified leaves, bragging that they are anywhere from five to 100 times as powerful as the untreated plant. “When you smoke,” Siebert says, “the effects come on almost instantly, and it’s disorienting. Suddenly you have this dramatic shift of consciousness, especially if you’re taking a high dose, and it can be frightening and uncomfortable. That starts everything off on the wrong foot.”
Last year a commenter on reason’s blog, Hit & Run, called salvia “THE WORST substance of this Earth,” adding, “If you want kids to stay off of drugs, give them some Salvia and tell them this is what cannabis, hash, and LSD are all like.” Erowid.org, a website that provides information on a wide variety of psychoactive substances for an audience that is more Leary than leery, is less vehement, but it notes that salvia’s effects “are considered unpleasant by many people.” Bryan Roth, a psychiatrist and pharmacologist at the University of North Carolina, led the research that showed how salvinorin A binds to the brain. “Most people will say they don’t like it,” he says. “It’s just too intense. If it has any effect at all, I would say it would be to diminish the tendency for drug abuse.”
Users are apt to be especially disappointed if they are expecting a fun party drug similar to marijuana. “I smoked with a friend last week who became the leg of a table,” says Rick Doblin, president of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. In his 1994 paper, Siebert listed commonly reported themes of salvia experiences, including “becoming objects,” “visions of various two-dimensional surfaces,” “revisiting places from the past,” “loss of the body and/or identity,” “various sensations of motion,” “uncontrollable hysterical laughter,” and “overlapping realities.” Such experiences might be interesting, rewarding, or revealing, but they are not exactly conducive to social activities.
“Salvia is not a recreational substance,” says Jeffrey Bottoms, who works at Mazatec Garden, a salvia importer and distributor in Houston. “It isn’t pleasant. It doesn’t make you feel good. It’s not a mood elevator. If you’re depressed, it’s not going to make you feel a little better. In fact, it will make you feel a lot worse.” Ready to try it yet?
First you may want to check out the videos. Search for “salvia” on YouTube, and you’ll find hundreds of videos of teenagers and young adults staring into space, laughing hysterically, falling over, crawling on the floor, and speaking in tongues while their friends alternately giggle and reassure them that it will all be over soon. These videos, widely credited with helping to popularize salvia, do not make it seem very appealing. Nor are they all that alarming, except perhaps as a sign that a disturbingly large number of people want the world to see their displays of drug-induced idiocy. In some of the videos, the salvia smoker freaks out a little, but these “bad trips” (breathlessly advertised as such) look pretty mild, consisting mainly of restlessness and a repeatedly expressed wish for an end to the ride, which arrives soon enough.
Yet the YouTube videos come up frequently in newspaper stories about salvia and in the comments of politicians who want to ban it. In January, explaining his motive for sponsoring a prohibition bill, Maryland state Sen. Richard Colburn (R-Dorchester County) told the Baltimore Examiner that the YouTube footage is “pretty disturbing,” adding, “Just imagine if that was your child.” Colburn’s YouTube-inspired bill would classify salvia as a Schedule I substance, making people who sell it subject to prison terms of up to 20 years. According to the Santa Fe Reporter, New Mexico state Rep. Keith Gardner (R-Chavez), sponsor of a similar bill, “says all the evidence he needs of the drug’s dangerous potential is available on YouTube.” He told the paper the videos are “dramatic as hell—you gotta watch ’em. At first I thought, ‘This is just somebody pretending.’ It’s amazing how powerful this drug is.”
Texas state Rep. Armando Martinez (D- Weslaco) says he introduced a bill that would ban salvia sales to minors based on “what we’ve seen on YouTube and what a friend of mine’s nephew had mentioned about all this.” He settled on age restrictions, as opposed to a complete ban, because it seemed easier to accomplish. “Any way we could stop this from getting into the hands of our children or adolescents,” he says, “I think that it’s something we need to do. If that means a complete ban, then I would support a complete ban.”
Texas state Rep. Charles “Doc” Anderson (R-Waco) already does, arguing that age restrictions could “do more harm than good,” making salvia use a mark of adulthood. The New York Times reports that Anderson has tried to stir up support for a ban among his colleagues by citing a YouTube video that shows a salvia smoker behind the wheel of a car. The video in question, “Driving on Salvia,” is part of a humorous series called “Being Productive on Salvia” featuring a Los Angeles production assistant named Erik Hoffstad. Other episodes include “Gardening on Salvia” and “Writing a Letter to Congress on Salvia.” The running gag is that Hoffstad can’t manage to do much of anything after taking a salvia hit. In “Driving on Salvia,” he never actually tries to start the car, and the scariest moment occurs when a cat unexpectedly jumps on the hood.
‘Beyond Anything We Have Seen Before’
Martinez and Anderson both raise the specter of salvia-impaired driving, but neither can cite any real-life examples of it, in Texas or elsewhere. That’s not surprising, since (as Hoffstad’s video illustrates) someone tripping on salvia, unlike someone who has had a few drinks, is in no condition to get into a car, start it up, and drive away. It seems the only way this hazard could materialize is if someone brought a bongful of salvia with him on a drive and lit it up while stopped at a light. Although the driving scenario seems implausible, salvia prohibitionists are right that there is a potential for accidents under the drug’s influence, which is why vendors warn their customers to put away hazardous objects and enlist a “sober sitter” to keep an eye on them during their trip.
When I press Martinez and Anderson for examples of actual harm caused by salvia use, as opposed to hypothetical risks, the best they can do is cite bad but brief trips. Anderson also claims “we are seeing the flashback scenario.” But as Siebert notes, “Any kind of intense or traumatic experience,” including war, car crashes, and near-death experiences, “can produce flashbacks.…Intense psychedelic experiences can be extremely frightening, and it may be that there’s some internal psychological mechanism of revisiting that kind of material later. But it doesn’t appear that there’s any organic, direct reason for this. It’s not like the drug hangs around the system and suddenly pops up in your brain one day. It seems to be more like the way the brain deals with very intense or confusing experiences.”