A couple of years ago, John Bulloch watched an alarming report on an Atlanta TV station about an exotic-sounding drug called Salvia divinorum. Bulloch had never heard of the plant, a psychoactive relative of sage that the Mazatec Indians of Oaxaca, Mexico, have used for centuries in healing and divination rituals. But according to the news report, salvia was becoming increasingly popular among American college students, who sometimes called it “Sally D” or “magic mint” (since salvia, like sage, is a member of the mint family).
The most horrifying fact of all: Salvia was perfectly legal. In their far-reaching crackdowns on drugs that people enjoy, state and federal legislators somehow had missed a plant that contains the most powerful naturally occurring psychedelic known to man.
Bulloch—a Republican state senator who represents the area around Ochlocknee, Georgia, a tiny town near the Florida border—was astounded. “I thought, ‘Why hasn’t somebody already jumped on this?’ ” he told the Florida Times-Union in March 2007. “I hurriedly got legislative counsel to draft the bill”—legislation making it a misdemeanor to grow, sell, or possess salvia. “Since then,” the Times-Union reported, “Bulloch has been scouring the Internet to find information about salvia. None of what he has learned has dissuaded him from trying to make it illegal.”
Bulloch’s approach to salvia—ban first, ask questions later—epitomizes how drug policy is made in America. Although his bill has not yet passed, 15 states have banned salvia since 2005, and many others are considering similar legislation. Their precipitous action makes the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, which has been monitoring salvia as “a drug of concern” since 2003 but still has no definite plans to classify it as a prohibited substance, look rational and reticent by comparison.
The penalties for violating state salvia laws vary from modest fines to decades in prison. Kenneth Rau, a North Dakota bottling plant employee who has the dubious distinction of being the first American arrested for salvia possession, bought eight ounces of leaves on eBay for $32 in December 2007. He says he did not realize a state ban on the plant had taken effect the previous August—a plausible claim, especially since the plant matter that police discovered in his home was clearly labeled “salvia.” Last spring Rau received three years of probation for simple possession. But he originally was charged as a dealer and could have received a prison sentence of up to 20 years, all for a bag of leaves that was legal in North Dakota four months before he bought it and remains legal in most of the country.
To drug policy historians, the reasons for the rush to ban salvia are familiar. Sensationalistic press coverage, in this case supplemented by salvia users’ documentation of their own trips on YouTube, has attracted the attention of legislators eager to grandstand as guardians of vulnerable and impressionable “young people.” Few politicians can resist the allure of a drug described as “cheaper than marijuana, stronger than LSD, as fast-acting as crack cocaine, and legally available to minors” (as The Ithaca Journal put it in 2004). The endless repetition of a few anecdotes that supposedly demonstrate salvia’s dangers—most conspicuously, the story of a Delaware teenager’s 2006 suicide—has found a receptive audience among politicians who automatically assume that an unfamiliar psychoactive substance must be a menace. And since these lawmakers bridle at the notion that anything good could possibly come from altering your consciousness, they see no downside to banning salvia before it becomes a problem.
The idea that salvia “could become the next marijuana” (as the Associated Press warned last year) is mostly misbegotten. The salvia experience is so unpredictable, so incompatible with social interaction, and so frequently boring or unpleasant that it’s safe to assume the herb will never be as popular as pot. But the comparison rings true in several other respects: Both salvia and marijuana are psychoactive plants linked in the public mind to Mexico, both appear to be nontoxic for all practical purposes, and both have intriguing medical potential. Salvia’s detractors, like marijuana’s in the 1920s and ’30s, claim it causes insanity and violence. In both cases prohibition occurred at the state level first. If salvia continues to follow the pattern set by marijuana, it will ultimately be banned throughout the country, despite a dearth of evidence that it poses a serious threat to individual health or to public safety.
Something About Mary
Salvia’s ritual use in Mexico goes back hundreds of years, but outsiders paid little attention to it until the mid-20th century. Starting in 1938, anthropologists and naturalists visiting Oaxaca mentioned a visionary tea made from a plant variously called hierba Maria (herb of Mary), hoja de adivinación (leaf of prophecy), or ska Maria Pastora (leaves of Mary the Shepherdess). They reported that the local healers known as curanderos used the potion, traditionally linked to the Virgin Mary, to diagnose illness and locate lost objects, finding clues in what their patients/clients said under its influence.
The self-taught American mycologist and ethnobotanist R. Gordon Wasson, best known for his research on hallucinogenic mushrooms, was the first visitor to describe his own experiences with ska Maria Pastora. In a 1962 leaflet published by Harvard University’s Botanical Museum, Wasson announced “a new Mexican psychotropic drug from the mint family” that he and his colleagues dubbed Salvia divinorum (diviner’s sage). He said it was “a psychotropic plant that the Mazatecs consume when mushrooms are not available,” a “less desirable substitute” for psilocybin-containing fungi.
In a 1961 salvia ceremony, Wasson drank a foul-tasting mixture of leaf juice and water under the guidance of a curandera. “The effect of the leaves came sooner than would have been the case with the mushrooms, was less sweeping, and lasted a shorter time,” he reported. “There was not the slightest doubt about the effect, but it did not go beyond the initial effect of the mushrooms—dancing colors in elaborate, three-dimensional designs.” The second time around, about a year later, Wasson was joined by his friend Albert Hofmann, the Swiss chemist who first synthesized LSD. They experienced similar effects.
Given Wasson’s lack of enthusiasm for salvia, it’s not surprising that the plant remained obscure for decades, with nothing like the fame or following attracted by LSD, psilocybin, or peyote. That began to change in the 1990s, thanks largely to the efforts of another amateur ethnobotanist.
Daniel Siebert first came across salvia in the late 1970s while researching medicinal plants. Later someone gave him a cutting, which he used to grow a plant that he added to his collection of interesting herbs. About a year later he accidentally broke off part of the plant and decided to try it, chewing up a wad of 26 large leaves. “It was that initial experience that really piqued my interest,” he says. “I found the effects really intriguing, and it was very comfortable and easy to handle—much more manageable than most other psychedelic drugs I had tried.” Today Siebert, who lives in Malibu, runs the Salvia Divinorum Research and Information Center (sagewisdom.org), the most comprehensive online repository of information about the plant.
The website, which also sells the herb, includes a link to a 1994 article Siebert published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology that helped explain why ska Maria had disappointed so many psychonauts. Siebert’s research confirmed that salvinorin A, first isolated a decade before, was the plant’s main psychoactive ingredient. It turned out to be highly potent, producing noticeable effects at a dose of half a milligram, compared to about 10 milligrams for psilocybin and 250 milligrams for mescaline. (Contrary to some overheated press reports about salvia, LSD, a synthetic psychedelic, is far more powerful than any of these, effective at doses as low as 50 micrograms, or five-hundredths of a milligram.) Siebert’s experiments with volunteers who tried different routes of administration revealed that swallowing salvia was the worst way to absorb salvinorin A, which is “deactivated by the gastrointestinal system.” Two other routes were much more successful: through the oral mucous membrane (by holding masticated leaves or leaf juice in the mouth) and through the lungs (by inhaling the vapor).
This information, combined with the realization that salvinorin A is highly stable and remains in salvia leaves even when they’re dried, set the stage for the plant’s commercialization. Soon it was available from head shops and online vendors in the form of liquid extracts and smokable dried leaves, often fortified with extract. Holding the liquid in the mouth more closely resembles the traditional method of consuming salvia, with the effects felt in five to 10 minutes and lasting an hour or two. But the alcohol-based extract tastes terrible and produces relatively subtle effects. (See “Salvia and Salivation,” page 42.) The smoked form produces faster, more intense, and shorter effects, appearing within 30 seconds and subsiding after five to 10 minutes. It sells much better.
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.”
Last fall Anderson told the Waco Tribune-Herald that “with a single use [salvia smokers] can cause some serious, serious damage to their brain.” Roth, the salvia researcher, says “there’s no evidence for that statement.” In fact, says Siebert, animal studies of salvia give “no indication of it having any significant toxic effects, even at doses that are hundreds of times more than what humans would ordinarily use.” Even salvia’s detractors concede that addiction does not seem to be an issue, since few people who try the drug want to use it on a regular basis. Despite a dramatic increase in use during the last few years, emergency rooms are not seeing a flood, or even a trickle, of salvia users, probably because a hospital trip usually takes longer than a salvia trip.
The lack of alarming statistics helps explain why the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which has the power to ban psychoactive substances without new legislation, is still waiting and watching six years after declaring salvia a “drug of concern.” DEA spokesman Rusty Payne says, “I don’t think we have enough information yet.” And there’s no telling when they will. “It’s going to take a while,” Payne says. “If we decide to schedule [salvia], we’ll publish a notice [in the Federal Register]. If we don’t, we won’t.” Although Payne says the delay should not be read as a judgment on salvia’s dangers, the DEA can act much more quickly when it wants to, as when it banned MDMA on an emergency basis in 1985. “When they say they’ve been looking at it for years,” says Rick Doblin, “it means it’s not much of a problem.”
Nor is salvia a high priority at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Officially, the FDA says herbal products like salvia are “unapproved new drugs” and “misbranded drugs” if they are “marketed with claims implying that these products mimic the effects of controlled substances.” Products are deemed to be “illegal street drug alternatives” when they are “intended to be used for recreational purposes to effect psychological states (e.g., to get high, to promote euphoria, or to induce hallucinations).”
“I am aware of that law,” says Arena Ethnobotanicals CEO John Boyd, “and that’s why if you check our website there are no references to anything like that.” Many salvia vendors do tout the psychoactive effects of their products, promising “psychedelic,” “visionary,” “enlightening,” and “enjoyable” experiences. Yet except for two warning letters it sent in 2002, the FDA does not seem to have taken any enforcement actions against companies that sell salvia. While FDA spokesman Christopher Kelly says “we do not discuss potential, pending, or ongoing actions,” none of the distributors I interviewed was aware of any recent warnings or seizures.
As for Congress, Rep. Joe Baca (D-Calif.) introduced a bill to ban salvia in 2002, declaring, “We know very little about the drug, but what we do know is frightening. This drug’s power is beyond anything we have seen before.” But the bill died in committee, and Baca never reintroduced it. I contacted his office a couple of times to find out why but did not get an answer.
‘Our Existence in General Is Pointless’
By contrast, there’s been a flurry of anti-salvia activity at the state level in the last few years. With so little evidence that salvia is hazardous, prohibitionists lean heavily on anecdotes. Ohio state Rep. Thom Collier (R-Mount Vernon), who introduced a salvia ban that took effect in April, said he was motivated by the death of a Loudonville boy who was shot by a friend. But according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, “it isn’t clear whether the friend was on the drug when he shot and killed the 12-year-old.” The Columbus Dispatch notes “there was no direct evidence…that the shooting was drug-related.”
Similarly, when Rep. Baca proposed a federal salvia ban in 2002, he cited the case of Daniel Moffa, a 15-year-old Rhode Island boy who smoked salvia one morning and stabbed his pot dealer on the way to school. Moffa later told WPRI, the Fox affiliate in Providence, that he was “paranoid” and “hallucinating,” thinking the dealer looked “evil” and “horrible.” The story sounded fishy to Daniel Siebert, since he didn’t think a salvia user on a trip that intense would be able to coordinate his movements well enough to meet someone and repeatedly stab him. Still, Moffa’s parents initially blamed salvia for the assault because “we had no other plausible explanation,” the boy’s father explained in a 2007 email message to Siebert. Since then, the father said, “we have found out that Dan suffers from bipolar affective disorder with psychosis.” While “the salvia may have contributed to an episode,” he added, it “was not the real cause.”
The most influential salvia horror story involves Brett Chidester, a Wilmington, Delaware, 17-year-old who in January 2006 pitched a tent in his parents’ garage, went inside it with a burning charcoal grill, and stayed there until he was dead from carbon monoxide poisoning. Brett had been experimenting with salvia and claimed it had given him profound insights. “Salvia allows us to give up our senses and wander in the interdimensional time and space,” he wrote in an essay discovered after his death. “Also, and this is probably hard for most to accept, our existence in general is pointless. Final point: Us earthly humans are nothing.”
A month after Brett’s death, his mother, Kathy Chidester, told the Wilmington News-Journal: “We just won’t have any answers, and we have to learn to accept that. But my gut feeling is it was the salvia. It’s the only thing that can explain it.” A month later, the state legislature had approved Brett’s Law, which made salvia a Schedule I drug. The same week the ban took effect, Delaware’s deputy chief medical examiner, Adrienne Sekula-Perlman, changed Brett’s death certificate, adding “salvia divinorum use” as a contributing cause.
Since then Kathy Chidester has campaigned for similar laws across the country, and 15 more states have either banned salvia or (in the case of California and Maine) prohibited sales to minors. The laws all passed by overwhelming margins, in some cases unanimously. Anti-salvia bills have been introduced in at least 22 other states. “My hope and goal is to have salvia regulated across the U.S.,” Chidester wrote in testimony supporting the proposed salvia ban in Maryland last January. “It’s my son’s legacy and I will not end my fight until this happens.”
Appel, the Tiffin University psychologist, does not think salvia should be legal for general use, but he is reluctant to draw any firm conclusions about Brett Chidester’s death. “I wouldn’t feel comfortable saying it caused him to commit suicide,” he says. Such explanations, he adds, are “a way to try to make sense of something that’s pretty senseless. We’re always looking for rationalizations and reasons, particularly when there aren’t any.”
Roth, the University of North Carolina psychiatrist, is also opposed to using salvia recreationally, partly because of the psychological risks. But he says it’s difficult to say what role the drug might have played in Brett Chidester’s suicide. Although “it’s tragic that this young guy killed himself,” he says, “there’s no way of knowing if salvia had anything to do with it.…There have been a couple of reports of people having long-term psychotic episodes after smoking it that have appeared in the literature. It would seem, given the apparent widespread use of salvia, that if these are side effects, they don’t occur at very high prevalence. Otherwise, the ERs would be filled with people having bad salvia reactions.”
Siebert concedes that salvia “might have influenced [Brett Chidester’s] thinking in some way” but adds: “He must have already had some thoughts about suicide. I don’t think salvia’s just going to put thoughts into peoples’ heads. Mentally healthy people don’t decide to take such a drastic action based on [an idea] they had during a drug state. Psychedelics basically amplify a lot of your own internal stuff. If you’re already having some kind of dark thoughts, a psychedelic experience could amplify that, and it could lead to a problem for some people.”
Notably, there is no indication that Brett Chidester was under the influence of salvia when he killed himself. The idea seems to be that using the drug encouraged him to reach conclusions about the nature of life that were conducive to suicide. That theory, notes Richard Glen Boire, a senior fellow at the Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics, “could apply to some of the greatest pieces of art in the history of the world. It would make Nietzsche a controlled substance. There is a lot of cultural production out there that shows a way of looking at the world that isn’t all sunny and rosy.”
‘One Life Lost Is One Too Many’
If Brett Chidester’s suicide looms large in the thinking of anti-salvia legislators in other states, that’s partly because they rarely have evidence of harm caused by the drug closer to home. According to local press coverage in one state after another, police are not reporting salvia-related problems. Neither are schools, hospitals, or drug treatment centers. Legislators want to ban it anyway.
Their reasoning is simple: Why wait for a problem? Martinez, the Texas legislator, says he favors “a proactive approach.” Over the course of my 10-minute interview with him, he says “one life lost is one too many” four times and “you can’t put a price on life” three times. To his colleague Anderson, who utters the phrase “it’s a hallucinogen” eight times during a 30-minute conversation, it’s self-evident that any drug falling into that category should be banned.
Georgia state Sen. Don Thomas (R-Dalton) has a similar attitude. In 2007 he candidly told the Florida Times-Union he knew nothing about the benefits of salvia use. “I just know about the publicity of the dangers of it,” he said, “so my first impression is to ban anything of that nature.” That same year, defending legislation that would ban the sale of salvia to adults, Wisconsin state Rep. Sheldon Wasserman (D-Milwaukee) told the Wisconsin State Journal, “This bill is all about protecting our children.”
Salvia prohibitionists say a complete ban is necessary to protect children because, as Wisconsin state Sen. Julie Lassa (D-Stevens Point) told the Wausau Daily Herald in 2007, “many people believe that because it is legal there are no risks associated with using salvia.” Last year Massachusetts state Rep. Vinny deMacedo (R-Plymouth) told the Plymouth News, “I believe by not making this drug illegal we are sending a message to our youth that it is OK.” Appel, the psychologist, agrees that salvia users “make the assumption that because it’s legal it’ll be safe.”
But people do not assume that tobacco and alcohol are safe simply because they are legal. Furthermore, anyone researching salvia online would come across myriad warnings from vendors and users about the drug’s risks, along with the YouTube videos, which highlight the potential for bad trips. “I don’t buy this idea that people think because it’s legal it must be good,” says Doblin, “because the corollary is not true.” Especially when it comes to marijuana, he says, “People don’t think, ‘It’s illegal, so it must be bad.’ ” People inclined to experiment with salvia, he says, generally don’t believe that “the drug laws make sense.”
To the extent that people do believe that, says Richard Glen Boire of the Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics, it’s a dangerous misconception. “In a mature society,” he says, “you would laugh at the idea that if something is available it is therefore stamped ‘approved’ and ‘safe.’ I don’t think we should be creating a society that’s safety proofed in a way that [ignores] the reality of living.”
Yet the war on drugs has conditioned people to expect that, with a few grandfathered exceptions, psychoactive substances that are not classified as pharmaceuticals will be banned. You hear it from salvia smokers on YouTube as well as salvia scaremongers in state legislatures: I can’t believe this stuff is legal. Ultimately, that is the crux of the prohibitionist argument. Salvia must be banned because it’s legal.
Once a few legislatures act on that premise, public officials in other states start to worry they will look irresponsible if they don’t follow suit. Last year Van Ingram, compliance branch manager with the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy, told the Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer, “Our neighbors in Tennessee and Missouri felt it was important enough, so it is important for us to look at it as well.” A month later, after the Florida legislature approved a salvia ban, state Sen. Evelyn Lynn (R-Daytona Beach) told the Associated Press, “I’d rather be at the front edge of preventing the dangers of the drug than waiting until we are the 40th or more.”
‘A Philosopher’s Tool’
Since there is no political upside to resisting prohibitionism, it’s surprising when legislators decline to panic. Two states—Maine and California—have prohibited salvia sales to minors instead of banning the drug completely. This year Maryland’s House of Delegates likewise ended up rejecting a ban and endorsing age restrictions, but the state Senate did not act on the bill before the end of the legislative session. The Drug Policy Alliance, which testified against the Maryland ban, also helped change a New Mexico prohibition bill into a ban on sales to minors, although the legislation has not passed yet.
One respectable antiprohibitionist argument is that banning salvia could impede valuable medical research. Salvinorin has intriguing properties that have made its derivatives the focus of research aimed at finding better treatments for pain, drug addiction, depression, and various neurological conditions. “For those of us who study this sort of thing,” says Bryan Roth, “the fact that salvinorin binds to just one [brain receptor] is pretty amazing. It opens up the possibility that if we can find drugs that block the effects of salvinorin at that receptor, they might be effective in treating a number of diseases.”
Roth worries that placing salvinorin on Schedule I of the federal Controlled Substances Act, the most restrictive category, will “make it more difficult to do research on it and investigate the potential therapeutic utility of derivatives. By definition, a Schedule I drug is devoid of any medical benefit. That makes it next to impossible to demonstrate any medical benefit. They made LSD Schedule I in the ’60s, and they’re only now getting around to looking at potential medical benefits. It really slows things down.”
While some salvia prohibitionists say they don’t want to interfere with scientific research, they do not recognize any legitimate nonmedical use for the plant. They see teenagers getting wasted on YouTube, and they see medical applications that might one day be approved by the FDA, but nothing in between. Siebert, who thinks thrill-seeking salvia smokers do not understand what the plant is all about, recently told the German magazine Hanfblatt, “Salvia is not an escapist drug. Quite the contrary: It is a philosopher’s tool.” He says, “It produces a very internal state where you go into yourself. You’re more aware of your subconscious feelings, and often you gain insight into problems in your life that you’re trying to tackle.” Last year he told Newsweek, “I realized I wanted to marry my wife as a result of the salvia experience.”
In a 2003 Erowid survey of 500 salvia users who filled out an online questionnaire, 47 percent reported “increased insight,” while 40 percent said they felt an “increased sense of connection with the universe or nature.” Other commonly reported effects were improved mood (45 percent), calmness (42 percent), weird thoughts (36 percent), a feeling of unreality (32 percent), and a feeling of floating (32 percent). About 26 percent reported “persisting positive effects,” compared to 4 percent who reported “persisting negative effects” (typically anxiety). The sample was self-selected, so the responses are not necessarily representative, but they give a better sense than the YouTube videos do of why some people might find value in the salvia experience.
“It makes things that are bothering you become clear,” says Mazatec Garden’s Jeffrey Bottoms. Some users report that salvia relieved their depression or helped them break bad habits. A 2001 case report in the Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology described a 26-year-old woman whose chronic depression disappeared after she started taking small doses of salvia three times a week. Arena Ethnobotanicals CEO John Boyd says he tried to give up cigarettes many times over the years and finally quit the week after his first salvia experience. Doblin notes that Canadian Quakers who have used salvia during meetings “felt that it deepened the silence and made people speak more from the heart.”
Although Siebert does not put much stock in spiritualism, he recognizes that other salvia users see their experiences in religious terms. “It seems so real that people often interpret it at face value and think they have actually had some kind of spiritual journey,” he says. “I don’t personally believe that’s what is really going on. But that doesn’t mean it’s not meaningful for people.”
By contrast, Worcester County, Maryland, Commissioner Linda Busick is sure a salvia experience cannot possibly be meaningful, at least not in a good way. “It’s supposed to be inducing spiritual growth,” Busick scoffed in a 2008 interview with the Salisbury Daily Times. “It’s certainly detrimental to anyone who uses it. I don’t know of any beneficial effects that it has.” Van Ingram, the Kentucky drug control official, is on the same page. “Anything that makes you see visions or things that are not there,” he told the Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer last year, “is hardly harmless.”
Anything? As Boire notes, “The visionary state goes back millennia, and it cannot be prohibited. Every night we enter into a visionary state. Every book you read, everything that goes through your sensory apparatus, creates a type of vision.” Doblin adds: “Seeing visions is the core of a lot of different religions, and whether that’s harmful or not depends on the context, the support, how people interpret the visions. Seeing things that are not there is not necessarily harmful. This whole idea that different is bad, that a change in consciousness is in itself harmful, is really one of the fundamental problems inherent in the drug war.”
Senior Editor Jacob Sullum (email@example.com) is the author of Saying Yes: In Defense of Drug Use (Tarcher/Penguin).