Salvia and Salivation

Is this trip worth a warm mouthful of spit?


Staring at the brick wall above the fireplace, I see three faces. The one on the left has a yellow nose and a green turtle where its mouth should be. The one in the middle is heavily tattooed in a floral pattern. The one on the right has a mouth opened wide in surprise, perhaps because an armadillo is standing on top of its head.

These would be pretty cool Salvia divinorum visions, but they're actually wooden Indonesian masks that I bought at World Market. This is my second experiment with Daniel Siebert's Sage Goddess Emerald Essence ($65 for half an ounce), and the effects are once again a little too subtle for my taste. There is a definite sense that things are different, but exactly how isn't clear. The most articulable effect is a distortion of time, with an hour flying by in what seems like a few minutes.

The experience is especially disappointing because getting there is so unpleasant. The alcohol-based tincture tastes awful, like chlorophyll mixed with gasoline, and it stings, even when diluted (per the instructions) with a bit of water. Your first impulse upon squirting it into your mouth with the dropper is to spit it out. That is also your second and third impulse. But instead you're supposed to swish it around to thoroughly coat the inside of your mouth, then let it pool under your tongue for 15 minutes. Unfortunately, this is before the time distortion kicks in.

The "staggered dose method" is slightly less arduous. It involves holding one-third of the dose at a time, four minutes each. That way your mouth gets a brief break before the torture resumes. The directions warn that you don't want to dilute the tincture too much with your spit, but salivation seems to be an involuntary response to having something this disgusting in your mouth, so you end up with a mouthful of green fluid by the end. "If you prefer," the instructions say, "you can spit out the tincture, rather than swallowing it." I prefer.

The smoked method is much easier, especially with a water pipe, and more rewarding. Within a few seconds the world is vibrating, reverberating, echoing. Familiar objects are transformed. Looking down at my bent leg, I see a stoop on a city block lined with brownstones. Beyond the cityscape, the shoes sitting on the floor of my office resemble comical cartoon characters. Looking out the window, I stare at the knot on an oak tree, where I see the head of a human-sized cat wearing a knight's helmet, a wizard with a flowing beard, and a wolf with glowing eyes. I can make the images shift at will.

On another occasion, I return from a salvia trip with two firm convictions. One is that my bong glows in the dark, which does not seem to be true. The other, which I wrote down immediately afterward so I would not forget it, is this: "Arthbayim roomshalook." I can't vouch for the spelling.

I am using Siebert's "regular strength enhanced leaf" ($65 per gram), which is supposed to be about six times as strong as the natural plant, and I am aware that the visions are drug effects. But it is not hard to see how someone using the "20x," "40x," or "60x" leaf sold by Siebert's competitors (at much lower prices) might lose sight of that fact, especially if he didn't adjust his dose accordingly.

Even at 6x, the effects are interesting enough that I would try it again, although I'd prefer mushrooms or LSD if they were easier to get. I tend to agree with Rick Doblin, president of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, who says salvia can trigger "a peacefulness and an expansiveness," but the experience is not "as profound or deep" as those offered by other psychedelics. "Its popularity has been increasing because so many other things were banned," he says. "Very few people would be going to salvia if they had alternatives."

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine.