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.”