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What's So Scary About Salvia?

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Sacred to tribal shaman and teen thrill-seekers alike, salvia is a YouTube obsession. Gawker

By Tony O'Neill

05/16/11

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My own consumer test of salvia left me wondering what all the excitement was about. My trip, if you can even call it that, was nowhere near as intense or introspective as those I had with the “classic” psychedelics. The most common method of using it is with a bong, heating the ground leaves with a butane lighter to a very high temperature. The effects come on quick, delivering an almost instantaneous disorientation of the senses. The music that was playing suddenly took on a seemingly vast dimension, with the bass lines incredibly prominent. When I closed my eyes I envisioned each pluck of the bass guitar sending off endless visual reverberations through space, a sensation that made me momentarily feel as though I had fallen into the album cover of Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures. Then as suddenly as it started, the effects began to subside. All in all, I found the half-hour salvia high to be pretty shallow, and I had no further interest in the drug. Friends who are informed consumers of hallucinogens report similarly underwhelming experiences.

Yet the Mazatec Indians of southern Mexico, where the mint grows wild in the mountainous cloud forest outside Oaxaca, swear by the drug. For centuries, salvia played a role in the local tribal rituals of their shamans, who used it to induce powerful visionary states. The rest of the world only discovered it when anthropologists studying these shamans in the 1950s brought samples of the plant home and managed to successfully clone them.

Salvia’s unpredictable effects made it unsuitable as a party drug, and its use was confined to shamans and the occasional intrepid chemical adventurer until the advent of the Internet. The scrabble to sell legal highs to a new computer-savvy generation who might not necessarily want to take the risk of dealing with the illicit drug market sparked a boom in salvia’s popularity.

Nobody has yet written a history of the entrepreneurs who first utilized the power of the Internet to turn salvia into a lucrative business. But Google the words “buy salvia online,” and you get literally thousands of sites of vendors who currently sell the plant. Most salvia available online is a direct descendant of the “Hoffman-Wasson” strain (named after the botanists who cloned it in the ’50s) and comes in the form of an “extract” of salvinorin A, the active ingredient removed from the raw plant material. The quality, purity, and safety of salvia sold via the web is a crap shoot—just like any other drug, prescription or otherwise, purchased in unregulated cyberspace.

The drug’s variable effects led to the rash of bizarre YouTube videos, which in turn fuelled interest in the drug. Some videos have been viewed more than half a million times, and show users taking hits from bongs before collapsing into convulsive giggles or staring glassy-eyed at the camera or responding to some stimulus that is not there. For teens, the comedy factor is a key attraction—“equal parts Jackass and Up in Smoke," as The New York Times put it. The media has raised salvia’s profile by playing up its most lurid aspects. The name of teenager Brett Chidester is synonymous with efforts to prohibit the drug. The 17-year-old Delaware native, who had no previous history of mental illness, took his own life in 2006 by means of carbon monoxide poisoning. Chidester’s parents have long claimed that their son’s regular use of salvia was to blame for his suicide, and their campaigning led to “Brett’s Law,” which prohibits the use of salvia in Delaware. Chidester’s mother, Kathleen, has expanded her mission to Maryland and beyond. “My hope and goal is to have salvia regulated across the U.S.” she told the Baltimore Examiner. “It's my son's legacy and I will not end my fight until this happens.”

While undoubtedly a tragedy, many have questioned whether banning salvia was a wise move in the light of Chidester’s death. The theory that the young man’s salvia use encouraged him to conclude that life is meaningless and thus directly contributed to his suicide prompted attorney Richard Glen Boire, a senior fellow at the Center for Cognitive Liberty and Ethics, to wonder aloud where it would all end. If we followed this line of logic, he said, “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."

The anti-salvia hysteria peaked in January following the mass shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 18 other people in Tucson, Arizona, when the herb found itself tenuously linked to the crime. “Salvia and the Arizona Shooter: Did Loughner Use Drugs?” blared the Daily Beast, although the piece concluded that it was extremely unlikely that Jared Loughner was in fact high on salvia when he shot up Gifford’s town meeting: “Typically, those who use salvia are not able to do much," says Matthew Johnson, assistant professor of psychology at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. "The limited intoxication period of salvia, combined with its impairing effects on mobility, make it unlikely that Loughner used salvia at the time of the shooting.” But the story was, not surprisingly, picked up by countless news agencies, resulting in a slew of shock-horror headlines. “Salvia and the Arizona Shooting,” trumpeted Newsweek. “Arizona Shooter Had Been Known to Use Potent, and Legal, Hallucinogen,” claimed The New York Times.

 

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