What's So Scary About Salvia?

By Tony O'Neill 05/16/11

Scientists say that Miley Cyrus's favorite herb is not only safe, but also shows promise as a treatment for a wide array of brain disorders, including addiction. So why are lawmakers racing to ban it?

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

Anti-drug hysteria is as American as baseball and apple pie. The first public official to grasp the political power to be harnessed by anti-drug panics was Harry Ainslinger, the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Just as Prohibition was ending in the 20's, the canny pol launched a new crusade against marijuana in 1930, and went on to pursue a 30-year career as the nation’s leading crusader against reefer madness. Testifying before Congress in 1937, Ainslinger famously said, “There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their satanic music, jazz and swing, results from marijuana usage. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and many others.”

Over the years the drugs may change, but the song pretty much remains the same. The latest substance to push parents, politicians and the press into attack mode is perhaps the unlikeliest of all—the legal, non-addictive, short-acting, relatively harmless herb called salvia. The drug (scientific name: salvia divinorum, or “diviner’s sage”) was introduced to many of us via YouTube, where hundreds of videos have been posted of teenage kids smoking the stuff and then acting like extras from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Then last December, an inadvertent celebrity endorsement from fluff-pop queen Miley Cyrus, who was seen, this time via T.M.Z., inhaling a bongful of the herb (and then declaring she was “having a little bit of a bad trip”), thrust salvia into mainstream notoriety. In no time at all, elected officials and their enablers in the media whipped up the kind of anti-drug froth that usually culminated in the banning of the offending agent. As I type this, salvia is prohibited in 15 states, while many others, including my home state of New York, are trying to pass laws to ban the psychoactive plant.

Yet the science of this member of the mint family suggests that we proceed with caution before recklessly stamping it out. “Salvia is an interesting drug,” says Dr. Adi Jaffe, a former drug addict and U.C.L.A.-trained psychologist who runs his own site called All About Addiction and writes for Psychology Today. Like many addiction specialists, Jaffe was suddenly bombarded by questions about salvia in the wake of the Miley Cyrus scandal, with media outlets hungry for quotes from outraged medical professionals nodding along with the politicians. And last week, the actress Gwyneth Paltrow—who is no Amy Winehouse when it comes to embodying the rock & roll lifestyle—made headlines when a photograph of her garden that she posted on her website, GOOP, identified one plant as salvia (although according to the New York Daily News, the strain Paltrow is cultivating is likely salvia officinalis, a common sage used for cooking).

Jaffe’s research into salvia caused him to question the logic of the rush-to-ban when it comes to the hallucinogenic herb. “When we talk about drugs, we usually give them a designation of being ‘clean’ or ‘dirty,’” Jaffe says. “This has to do with what the drug does to the brain—not how people act on it. Alcohol, for example, is a dirty drug because it affects almost every part of the body. Salvia is completely different. Its active ingredient, salvinorin A, affects only a single receptor of the brain. As far as I know, that makes it unique for a natural substance.”

Dr. Bryan Roth, a professor of pharmacology at the University of North Carolina medical school, is one of the leading experts in salvia studies. He made the discovery that salvinorin A stimulates only a single receptor in the brain, the kappa upload receptor. (By contrast, L.S.D. stimulates about 50 receptors.) Roth also found that salvinorin A is the strongest naturally occurring hallucinogen, gram for gram. Most drugs of abuse work on the brain’s so-called mu-opioid receptors (“mu” refers to morphine, suggesting the feel-good effects of stimulating this receptor); other psychedelics usually work by tweaking the brain’s serotonin levels. Yet almost alone among these mind-altering chemicals, salvinorin A sparks the kappa-opioid receptor, while leaving serotonin receptors alone. This receptor, Jaffe explains, “is very heavily involved in the body’s response to extreme stress.”

Kappa-opioid agonists are known to produce dysphoric effects, such as sadness, anxiety or irritability. However, salvinorin A’s effects, while definitely hallucinogenic, tend to be less dysphoric than dissociative or delirious—that’s the celebrated high that salvia users seek. A 2002 landmark study by Roth and other researchers revealed that salvia has a molecular makeup that places it in an entirely different category from other naturally occurring hallucinogens like psilocybin and mescaline.

This might explain why salvia trips can be so unpredictable, ranging from the sublime to the terrifying. “Some people say that the drug gives them very insightful, trippy effects,” Jaffe says. “But the result can also be a scary, paranoid experience. And this makes sense, given which brain receptor is being targeted.” To some extent, of course, the quality of the drug experience also depends on the amount and concentration of the drug, Jaffe adds.

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Tony O'Neill, a regular contributor to The Fix, is the author of several novels, including Digging the VeinDown and Out on Murder Mile and Sick City. He also co-authored the New York Times bestseller Hero of the Underground (with Jason Peter) and the Los Angeles Times bestseller Neon Angel (with Cherie Currie). He lives in New York with his wife and daughter. You can follow Tony on Twitter.