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.

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.


The rush to judgment has led to a disparity in how salvia is dealt with at the state level. Louisiana was the first state to ban it, and possession can get you up to 10 years in the slammer. At the moment, salvia is also illegal to possess and distribute in Florida, Missouri, Tennessee, Delaware, Illinois, North Dakota, and Minnesota, while it remains legal elsewhere. Plenty of states, including California and Maine, restrict the sale of the herb. The confusion over the status of the drug is no clearer in Delaware, where the plant itself is considered a schedule 1 drug—like cocaine and heroin—while the active ingredient, Salvinorin A, remains legal.

In New York, the Republican state senator John Flanagan has made banning salvia a political crusade. A recent op-ed by Flanagan made dubious claims about the dangers of the herb. “While the long-term effects are still being considered,” Flanagan wrote, “the National Drug Intelligence Center has indicated that they may be similar to those produced by other hallucinogens such as LSD including depression and schizophrenia.”

Yet the admittedly skimpy data on the drug’s long-term effects reveals no such consensus. Indeed, some research indicates that it might be useful in treating depression. A survey by Matthew Baggot published in the June 2004 newsletter of Erowid, a website about psychoactive drugs, found that of 500 salvia users, 25% said that the drug had “antidepressant-like effects” that caused an “improved mood” for up to 24 hours after use, while only 4% reported persistent negative effects (the most common being anxiety).

Banning the drug will disappoint teen thrill seekers, but it may well have other, much more deleterious repercussions. Studies are underway exploring the potential medical applications of the drug—after all, finding a first-in-class molecule that targets only a single brain receptor is a drug developer's jackpot. The fact that salvinorin A is so “clean” makes it especially attractive to researchers interested in developing drugs that treat brain-related disorders. Dr. Thomas Prisinzano, an assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Iowa, has suggested that salvia might be of use in treating stimulant abuse. “You can give a rat free access to cocaine,” he reported, “[and] give them free access to salvinorin A…and they stop taking cocaine.”

Other researchers, including a team at John Hopkins University, have published studies suggesting that salvinorin A may have a therapeutic effects against the symptoms of Alzheimer's, schizophrenia and depression. Classifying salvia as a schedule 1 drug of abuse—one with “no medicinal value”—would drastically slow, or even stop, further research in this field.

“We have this incredible new compound—it absolutely has potential medical use—and we’re talking about throttling it because some people get intoxicated on it,” Dr. John Mendelson, a pharmacologist at the California Pacific Medical Center Research Institute, told The New York Times. Mendelson published results from a 2010 federally financed study of salvia in humans showing that the drug is safe and its effects generally positive. “It couldn’t be more foolish from a business point of view.”

Naomi Long, Washington D.C. office director of the Drug Policy Alliance Network, which promotes drug policies grounded in science, health and human rights, agrees. “Once it’s on a Schedule I list, it will make it nearly impossible to be researched for medicinal purposes,” she says.

Yet, as often occurs in American political life, politicians in state after state persist in ignoring or flat-out contradicting scientific evidence. John Lim, a Republican member of the Oregon state House of Representatives, seemed to be taking a page out of Harry Ainslinger’s playbook when he told the Olympian, “From what I understand, this drug is at least as dangerous as marijuana or LSD." Lim’s spokesman Seth Hatmaker added, "I think it's only a matter of time before we find people addicted to this stuff.” It’s worth noting that Lim’s largest financial contributor in 2006 was the Oregon Beer and Wine Distributor’s Association. There are approximately 25 million alcohol-related deaths worldwide every year, according to the World Health Organization, yet there has been no outcry from Lim on the issue.

An estimated two million Americans have used salvia over the past decade. No deaths directly linked to salvia have been reported. While a smattering of suicides by salvia users have been reported, there’s no way of knowing whether the drug was a trigger. The Drug Abuse Warning Network reported no emergency room visits linked to salvia between 2004 and 2006.

That salvia is safe when used correctly should surprise no one—its original cultivators, the Mazatec Indians, have used it for centuries, claiming beneficial effects. An alternative to criminalizing salvia would be to promote education about how to use the drug in a safe, controlled manner. After all, here is a drug that challenges all of the usual reasons that the authorities cite when banning a substance. It has no ill effects to the body. It is short acting and non-addictive. Its unique mechanism of action may lead researchers to understanding and treating brain disorders. By making salvia illegal, we are saying, as a society, that the very act of inducing hallucinogenic states should be illegal, regardless of whether the drug used is actually harmful. Think about that for a moment. The law’s aim is not to protect people against danger or injury but rather to prohibit people from exploring their own inner space.

“When it comes to the issue of whether or not to outlaw the drug, which is the big question right now,” Dr. Adi Jaffe says, “I understand that parents and lawmakers want to protect our children. But salvia is not a commonly abused drug. I seriously doubt that more kids use salvia than, for example, sniff glue. But I don’t see anybody trying to make glue illegal.” The high profile of salvia on YouTube and in the media have exaggerated the frequency of the drug’s negative effects—which, in turn, has triggered public alarm that is out of all proportion to the drug’s actual reach.

John Flanagan’s bill recently passed in the New York state Senate. While taking a victory lap, Flanagan reportedly said, “Now that the Senate has passed the bill, I look forward to working with [the state Assembly] to finally protect families and get this substance off our streets.”

But to addiction specialists like Jaffe, the stakes are not so black and white. “The issue is this,” he says. “Adolescents are going to get involved in risky behavior. If we take [salvia] away, they’ll find the next thing. More than a million kids a year are using common inhalants, like household cleaners. The issue is to reduce the panic. I’m a huge proponent of education. Kids are going to do things we don’t like.” In addition, criminalizing the drug will only force it underground, creating a black market that is even less accountable than the current online commercial salvia.

But if we outlaw the sale of salvia, as Flanagan argues, won’t fewer people use it? “Of course,” Jaffe says with the resigned sigh of a man who has spent much of his professional career considering these issues. “The question is, is our goal to reduce kids using salvia, or is our goal to reduce kids using drugs?”

Tony O'Neill is the author of several novels, including Digging the Vein and Down and Out on Murder Mile and Sick City. He is the co-author of 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. O'Neill has written numerous stories for The Fix, including an interview with Jerry Stahl and an argument against abstinence.

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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.