Salvia: the Leaf and the Law

There has been debate recently as to whether the herb Salvia divinorum should be treated as a narcotic, and whether there are any dangers associated with ingesting it. Legislation is being introduced and passed around the country regulating the herb, yet society knows little about it.

Called “diviners sage” by the Mazatecs, salvia is a hallucinogenic herb that held great value in rituals, and was used to enhance spiritual development. It is the strongest known naturally occurring hallucinogen. Salvia, or its extract, can be smoked, chewed, or brewed into a tea. Salvia divinorum, translated from the Latin, means “sage of the seers.”  It is indigenous only to Oaxaca, Mexico.

Salvia, in addition to being a hallucinogenic, can give the user a variety of experiences. Effects also include psychedelic-like changes in visual perception, mood, and body sensations; emotional swings; feelings of detachment; and importantly, a highly modified perception of external reality and the self.  Most effects begin less than 1 minute after ingestion, and last less than 30 minutes.  Salvia has gained great exposure on the internet, particularly on YouTube, where people post videos that claim to show themselves “high” on Salvia.

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health, an annual US based survey sponsored by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), for 2006 estimated that about 1.8 million persons aged 12 or older had used Salvia divinorum in their lifetime, of which approximately 750,000 had done so in that year. By comparison, the numbers in the survey for Ecstasy users was 12.3 million in their lifetime, and 2.1 million users in the previous year.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (, information about the user population is limited.  A majority of users appear to be mostly younger adults and adolescents who are influenced by promotions of the drug on internet sites. Rather than being used as a party drug, Salvia seems to appeal to individual experimentalists.   The long-term effects of Salvia use have not yet been investigated systematically.  (1)

Salvia is generally not considered to be addictive. Quite the opposite, a large portion of people who have tried the herb have declared that they will probably never use it again. A survey conducted in California of 500 people with firsthand experience of salvia (Baggot et al) found that 0.6% percent of respondents reported feeling addicted to or dependent on salvia at some point, and 1.2% reported strong cravings. The investigators determined “there were too few of these individuals to interpret their reports with any confidence”. Also, no research has revealed Salvia to be toxic, regardless of the form it is ingested in.

Many find that untreated, dried salvia leaf holds little potency, and can even be completely ineffective.  More concentrated preparations of salvinorin A (the active ingredient in salvia divinorum), or “extracts”, which may be smoked, are widely available. The extract is often described by a number that will denote its potency, such as “5x,” “10x,” etc.  The multiplication factors are generally indicative of the relative amounts of leaf used in preparation. The numbers therefore may also be roughly indicative of the relative concentration of the active principle salvinorin A.  For example, one gram of salvia extract sold as “6x” contains the same amount of salvinorin A as 6 grams of dry salvia leaf.

Beyond use as a “narcotic”

The addiction treatment community has more than one reason to follow the study of salvia, as it may have potential as an analgesic and as therapy for drug addictions. Salvia naturally contains neoclerodane diterpenes; The neoclerodane diterpenes in Salvia are k-Opioid receptor agonists, which “possess utility in the treatment of opioid dependence and have been shown to have anti-depressant activity as well as block stress-induced behavior responses.” (Tidgewell et al.)

Let’s put it this way: A simple google search of the words “salvia” and “addiction” results in the display of web pages that promote the value of salvia as a potential ingredient in treating addiction to drugs such as heroin and cocaine, and not websites that report on an addiction to salvia.

Many researchers believe the herb holds great therapeutic value.  In addition to several reports of people using salvia to successfully self-medicate depression, Salvia also has been used by the Mazatecs for the treatment of diarrhea, headaches, and rheumatism (2).   Professor Bryan L. Roth, director of the National Institute on Mental Health’s Psychoactive Drug Screening Program, has stated that drugs derived from salvinorin A could be useful for a range of diseases, including Alzheimer’s, depression, schizophrenia, chronic pain, AIDS or HIV.

According to Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, in locations where Salvia is classified as a schedule 1 narcotic, it is much more difficult to make the herb legal for medicinal purposes.

Laws and Regulations

Western nations are split in their regulation of Salvia. Twelve nations have outlawed or regulated salvia. Countries as geographically and culturally diverse as Brazil, Israel, and South Africa have no limitations on it.  In Estonia, Finland, and Norway, salvia is legal only if prescribed by a doctor.   In Australia, Belgium, and Denmark, countries with fairly liberal laws regulating cannabis, Salvia is banned outright.  Clearly, there are varying views of Salvia around the world, and whether it should be considered a narcotic.

The United States Drug Enforcement Agency has not yet classified Salvia divinorum as an illegal narcotic, but is considering whether it presents a risk to public safety that would justify making it a controlled substance. In July 2007, it became known that the DEA had initiated its  “Eight Factor Analysis” of Salvia divinorum. The Controlled Substances Act requires that this analysis be performed before a substance can be scheduled.  The DEA will consider a plethora of factors, including actual and potential for abuse, pharmacology, history and current pattern of abuse, duration, and significance of abuse, public health risks, and psychic or physiological dependence liability.

“Salvia is a rarely used drug that is not addictive and holds great medical potential,” said Piper. “Turning adults who choose to use it into criminals would be a waste of limited law enforcement resources and scarce taxpayer dollars. A smarter approach would be to outlaw sales to minors.”

In the States

Despite a very limited knowledge amongst the public of salvia, its effects, its availability, and its addictive and toxic properties, lawmakers have been fast to condemn it.  Unlike methamphetamines, crack, and heroin, one would be hard-pressed to find a salvia user who has thrown their life away in the face of addiction.  Salvia users do not turn to crime to feed a habit.  However, this has not stopped lawmakers from treating it as a dangerous, violent drug.

Twenty-six states have taken or are considering action limiting its use and distribution. The laws that regulate salvia vary greatly from state to state, from a felony for possession that is punishable by up to 5 years in prison (Florida), to a fine of no more than $50 (New York.)  Louisiana was the first state to ban Salvia, doing so in 2005.  The state banned the sale of 40 plants (of which Salvia was one) for the purposes of human consumption.  Owning the plant itself for other purposes is still legal.   In Oklahoma, the opposite is true, as the extract is illegal but the plant itself is not.  In Tennessee, Salvia is illegal only if it is grown or possessed with intent to distribute for human consumption.  Such variation in the state laws regulating Salvia illustrates a lack of understanding of the herb, its availability, and its effects.

In connection with his proposals to make Salvia divinorum and salvinorin A Schedule I controlled substances in Oregon, Representative John Lim (R) said,  “From what I understand this drug is at least as dangerous as marijuana or LSD”, and Seth Hatmaker, a spokesman for Lim – “I think it’s only a matter of time before we find people addicted to this stuff”.  No scientific evidence exists that salvia is addictive.
In Illinois, Representative Dennis Reboletti (R) wrote on his own website that Salvia is a “powerful psychoactive plant which in appearance looks like marijuana but has the psychoactive properties of LSD.” and “It’s important that we in the legislature are proactive in protecting our children from highly addictive substances…For a drug to be classified as a Schedule 1 substance signifies that it’s a highly dangerous and potentially lethal drug for its user. Hopefully, the passage of my bill will bring attention to “Magic Mint” and help law enforcement combat the future rise of this drug.”

The comparisons to marijuana and LSD, and concerns over addiction, appear to be uninformed.  Salvia’s psychoactive properties are not like those of LSD.  While LSD and salvia’s active constituent salvinorin A may have comparative potencies, in the sense that both can produce hallucinations, they are otherwise dissimilar.  Salvinorin A is natural while LSD is synthetic. The two substances are not chemically similar. They are ingested in different ways. They produce different effects, which manifest themselves over different timescales. The effects of salvia when smokd typically last for only a few minutes, while the effects of LSD can persist for several hours.  Based on current research, which is admittedly limited, it would appear that Salvia does not pose the same threats and dangers to its users as cocaine, LSD, heroin, and a slew of other schedule 1 narcotics.  It also looks nothing like marijuana.

Wisconsin state representative Dr. Sheldon Wasserman, who introduced legislation to classify salvia as a schedule 1 narcotic in June 2006, said “This bill is all about protecting our children…I want to stop the Salvia divinorum dealers who are pushing young people to experiment with a potentially dangerous substance.”  Yet the majority of Salvia is sold over the internet and in stores, not by traditional dealers as marijuana and heroin is.  It is almost impossible to find a street dealer who sells salvia.  Also, a large majority of salvia users are over 18, and not the children these politicians seek to protect.

Clearly more research on Salvia is needed if policymakers are to make informed decisions concerning its regulation. Regulation of the herb might indeed be necessary once more is known.  Presently, with the lack of any evidence that the herb is toxic or addictive, coupled with the possible role the herb might play in therapy for a variety of diseases, there is much to take into account. A more rational approach to legislation regulating salvia seems to come from New Jersey Assemblyman Jack Conners (D), who states “Salvia divinorum use may not be a runway epidemic, but it’s certainly is a phenomenon that warrants attention. We should take preventive steps now to prevent wholesale problems later on.”

As a result of all this legislative activity, two people in the United States have been for possession of Salvia as of June 2008.

Brett’s Law

In Delaware, Salvia divinorum is classified as a schedule 1 controlled substance.  The statute was enacted by legislation entitled “Brett’s Law,” named for Brett Chidester, a 17-year-old high-school senior who committed suicide on January 23, 2006, months after trying Salvia divinorum.   Salvia was also mentioned in Brett’s suicide note. In direct response to these events, Senate Bill 259 was introduced and passed into law. The herb Salvia divinorum itself is a schedule 1 drug in Delaware, but the active ingredient in the herb (Salvinorin A) is not covered by the law.

Chidesters death is the only suicide ever to be blamed on Salvia- and the role salvia played in Brett’s tragic decision is itself questionable.  Salvinorin A was never found in his system after his death.  Chidester’s parents have conceded that he may have suffered from depression, and he was taking medication that may have impaired his judgment.

Delaware State Senator Karen Peterson (D), who introduced the bill, said – “I, for one, don’t want to be driving down Route 1 next to someone who is having an out-of-body experience…I thought this is not something that I would want people using driving around the streets of Delaware.”
Peterson’s concerns are valid.  Just as alcohol can impair the ability to drive, so can salvia or a number of other substances.  Yet the law in Delaware bans salvia outright, not just driving under the influence of it.  Using Peterson’s logic of banning outright any substance that impairs the ability to drive, the state would have to ban alcohol, sleep aids, and a slew of other pharmaceuticals.

Media Influence

Too often, legislation created and introduced by state legislators is in direct response to a media report, which is often one-sided.  In November 2006, after a story by news channel KSL was aired in Utah, warning its viewers about the “dangers of Salvia”, Utah State Representative Paul Ray (R) submitted a bill calling for its Schedule I classification in that state- the day after the broadcast. As he presented the bill Ray said, “It was upsetting to see we have a drug of that strength that’s legal.” and “We’re basically going to make it illegal to possess or sell. Period.”  It is highly improbable that Ray and his staff did much research of Salvia on their own, considering the bill was written and introduced in less than twenty-four hours.

Georgia State Senator John Bulloch (R) saw a report on an Atlanta television news station about the increased use of Salvia divinorum. He was quoted as saying. “I hurriedly got legislative counsel to draft the bill…Everything that I read about it is it’s considered to be a hallucinogenic drug…A lot of the reading that I’ve found on it says that it gives a quicker and more intense high than LSD.”
Unfortunately for the recovery community, it is this type of reactionary behavior towards drugs (and herbs) by politicians that hinders progress.  By automatically assuming the best, and sometimes only, way to deal with a drug is to ban it (and send anyone in possession of it to jail,) without first conducting the necessary research, policymakers are choosing to advance the stigma that goes along with drug use.  The legislation being created that outlaws salvia makes no attempt to educate the public, especially its youth, about the possible dangers of the drug, if there are any.  These laws do not call for the creation of programs that will prevent abuse.  If salvia were as big a threat as some lawmakers make it out to be, and if these same lawmakers care so deeply about children, legislation funding prevention programs would make logical sense.

But as Dr. Gillian Taylor said in “Star Trek IV,” “Whoever said the human race was logical?”

(1) (National Institute on Drug Abuse, Bethesda MD)

(2)  Braiker, Brian “Old Herb, New Controversy,” Newsweek Magazine, May 19, 2008.

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