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Salvia: The Hot, Legal, Scary Hallucinogen

What you should know about the drug Miley may (or may not) have been smoking  

Harry Kimball

Senior Writer
Child Mind Institute

Salvia divinorum is very powerful hallucinogenic plant native to Mexico that's been in the news—and on parents' radar—because of a viral YouTube video starring teen actress and singer Miley Cyrus giggling and acting goofy after taking hits off a bong. It had all the hallmarks of the intense, short-lived high produced by smoking salvia, self-declared experts all over the web concluded. No word from Miley herself.

Salvia is not currently regulated or controlled ("scheduled") by the federal government, though it is regulated or outlawed in some states and foreign countries. Smoking or chewing the leaves induces vivid hallucinations, feelings of being in another place or time, a sense of being dissociated from yourself, extreme discoordination, laughing fits and repetitive motion, like spinning or rocking. While it is not an illegal drug like marijuana or heroin, the DEA is very concerned about salvia, and attempts to regulate or ban it—successful and not—have cropped up around the country.

In addition to being a controversial "legal trip," salvia is of great interest to pharmacological researchers for the very reason it has avoided being scheduled—its novelty. The active chemical ingredient, Salvinorin A, is what's called a kappa opioid receptor agonist, and it interacts with the brain in a different way than hallucinogens like LSD or mescaline. Because salvia is so different from other already illegal drugs, and so little research has been done, there is little evidence to support its regulation. While this frustrates some, it also means researchers have access to a new and intriguing chemical that may lead towards new treatments for depression, schizophrenia, pain, and addiction, among other maladies.

Salvia has been used by the Mazatec Indians in Mexico for hundreds of years for ritual and religious purposes. Its popularity among young people in the US and Europe is a relatively recent occurrence, fueled in part by the explosion of the internet and social media over the past 2 decades. Much of the business in salvia appears to be conducted over the Web, and there is a veritable cottage industry of YouTube and other viral videos that document the exploits of intoxicated young people. While the videos are usually amusing, the reality of the experience is often terrifying. One experimenter's story from Erowid.org:

The trip has still not subsided and I was still having trouble breathing. To make matters worse I was randomly switching from being myself and being one cell of myself.

Salvia is not a social drug—the experience is solitary and overwhelming. "Within seconds, I was catapulted into a realm of complete insanity and torture," recalls another user.

I had absolutely no recollection of even doing a drug at that point. I thought this was the end of the world. As I grew closer to this enormous 'machine from god', I began to see people getting sucked into it. It was devouring souls at a massive rate. I could hear the machine destroying the physical body by grinding it up, and destroying the soul with some type of sonic weapon.

The salvia "trip" is short-lived—rarely lasting more than 20 or 25 minutes, and often much less. Because it is so quick acting and debilitating, doctors and emergency rooms rarely if ever see cases of complications. Academic studies suggest that there are no immediately apparent untoward health effects, though even boosters of salvia use caution people who are at risk for psychiatric disorders not to get anywhere near it; it's been linked to at least one suicide.

So while the new research into possible medical uses for salvia and salvornin A is exciting, it appears difficult to support the widespread availability of the herb itself, or extracts from it, for recreational use, especially for adolescents.

Click here for more information on substance abuse and teenagers.

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