Salvia is the largest genus within the mint family, commonly referred to as sage, and has almost a thousand species associated with the plant. Indeed, the genus is distributed throughout the world, and has a variety of uses. Some, such as the Blue Salvia, are popular as ornamental plants, while others are utilized in cooking pots around the world as herbs. Of the 986 accepted species names, 840 are clustered in three distinct geographical regions: Central and South America, East Asia, and the Mediterranean.
With such a wide array of species to choose from, salvia divinorum has long flown under the cultural radar, but health authorities report an uptick in usage as a younger crowd has recently taken to abusing the substance. The salvia trip that users achieve while smoking the bright green leaves and purple flowers of the plant have been described as transcendental, but the health risk outweigh any psychedelic experiences.
Legal in most other countries, and readily available for purchase on the internet, concerned parents in the United States are stepping forward to make the use of salvia illegal in their communities. A small victory was won in Delaware with the passage of Brett’s Law, which effectively prohibited the use of salvia divinorum, and listing the drug as a Schedule I Controlled Substance.
What is Salvia? A Cultural and Legal History of the Salvia Plant
Salvia, specifically speaking, salvia divinorum, had seen use by Mazatec Indians living in remote portions of Mexico for centuries. The plant’s distinctive looks and properties were not revealed to western researchers until the first half of the twentieth century. While researchers knew nothing of the plant’s use prior, it is believed that perhaps the Aztec were also early fans of the herb as well.
A powerful hallucinogenic, salvia was used by Mazatec shamans to help facilitate spiritual healing sessions based on the visionary states of consciousness that accompanying smoking or chewing the leaves of the plant. Within the Mazatec belief system, it is believed that the salvia plant is the reincarnation of the Virgin Mary and their ceremonies are evocative of that relationship.
Western attention was directed at the plant beginning in the 1960s, but no real work was accomplished until 1982. In that year, researchers isolated the chemical compound, Salvinorin A as the active psychoactive property within the plant. The findings suggest that the isolated Salvinorin A was found preferable to smoking the entire plant when it came to taking advantage of the hallucinogenic properties of the plant.
What Does Salvia Look Like?
The salvia plant grows in large clusters along isolated forests of the Sierra Madre Mountains in Oaxaco Mexico. The plants generally reach three feet in height, and are readily identified by its large, bright green leaves; white and purple flowers; and its hollow square stem. The green leaves are spade-shaped and variegated, which closely resembles the leaves of a mint a plant. Also, salvia can be transformed into a liquid extract, which is typically dispensed from an eye-dropper type device.
Effects of Salvia Drug
Salvia is typically consumed by smoking the dried flowers of the plant or ingesting its liquid extract form. While salvia affects different people differently, depending on the physiological factors involved, the drug targets the brain’s limbic system, parietal lobe, and overall vestibular functions of the brain.
Results are almost instantaneous.
The initial stages of the high include feelings of euphoria, and a sense that is similar to sleepwalking. Users often report intense visual hallucinations. Other immediate effects include:
- Uncontrollable laughter
- Sensations of movement
- Past memories resurface
- Merging with objects
- Lucid dreaming
- Seeing through walls
- Overlapping realities
While extremely intense, the drug peaks within about five minutes, and leaves the user feeling disconnected and out of sorts upon emerging form the hypnotic state. Short-term effects include a heightened mood, increased connection with the environment, and feelings of well-being.
Belying these euphoric feelings however, the consumption of salvia poses serious mental and physical health risks to the young user who is ill-equipped to mentally deal with the intense mental conditions applied by the drug’s use. There are numerous dangers to smoking salvia, and these risks need to be understood to promote an awareness of the dangers posed by this mind-altering herb.
Side Effects of Smoking Salvia Divinorum
The biggest threat posed by salvia divinorum is the unknown. Very little is known about the long term effects of using salvia however, experiences with other hallucinogens, such as LSD, shows that playing around with these types of toxins can have serious long-term mental health consequences.
Before addressing the long-term consequences, the dangers that are inherent to salvia use include severe motor skill impairment. Once does, the motor skills of the salvia smoker are reduced to practically zero. Stumbling, falling, and rolling around on the floor have all been reported as examples of a salvia high. Sensations of altered gravity, time travel, and morphing in time and space also accompany the salvia experience, and there is a very real danger of breaking bones or worse when all motor skills desert the user. Frequently, salvia smokers will assign a babysitter to ensure that the smoker doesn’t hurt themselves whilst flailing around in the throes of a salvia high.
Feelings of hotness or coldness, skin swelling, chills, and a lack of coordination are also some of the immediate effects of smoking salvia. For neophytes, excessive sweating is known to occur.
As mentioned, the long-term effects of the drug are unknown, but psychological side effects are also evident. Some of these include anxiety, delirium, irritability, dizziness, an inability to concentrate, mood shifts, and difficulty sleeping.
Other effects include:
- Mild headaches
- Bronchial irritation
The ability to operate complex machinery is seriously curtailed in the aftermath of a salvia session. While the actually high is of relatively short duration, the after effects on the brain, from this powerful hallucinogenic, means that operating a motor vehicle should be abstained from for upwards of three hours.
Salvia users who suffer from mental illness are most at risk for having a bad interaction with the drug. For instance, people with Borderline Personality Disorder might tip over into even more unstable behavior while under the influence of salvia. Patients suffering from depression have reported an easing of their condition, but for others, salvia can turn an existing case of depression into thoughts and actions of suicide.
Some researchers postulate that salvia divinorum has the potential of causeing long-term brain damage when taken in its pure form in high doses. Salvia shares characteristics with dissociatives like PCP and ketamine that causes Olney’s Lesions.
Controversy of Brett Chidester
While the long-term effects of salvia are an unknown, at least one mother, Kathleen Chidester, is convinced that the drug was responsible for the death of her 17-year old son, Brett, after the young man zipped himself into a tent before lighting a charcoal grill in his dad’s Newark, New Jersey garage. The resulting fumes asphyxiated the boy in January 2006, and left his grieving family in search of answers.
Among the eight notes that Brett left prior to lighting that grill, his writings suggest an individual who was losing their grip on reality.
One read, “Salvia makes me realize that humans have no reason to be on Earth. We are all just grains of sand on reality beach.”
His official death certificate lists Salvia divinorum use as “a contributing cause of his death.”
“He was fearless and had no qualms about trying salvia because as he said to me, ‘Mom, it’s legal; there can’t be anything wrong with it,” said Kathleen who is now an impassioned advocate of making salvia illegal. Delaware’s aforementioned “Brett’s Law” was the result of her lobbying efforts. Currently only twelve states ban the use of salvia within their jurisdiction.
Brett Chidester never suffered from depression prior to beginning his use of salvia. In fact, he was in long-term relationship, was athletic, and a national honor role student who was very popular with his peers. As he continued to smoke salvia however, he sunk further and further into depression.
According to his girlfriend, the two of them had been smoking the drug two or three times a week over the course of the seven months before he took his own life. His mom said that he told his girlfriend that he felt that the drug was addictive and that he wasn’t able to stop. On the night before his death, he called the girl and said that he felt that something was wrong with him, but he couldn’t pinpoint the cause.
It is Kathleen’s belief that salvia sent Brett into a spiral of depression, the depths of which he was unable to extricate l himself from before it was tragically too late..
“I don’t believe Brett’s was the first salvia-related suicide, and I don’t believe his will be the last,” says the grieving, but determined parent.
A Direct Discussion with Your Kids
It is easy to be lured into a false sense of security when it comes to salvia use because as Brett Chidester pointed out, “Mom, it’s legal; there can’t be anything wrong with it.” His death says otherwise.
If you are worried that your kids are about to test the premise of Brett’s argument, then you need to sit down with them and explain the very real dangers associated with smoking salvia. Countering misconceptions with facts about salvia use is a sure fire way to ensure that your kids don’t fall victim to the next new designer trend in getting high.
As for Kathleen Chidester, she won’t rest until her work is done. “My hope and goal is to have salvia regulated across the United States. It is my son’s legacy and I will not end my fight until this happens.”