Salvia and the Arizona Shooting

A Salvia divinorum plant, photographed in the lab of a researcher. Charlie Neuman / San Diego Union Tribune-ZUMA Press

Alleged Arizona shooter Jared Loughner used salvia, the hallucinogenic drug, according to a high-school friend of his. Obviously, Loughner was troubled. But did salvia have anything to do with it?

Currently, there’s very little scientific information about the drug’s effects—thanks, in part, to salvia’s relative safety. “So far the federal government has not funded any studies, because it’s not seen as relevant until someone dies of an overdose,” says Dr. John Mendelson, a pharmacologist at the California Pacific Medical Center Research Institute. “The only reported injuries are idiot injuries: people drop the apparatus they were using, fall of their chair, that type of thing.”

Salvia is still legal in a majority of states, and millions of Americans have used the drug without incident. That includes pop star Miley Cyrus, who was caught on video last year smoking salvia from a bong. (Anecdotal evidence indicates that sales spiked as a result.)

What little research that has been done shows that all strains of Salvia divinorum, a plant grown for centuries in Mexico, produces a chemical called Salvionon A. This chemical affects the kappa opioid receptor, a part of the brain that’s in large part responsible for our perceptions of reality.

In an unmodified state, salvia—whether it’s smoked, chewed, or swallowed in extract form—produces an intense high, lasting less than half an hour. “It’s one of the most behaviorally impairing drugs that we’ve come across,” says Dr. Matthew Johnson, assistant professor of psychology at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. “At the higher doses, people are completely dissociated from this reality . . . They describe being completely transported to another dimension.”

Typically, those who use salvia are not able to do much, says Johnson. The limited intoxication period of the drug, combined with its impairing effects on mobility, make it unlikely that Loughner used it at the time of the shooting.

There is, however, at least one reported case of salvia leading to a mental breakdown. “We had a case of a male who came in, 23 years old, and was actively psychotic,” says Dr. Peter Przekop,  an assistant professor of psychiatry at the Loma Linda University School of Medicine in California. “The only thing we could attach it to was the night before, he had smoked the XXX [high-strength] salvia. We stabilized him, put him on medication, transferred him to the psych department. When we tried to gradually wean him off antipsychotics, the symptoms returned. This was permanent psychosis we suspect was brought on by this drug.”

Przekop, who published a letter detailing his case in the American Journal of Psychology, hypothesizes that the patient had a predisposition for mental illness brought on by salvia use. Meanwhile, a mother in Delaware claims that her son’s suicide was triggered by his use of the drug. (She successfully fought to make it illegal in that state.)

The effect salvia had, if any, on Loughner’s mental state is thus far impossible to ascertain. In describing his tenuous connection with reality, one friend told The New York Times, “he would ask me constantly, ‘Do you see that blue tree over there?’ He would admit to seeing the sky as orange and the grass as blue.” While that sounds like the ramblings of someone on a powerful trip, it’s not consistent with the salvia experience.

Unlike LSD or mushrooms, salvia’s high “doesn’t have the bright colors, noises, agitation, and anxiety [of other hallucinogens],” says Mendelson, who jokingly refers to it as an “Old Testament” drug. Users describe becoming objects—turning into the chair they’re sitting on, or being absorbed into the fabric of the couch. “It’s possible that people would report color changes, but it’s not common,” says Johnson.

Johnson suggests that the novelty of the drug has led to unnecessary media attention. “Alcohol can have horrible, horrible interactions with mental illness, but it doesn’t sound so scary because we all know people who drink,” he says, noting that there’s no evidence to prove that salvia can have negative effects on those with psychological problems. “People have a need to explain these things, but I’d advise caution in leading people to grasp on something that’s probably not there,” he says. “The big factor is this guy was probably very mentally ill.”

This originally appeared in The Daily Beast.

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