Salvia: An Old Herb, a New Drug Controversy

For centuries the Mazatec Indians have chewed Salvia divinorum, a hallucinogenic member of the sage family, to treat diarrhea, headaches, rheumatism—and an ailment known as "swollen belly" (triggered by an evil sorcerer's curse). "It causes a very introspective state of awareness where you dive into your inner psyche," says medical botanist Daniel Seibert, who has spent more than a decade studying the herb. "I find it useful for gaining insight. I realized I wanted to marry my wife as a result of the salvia experience."

Known as "Magic Mint" or "Sally-D," salvia is legal to buy, sell and smoke in most states, and a slew of online companies advertising and selling salvia-derived products have helped it catch on with young people looking for a new high. Videos purporting to show high-school- and college-age kids smoking salvia are all over YouTube. Now the resulting media attention is spooking legislators and law enforcement: 10 states have recently passed laws criminalizing or restricting the sale and possession of salvia. A dozen more have legislation on the table, New York being the latest to consider action. A North Dakota man was arrested last month and charged with possession after purchasing eight ounces of salvia for $32 on eBay, and the Drug Enforcement Administration is considering listing it as a controlled substance. "Who knows what you're getting over the Internet?" says DEA spokeswoman Rogene Waite. "It's a stupid game of Russian roulette."

Used in small amounts, salvia (not to be confused with the decorative salvia plant commonly found in the United States) contains no known toxicities. But when its extract is smoked in larger dosages, it can yield frightening results. "I would never do that again," says Seibert, who once smoked a concentrate more powerful than he expected. "I seemed to be in a disembodied state for a while. I thought that I had died, that something terrible had happened and I wouldn't be able to get back." His experience appears to be replicated in a disturbing YouTube clip that has netted some half-million clicks in the past several months. In it, a young man takes a long hit of what the video claims is salvia off a pipe. He falls, slips into a trance and appears to lose motor control while his buddies look on and laugh.

But is strict regulation the best way to deal with salvia? Obviously, any impairing agent could lead to accidents. But there have been no recorded injuries or deaths resulting from its use, as drug-reform activists like Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance point out. "Most people who do it don't want to do it again," says Nadelmann. The salvia panic "is essentially an extension of the old drug-war debate in that there's this knee-jerk reflex on the part of legislators to criminalize first and ask questions later, if ever. There's no stopping to listen to scientific evidence, no cost-benefit analysis of the effect the law would have." California wants to ban the sale of salvia only to minors, a move that Nadelmann supports.

Salvia is a kappa-opioid agonist; it affects the part of the brain that responds to painkillers like morphine, but without the same addictiveness, says Tom Prisinzano, a medicinal chemist at the University of Kansas who's written extensively about the herb. He points out that "[similar] substances have been shown to have beneficial effects" in the treatment of pain, depression and, ironically, substance abuse. Condemning the drug to Schedule I status (the same class as heroin or cannabis), as some legislators have suggested, would make it virtually impossible for the medical community to obtain for research. It seems that sober thinking is needed on both sides of the debate.