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Salvia Divinorum: Not Your Father?s Garden Plant

Judy McKee, Project Coordinator and Counsel, End of Life Health Care

Judy McKee, Project Coordinator and Counsel, End of Life Health Care

Salvia divinorum is not your father’s garden plant, nor is it something you will find at your local nursery. It is a hallucinogenic plant in the sage family, found in certain areas around Oaxaca, Mexico. The Mazatec Indians use it in both curing and divination rituals by squeezing the juice out of the leaves into a glass, adding water, and then drinking the tea. They treat the plant with respect, taking care to avoid trampling on or damaging the Salvia as they gather the leaves, because of its association with the Virgin Mary. They call the plant ska Maria Pastora, the leaf or herb of Mary, the Shepherdess.

You might not find the plant in your local nursery, but you can certainly buy the leaves, enhanced leaves, and a liquid tincture of the Salvia terpenoid (Salvinorin A) easily over the Internet. The leaves are also sold at many college-area paraphernalia shops. Detailed instructions on how to smoke the leaves or, in the case of the liquid tincture, how to absorb it sublingually, are also available. Leaves from both the naturally appearing plants in Mexico and from cultivated plants in Hawaii are sold, and a crystalline form is available, but only, apparently, to scientists. Leaves can also be chewed, with the leaf mass and extracted juice held within the cheek area.

Other Internet sites sell Salvia seeds, plant cuttings and whole plants, with complete instructions on how to cultivate. Cultivation of the plant as a house plant appears to be quite easy.

The effects of the drug are mixed. One can browse the YouTube website and find a number of videos that have been posted that show a person under the influence of Salvia. The reactions range from excessive sweating and mild hallucinations to young adults in nearly a catatonic state. The range of reactions could be due to the difference in how much smoke is inhaled, the potency of the Salvia involved and the physiology of the individual. The most common effect, if the YouTube videos show typical reactions, is uncontrolled laughter, dysphoria and a sense of loss of one’s body. According to the DEA, when smoked, the effects are usually felt within 30 seconds and may last up to 30 minutes. Other adverse effects include nausea, dizziness and slurred speech.

There has been only one reported death that may have been connected to Salvia. In 2006, Brett Chidester, a Delaware teen-ager committed suicide. His parents noted that he had been depressed; investigators found Salvia in his room and his suicide notes indicated revelations much like those described on salvia-user sites.

U.S. DEA has listed Salvia divinorum as a drug of concern.1 In order to add a drug to the federal controlled substance list, an eight-factor analysis is performed with researchers looking at the particular drug or substance and the research to determine: the actual and potential for abuse; pharmacology; other current scientific knowledge; history and current pattern of abuse; scope, duration and significance of abuse; public health risk; psychic or physiological dependence liability; and whether it is an immediate precursor of a controlled substance. That analysis for Salvia is now being undertaken by the Department of Health and Human Services.

In the meantime, states have already taken action to control the possession and use of Salvia. To date, states including Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Missouri, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Virginia have passed laws placing Salvia and/or its terpenoid on the state’s controlled substance list. Many more states, such as Alaska, California, Florida, Georgia, Iowa and New York, have legislation pending on the issue.

The states’ legislative initiatives have not taken a uniform approach. For instance, in Missouri, both Salvia divinorum and Salvinorin A became Schedule 1 substances. Illinois added Salvia divinorum and its seeds, extracts, compounds, salts and isomers as Schedule II substances. Tennessee, on the other hand, made the production, manufacture, distribution or possession of the active chemical in Salvia divinorum a Class A misdemeanor, but did not criminalize possessing, growing or harvesting the plant for landscaping or decorative purposes. Louisiana’s approach is similar. Oklahoma’s included the enhanced, concentrated and chemically or physically altered forms of Salvia in the definition of the phrase “synthetic controlled substance.” In Maine, it is illegal for anyone under 18 to possess or use Salvia. On March 2, Virginia Governor Tim Kaine signed a bill into law that added Salvia divinorum and Salvinorin A as Schedule 1 hallucinogenic drugs.

Internationally, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Italy, Japan, Norway, South Korea, and Sweden have passed laws or promulgated regulations to control the importation, cultivation, possession, and/or sale of Salvia and/or Salvinorin A. Some of these laws require a doctor’s prescription to obtain the plant or its extract.

According to a DEA spokesman, the main buyers and consumers of Salvia are young adults, ages 20 and below. That seems also to be true of the users on YouTube videos, who are usually filmed by friends instructing them on how to take the Salvia and then laughing at the user’s reactions.

“Diviner’s Sage,” “Sally-D,” “Ska Maria” — these are some of the street names for Salvia. It is relatively inexpensive, costing from $11 to $60, depending upon the amount, strength and form of Salvia being sold. It’s not the only federally unscheduled plant that the DEA and local drug officials are concerned about. However, with its increased use among our teen-agers, prompted, some officials feel, by the YouTube videos, it will continue to be scrutinized by state legislators with an eye to controlling its possession and use. It remains to be seen, however, whether a complete ban on possession of Salvia will be successful since, even for those without a green thumb, it can be easily grown indoors.


1 “Salvia Divinorum and Salvinorin A,” available at http://www.deadiversion.usdoj.gov/drugs_concern/saliva_d/salvia_d.htm

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