Salvia: Pitfalls and Possibilities

For decades, marijuana has been among the most popular recreational drugs. However, some users are now latching onto another plant-based substance: salvia.

The trend has raised concerns about salvia’s impact on those who abuse it, even as — ironically — researchers explore its use in addiction treatment. Learn about salvia’s pitfall and possibilities.

The History of Salvia

Salvia, formally known as salvia divinorum, is a plant that contains the strongest known naturally-occurring hallucinogen. The drug has gained popularity over recent years. YouTube videos of people getting high on salvia have become common. Even pop star Miley Cyrus has been filmed allegedly smoking the substance.

Much like other psychoactive drugs, such as LSD or mescaline, it alters mood, perception, thinking and behavior. Although it’s largely used recreationally, salvia has also been utilized in traditional Central and South American rituals. Dried leaves are smoked from a pipe or water pipe or drunk infused into tea.

Laws Against Salvia and Who’s Using It

The federal government doesn’t regulate salvia; however, several states have passed legislation regarding its use. Delaware, Louisiana, and Missouri are among those that have banned the hallucinogen, and several other states are considering it. In California, only sales to minors are prohibited. Salvia users in states where the drug is legal purchase it from tobacco or head shops. It’s also available through online stores.

The drug is most often used by young adults between ages 18 and 25, and studies suggest men are more likely to use it than women. Nearly two million Americans have used salvia in their lifetime, according the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Almost 6% of high school students reported they had smoked it in the previous year, a higher percentage than those who reported Ecstasy use.

Salvia is often marketed as a “natural” product.  This often makes it more appealing to those who aren’t willing to use synthetic drugs like LSD. Common street names for salvia include new ecstasy, diviner’s sage, sage of the seers, and maria pastora.

How Salvia Works

Like many other recreational drugs, salvia produces a high.  However, it does so differently than other common addictive drugs. For example, opioids, such as heroin and oxycodone, target a specific opioid receptor in the brain that’s linked to the pleasure response. In contrast, salvia affects a different opioid receptor; one that isn’t connected to the pleasure response that contributes to addiction. As a result, salvia is generally not considered an addictive substance. In fact, a survey of people who smoke the drug revealed that less than 1% of users said it led to addiction.

Salvia’s Physical Effects

The plant’s primary psychoactive ingredient is salvinorin-A, a hallucinogen that reportedly causes users to have visual hallucinations, trigger memories, and experience the unusual feeling that they’re becoming part of an object. Other reported effects from salvia divinorum intoxication include the sense that they’re floating, feelings of calmness, and a more positive mood.  Additionally, users say it makes them feel as if they’re in several different places at the same time. Side effects of the drug include sweating, feeling warm or hot, and lightheadedness. The drug sometimes triggers bouts of uncontrollable laughter as well. Salvia users have also reported what’s described as an “after-glow” effect, in which they continue to feel quite pleasant even after the high from the drug has worn off.

Salvia affects the brain very quickly — usually in less than a minute after users first start smoking it. The high, however, is short-lived, peaking just 20 minutes after consumption and wearing off in an hour or less. In contrast, the high produced by the synthetic hallucinogen LSD can last up to nearly six hours.

Effects of Long-Term Salvia Use

Researchers haven’t fully determined how salvia impacts long-term health and wellbeing when used over extended periods of time. For example, a McLean Hospital study of rats suggests salvia’s main ingredient causes depression-like symptoms by decreasing dopamine levels in the brain. In fact, Delaware’s ban on salvia was spurred by the death of a teenage boy, whose parents blame salvia-induced depression for his suicide. In contrast, a survey of salvia users suggests an improvement in mood lasting at least 24 hours after using the drug, according to the newsletter Erowid Extracts. Furthermore, a controlled study of the drug found it had no adverse physical effects on participants, such as elevating heart rate or blood pressure.

Salvia for Addiction Treatment

A published study now suggests salvia’s active ingredient may actually benefit a number of mental health conditions, including drug addiction. As mentioned earlier, salvia acts on a different type of opioid receptor than other drugs. When that specific receptor is activated, it has a depressive effect rather than producing a euphoric high. As NPR reported, the drug’s depressive quality has the potential to counteract the pleasurable feelings triggered by addictive drugs.

The challenge in using it to treat addiction, however, is due to its hallucinogenic properties.  Since the drug can alter perception, a user might react to the hallucinations, leading to dangerous consequences. For instance, someone high on salvia isn’t able to safely drive a car or handle firearms. Some researchers believe, however, that a salvia-based medication could be developed that offers its analgesic benefits without the hallucinogenic effects. While some of salvia’s properties show promise as a treatment for mental health conditions including drug addiction, it’s still a hallucinogenic drug with potentially dangerous effects on the user.

As with other recreational drugs, salvia abuse can have serious consequences. If someone you love is abusing this substance, consult an addiction treatment center today.


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