“Shamanic” Salvia Brings Health Risks

Salvia divinorum, also known simply as salvia, is an herb that occurs naturally throughout southern Mexico, as well as Central and South America.

It contains a chemical compound called salvinorin A, which has several short-term psychoactive or mind-altering effects on human consciousness.

According to standards established to gauge the dangers of drugs and drug-like substances, salvia presents unclear risks to the user, and the U.S. government does not currently include the herb in the same restricted categories as those used for marijuana or hallucinogens like LSD.

However, use of salvia does present enough potential risk for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency to consider changing the status of the herb in the near future.

Salvia Basics

Salvia belongs to the sage family, and is also known by names that include Shepherdess’ Herb, aka “Pastora” and “yerba de Maria.” Among the Mazatec people of southern Mexico, the herb has a long history of usage as an aid for shamanic practices and medical treatment. Traditional methods of ingesting salvia include chewing its leaves and swallowing the resulting juice, and drinking juice extracted from leaves. In modern times, users also sometimes smoke salvia in water pipes or “joints,” or inhale it from vaporizers.

Inside the brain, salvinorin A achieves its effects by accessing areas of your nerve cells (neurons) called kappa opioid receptors. Despite the name of these receptors, the compound produces mental and physical alterations that differ from the alterations produced by opioids such as morphine, heroin or codeine. Instead, it’s known effects include the production of visual or bodily hallucinations, mood alterations, and a sense of self-detachment or self-dislocation that significantly decreases your ability to interact normally with your surroundings. In some respects, these effects have an end result that closely mimics the effects of a short-term psychotic episode.

Salvinorin A doesn’t cause physical addiction. Still, the compound is highly potent and produces mind alterations even when used in small doses. People who smoke salvia will typically feel salvinorin’s effects in less than 60 seconds, while people who chew salvia or drink an extract, will feel its effects in roughly 15 minutes. However, the hallucinogenic changes associated with the compound don’t last for very long; the average salvia experience is over in roughly five to ten minutes, and produces residual effects that may last for as long as 30 minutes.

Potential for Harm or Abuse

Salvia use produces extremely intense experiences for some people, while other people have more moderate experiences or barely notice the effects of the herb at all. No one can tell in advance how the herb will affect any given individual, especially individuals with a history of emotional problems or psychiatric illness. In addition, in some cases, repeated use brings increasingly intense results, even if the amount taken doesn’t change.

According to the latest information available in 2012 from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, there is not enough evidence to judge salvia’s potential for producing long-term harm to your body. Laboratory testing on animals suggests that repeated exposure to salvinorin A can damage your memory or your ability to learn new things, but no human studies have followed up on these results.

Apart from these potential but unverified effects, another ongoing concern regarding salvia use/abuse is the herb’s ability to detach you from your surroundings. If you use salvia while driving, or in other social situations that depend on your alertness and awareness, you can seriously endanger your health or life, as well as the health or lives of any passengers or bystanders. People who smoke salvia run the additional risk of losing body control and burning themselves or flammable objects in their immediate environment.

Legal Status

While salvia is not a federally controlled substance in the U.S., its use and/or possession are illegal in a number of states, including Kansas, Delaware, Florida, Ohio, Minnesota, Georgia, Alabama, Hawaii, Michigan, Nebraska, Illinois, Louisiana, Tennessee, Virginia, Mississippi, South Dakota and North Dakota. Jurisdictions outside the U.S. that ban the sale or possession of salvia include Denmark, Germany, Australia, Sweden, Belgium, Japan, Italy, South Korea, Finland, Norway, Estonia and Croatia. By definition, use of a substance banned in your jurisdiction is technically a form of substance abuse.

As of 2012, the DEA is reviewing the status of Salvia divinorum, and may eventually add the herb to the list of controlled Schedule I drugs. Drugs and drug-like substances can end up on this list if they have a known high potential for abuse, have no medically accepted use among U.S. doctors, or present a clear safety risk even when used under a doctor’s supervision.

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