While medical marijuana continues to be a legal battleground, a relatively new substance (used for centuries but new to recreational users) is making headlines. Salvia Divinorum, known on the street as “Sally D,” is a legal hallucinogen being sold in head shops, on the street, and on the Internet. While control of sales and possession may be imminent, for now, it is being purchased by young and old alike, as incense and as a recreational drug.
Known also as Diviner’s Sage and Hojas de Maria Pastora (leaves of Mary, the shepherdess), Salvia Divinorum is a member of the mint family, native to the Oaxaca region of Mexico. The plant grows to a height of three feet, with large green leaves and white flowers. Historically, salvia was used by the Mazatec tribe for spiritual and healing rituals. It has no approved medical use in the U.S. but it is sold in home and garden stores as a garden plant. The hallucinogenic effect is achieved only through making an extract from the dried leaves. The active constituent, salvinorum A, is not currently controlled under the Federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA).
A Google search of news articles about salvia turned up several stories from the past two years of users, mostly college students, who had smoked or inhaled salvia and had what have come to be known as “bad trips.” Some reported seeing very strong colors or large black swatches, and confusing or even frightening images. There are also Internet accounts of euphoric “peace and love” trips. The effects come on within five to ten minutes and last from 15 to 25 minutes.
Head shops on Ocean Front Walk in Venice are selling salvia for prices starting at $24.99 for the lowest dosage (usually 5 grams) with prices running up to $65.00 or more for higher dosages (60 x1 grams), which lead to longer, more vivid trips.
Popular “brands” are Purple Buddha and Purple Sticky, which come in matchbox-like packets with colorful artwork.
The proprietors of one Venice smoke shop admitted to having used salvia. Their experiences were similar to those described in newspaper reports. “I shrunk and got wider and the TV was coming at me,” said one user. Another commented: “My friend said he saw little troll men building the universe.”
These users however, chuckled at suggestions that salvia might be dangerous, remarking that their fast-food lunch was probably more toxic.
The possession of salvia has been prohibited by law in the states of Louisiana, Missouri, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Delaware, Maine, North Dakota, Illinois, Kansas, Virginia, and Florida. Sales of salvia to minors have been outlawed in Maine, and as of January 1, 2009, California will also prohibit sales to minors.
At the federal level, a bill was introduced to Congress in 2002 that would have placed salvia divinorum and salvinorum A in Schedule 1 of the Controlled Substances Act. The bill never got beyond committee votes and has not been re-introduced.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Adminstration (DEA) has been studying salvia, but has also not taken further action at this time.
Dr. Peter Galier, internal medicine specialist at UCLA-Santa Monica Medical Center, says that to his knowledge, no cases of users “overdosing” on salvia have been admitted to the Medical Center. But he believes the substance is potentially dangerous.
“It’s the ‘new wave’ LSD,” he says. “It sits on a potent opiod receptor in the brain and has the same general effects as LSD.” He warns that because of its easy availability, “you’re going to see problems.”