What to Know About Salvia Divinorum Use

Salvia divinorum plant

David J. Stang / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0 

Salvia divinorum is a fast-acting hallucinogenic herb that's become a popular recreational drug among teenagers and young adults. Although salvia isn't illegal according to federal law, a handful of states and a number of countries have passed laws to regulate its use.

Still, it's often called a "legal" trip because it can mimic the effects of illicit substances like LSD and ecstasy though salvia's effects don't last as long—usually around 8 minutes—after which, they taper off.

Despite its legal status, salvia has not been deemed safe. In fact, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) lists salvia as a drug of concern that poses risk to people who use it.

Also Known As: Salvia is also commonly called Magic Mint, Sally-D, Diviner's Sage, Ska Maria Pastora, Seer's Sage, Shepherdess's Herb, Lady Sally, Purple Sticky, and Incense Special.

Drug Class: Salvia is classified as a hallucinogen.

Common Side Effects: Side effects of the drug can include visual distortions and hallucinations, intense dissociation and disconnections from reality, disorientation or dizziness, synesthesia (“hearing” colors of “smelling sounds), cartoon-like imagery, improved mood, and uncontrollable laughter.

How to Recognize Salvia

Salvia is a perennial herb that's part of the mint family. It's commonly found in southern Mexico, Central America, and South America. The plant has large green leaves with white and purple flowers that typically grow in large clusters to more than three feet in height. Salvia can be sold as seeds, leaves, or as a liquid extract and, upon burning, many say the smell is similar to incense.

What Does Salvia Do?

The active ingredient in the salvia herb is salvinorin A, a chemical that acts on certain receptors in the brain and causes hallucinations. Only when enough salvinorin A is absorbed through the oral mucosa or the lungs and into the bloodstream can a psychoactive effect be produced.

Some people compare smoking salvia to “flipping a switch”—in a moment, everything turns from normal to an altered sense of reality and self-awareness. People often describe it as a “20-minute acid trip,” which can begin less than a minute after smoking the herb. This short duration may be appealing to first-time users who are afraid of having a long trip that can last for hours.

Salvia is said to change your “interoception,” or the experience of what’s going on in your body, as well as create feelings of disorientation and uncertainty about what’s real. Precisely how much salvia is needed to produce these effects varies depending on the person as well as leaf quality and potency.

Many people who try salvia don't like it, describing the experience as intense, disturbing, and frightening—not fun or euphoric.

What the Experts Say

According to the Center for Substance Abuse Research, salvinorin A is the most potent naturally occurring hallucinogen.

How salvia acts in the brain is still being studied, but we do know that salvinorin A changes the signaling process of nerve cells, or neurons, in the brain by attaching to nerve cell receptors called kappa opioid receptors. It also influences dopamine receptors in the brain.

In the early 2000s, teenagers were recording themselves using salvia and posting videos online (some with 500,000 views on YouTube). Luckily, salvia has decreased in popularity among teenagers since then.

The 2018 Monitoring the Future Study of eighth-, tenth-, and twelfth-graders showed that less than 1% of teens say they use salvia.

Off-Label Uses

Salvia has traditionally been used by shamans as a healing and divining tool (salvia divinorum translates to "sage of the seers").

According to Daniel Siebert, who's researched salvia for more than 20 years, the herb was used to induce a visionary trance state that made it possible for these healers to determine the underlying cause of disease and learn what steps to take to remedy it.

At this time, there is no medical use for salvia. However, research is underway to investigate the use of salvinorin A in the treatment of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease as well as addiction.

Common Side Effects

Salvia has been reported to cause intense effects, including:

  • Visual distortions and hallucinations
  • Uncontrollable laughter
  • Intense dissociation and disconnectedness from reality (being unable to tell the difference between what's real and what's not)
  • Physical or visual impairment
  • Disorientation and dizziness
  • Synesthesia, in which physical sensations become intertwined and it's possible to “hear” colors or “smell” sounds
  • Dysphoria, where users felt uncomfortable or unpleasant after the drug's use

Many of these effects raise a concern about the dangers of driving under the influence of salvia. Additionally, any drug that leaves you incapacitated during the time it's working increases the risk for serious injury in any capacity.

It's not clear if there have been any deaths associated with salvia. The European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction notes that emergency reports have described lasting psychosis in vulnerable people. At least one suicide has been blamed on salvia.

The long-term effects of using the drug also aren't known. However, studies with animals showed that salvia can harm learning and memory.

Signs of Use

Since teens can access salvia easier than some other types of drugs, it's important for parents to educate themselves and their kids on its potential danger.

If you suspect drug use, pay attention to any behavioral changes (sleep and eating patterns), mood and personality shifts, hygiene and appearance problems, health issues (depression), or school concerns (missing classes, declining grades, loss of interest in hobbies/school events).

Also, take note if your loved one is burning incense; which many say is similar to the smell of Magic Mint when smoked. Consider searching for any seeds, leaves, liquid extracts, or drug paraphernalia (such as bongs, pipes, or rolling papers).

And don't overlook their digital devices, notes Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, which can contain frequent contacts, messages, or social media posts that indicate the use of salvia (once called "TheYouTube" drug).

Myths and Common Questions

Often, salvia is mistaken as a legal alternative to marijuana. But other than the fact that it is green, dried, and can be smoked, it has nothing in common with cannabis. People who smoke salvia will not experience a milder type of high than when smoking pot.

Another myth is that salvia is linked to violent behavior, including suicide and murder. While acts of violence are possible, especially if the person has a history of violence, there is no evidence to support this link. 

Tolerance, Dependence, and Withdrawal

It’s not clear if using salvia leads to addiction. More research is needed to learn about its addictive properties as well as whether it is possible to build tolerance (needing more and more to get high) and experience symptoms of drug withdrawal.

How Long Does Salvia Stay in Your System?

How long salvia will remain in your body depends on several factors, including dosage, how often you use the drug, your age, weight, and metabolism, as well as your hydration and activity levels. Drug testing for salvia is uncommon and expensive.

Addiction

While more research is needed on the addiction potential of salvia, your risk may be higher if someone in your family is struggling with a substance use disorder and you are frequently tripping.

Withdrawal

More research is needed to determine if people who misuse salvia experience withdrawal symptoms when stopping abruptly.

How to Get Help

If you suspect that your teen is misusing salvia, do your best to spend some time together, watch for any signs of use, and talk openly about the potential dangers of the drug.

While there are no FDA-approved drugs to treat salvia abuse, behavioral therapy such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has been found effective for people misusing other dissociative drugs.

Since there is still more research needed on tolerance and withdrawal, quitting cold turkey may not be your best bet. If someone is continually using a drug to escape from reality, they likely needs proper medical care to detox safely from the drug and to address any underlying mental health issues.

If you find yourself needing to put your loved one into rehab, ask your healthcare provider for suggestions. The Partnership for Drug-Free Kids also has a helpline and tips to ensure families find a reputable addiction treatment center.

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