What to Know About Salvia Divinorum Use

Teenage boy (17-18) smoking, close-up of face
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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 is not deemed safe for teenagers, or anyone for that matter. In fact, the Drug Enforcement Administration lists salvia as a drug of concern that poses risk to people who use it.

Also Known As: Magic Mint, Sally-D, Diviner's Sage, Ska Maria Pastora, Seer's Sage, Shepherdess's Herb, Lady Sally, Purple Sticky, Incense Special

Drug Class: hallucinogen

Common Side Effects: Visual distortions and hallucinations, intense dissociation and disconnections from reality, disorientation or dizziness, synesthesia (“hearing” colors of “smelling sounds), cartoon-like imagery, improved mood, 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 salvia dilirum smell is similar to incense.

What Does Salvia Do?

Users can chew fresh leaves, smoke dried leaves, drink liquid extract, or smoke or inhale vapors.

  • Fresh leaves can be chewed, causing a high within 5 to 10 minutes.
  • Dried leaves can be smoked as a joint, in a water pipe, or vaporized and inhaled. When smoked, the drug can take effect within 30 seconds.
  • Drinking the liquid extract will also cause a high.

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 and into the bloodstream can a psychoactive effect be produced.

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

Precisely how much salvia is needed to produce the expected trip varies, since sensitivity varies greatly from person to person. Leaf quality and potency can also vary tremendously.

One analysis of five salvia samples obtained from the Internet or "head shops" in the U.S. found wide variations in salvinorin A concentrations. Some samples also contained adulterants like vitamin E and caffeine.

What the Experts Say

How salvia acts in the brain is still being studied, however, we do know that salvinorin A changes the signaling process of nerve cells, or neurons, in the brain by attaching to nerve cells called kappa opioid receptors. These are different from the receptors involved with opioids (heroin and morphine).

Luckily, salvia is decreasing in popularity among teenagers. At one point, teenagers were recording themselves using salvia and posting videos online (some with 500,000 views on YouTube).

The most recent Monitoring the Future Study of eighth, tenth, and twelfth graders showed that less than one percent of teens say they use salvia.

This may be due to the fact that most people who try it don’t like it. Users say it’s not fun or euphoric, but often intense, disturbing, and frightening. If smoked, the herb can cause a trip in less than a minute.

Off-Label or Recently Approved 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 and runs sagewisdom.org, a website devoted to it, 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 harms learning and memory.

Signs of Use

Since teens can access salvia easier than 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, or liquid extracts or drug paraphernalia (bongs, pipes, rolling papers) among their possessions and in hidden locations.

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 this just isn’t true. Other than the fact that it is green, dried, and can be smoked, it has nothing in common with cannabis. Users who smoke salvia will not experience a milder type of high than smoking pot.

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

Tolerance, Myths, and Addiction

It’s not clear if using salvia leads to addiction. More research is needed to learn whether it has addictive properties as well as the type and severity of withdrawal symptoms.

That said, if someone is continually using a drug to escape from reality, he or she likely needs proper medical care to address any underlying mental health issues.

Since an estimated 40 to 60 percent of a person's vulnerability to addiction can be attributed to genetics, family history should also be considered. In other words, if someone in your family is struggling with a substance use disorder and you are frequently tripping, your risk of addiction may be higher.

How to Get Help

Given the known side effects and lack of research surrounding salvia, it goes without saying that this is not a drug for teens (or anyone else) to test out due to curiosity.

If you suspect your teen is experimenting or regularly using salvia, don't wait to have a firm but loving talk about the potential dangers of salvia. Do your best to reassure your loved one that you are here to help. Consider asking a trusted health care provider or mental health professional for tips on having a productive conversation.

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