The Salvia Divinorum Drug and Teens

The Hallucinogenic Herb Known as a "Legal Trip"

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.

The herb, which is sometimes called "Magic Mint, "Sally-D," and "Diviner's Sage," has gained popularity in the United States largely through the Internet. Hence the concern about use among teenagers, who've been recording themselves using salvia and posting videos online (some YouTube videos have been viewed 500,000 times), creating a growing culture of salvia abuse.

What Is 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. It's 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 over 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.

The active ingredient in the salvia herb is salvinorin A, a chemical that acts on certain receptors in the brain and causes hallucinations. According to the Center for Substance Abuse Research, salvinorin A is the most potent naturally occurring hallucinogen.

How Salvia Is Used

Salvia can be sold as seeds, leaves, or as a liquid extract.

  • 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.

Only when enough salvinorin A is absorbed through the oral mucosa and into the bloodstream can a psychoactive effect be produced. 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 Salvia Does

The chemical salvinorin A sits on the kappa opioid receptors in the brain, where much of human perception is regulated, causing an altered perception of reality.

When used, salvia causes 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 concern about the dangers of driving under the influence of salvia. Additionally, any drug that leaves the user incapacitated during the time it's working puts the user at risk for serious injury in any capacity.

Other Risks

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. It’s not clear if using salvia leads to addiction. More research is needed to learn whether it has addictive properties.

A Word From Verywell

The good news about salvia is that the experience it delivers is often so intense, disturbing, and frightening that many who try it don't like it and never try it again. Indeed, statistics show a steadying or decline of salvia's use among 8th, 10th, and 12th graders since 2014, when peak use was less than 2 percent of high school seniors. That said, salvia is not intended for use by adolescents at any time. Websites that promote salvia use often specifically mention that they will not sell the drug to minors. However since teens clearly have access to this drug, it's important for parents to be aware of it ​so they can educate themselves and their kids on its potential danger.

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