What Is Salvia Divinorum?

A Hallucinogenic Plant That's Legal But Poses Safety Risks

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. It's typically chewed, smoked, or drunk.

The effects of salvia are often called a "legal" trip because they mimic those of illicit substances such as LSD and ecstasy. However, salvia's effects don't last as long—usually around eight minutes—and then taper off.

Also Known As: 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: Hallucinogen

Common Side Effects: Visual distortions and hallucinations, intense dissociation and disconnection from reality, disorientation or dizziness, synesthesia (“hearing” colors or “smelling" sounds), cartoon-like imagery, improved mood, uncontrollable laughter

How to Recognize Salvia

Salvia typically grows to more than three feet high, with white and purple flowers and large, spade-shaped green leaves that look similar to mint.

This perennial herb is often mistaken as a legal alternative to marijuana. Other than the fact that it is green, dried, and can be smoked, it has nothing in common with cannabis. People who smoke salvia do not experience a milder high than when smoking pot.

Salvia can be sold as seeds, leaves, or as a liquid extract and, upon burning, smells somewhat like incense.

How Is Salvia Consumed?

People take salvia in various ways:

  • Smoking via a pipe, bong, vape, or joint
  • Chewing fresh leaves
  • Drinking the extract mixed into beverages
  • Sublingually through drops of tincture placed under the tongue

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 appeals to first-time users who are afraid of having an hours-long trip.

Salvia is said to change interoception—the experience of what’s going on in your body—and creates 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 it changes the signaling process of neurons in the brain by attaching to nerve cell receptors called kappa opioid receptors. It also influences dopamine receptors.

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 people 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).

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.

Legal Status of Salvia Divinorum

Although salvia is legal according to federal law, a handful of states and countries have passed laws to regulate its use. Because salvia has not been deemed safe, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) lists salvia as a drug of concern that poses risk to people who use it.

6 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Butelman ER, Kreek MJ. Salvinorin A, a kappa-opioid receptor agonist hallucinogen: pharmacology and potential template for novel pharmacotherapeutic agents in neuropsychiatric disorders. Front Pharmacol. 2015;6:190. doi:10.3389/fphar.2015.00190

  2. Maqueda AE, Valle M, Addy PH, et al. Salvinorin-A Induces Intense Dissociative Effects, Blocking External Sensory Perception and Modulating Interoception and Sense of Body Ownership in Humans. Int J Neuropsychopharmacol. 2015;18(12) doi:10.1093/ijnp/pyv065

  3. Akhondzadeh S, Noroozian M, Mohammadi M, Ohadinia S, Jamshidi AH, Khani M. Salvia officinalis extract in the treatment of patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer's disease: a double blind, randomized and placebo-controlled trial. J Clin Pharm Ther. 2003;28(1):53-9. doi:10.1046/j.1365-2710.2003.00463.x

  4. European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction. Salvia divinorum drug profile.

  5. Lopresti AL. Salvia (Sage): A Review of its Potential Cognitive-Enhancing and Protective Effects. Drugs R D. 2017;17(1):53-64. doi:10.1007/s40268-016-0157-5

  6. United States Drug Enforcement Administration. Drug Facts: Salvia Divinorum.

Additional Reading

By Barbara Poncelet
Barbara Poncelet, CRNP, is a certified pediatric nurse practitioner specializing in teen health.