Wisdom of the Sages

Paul Rogers

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Posted January 13, 2011 in Feature Story

When Miley Cyrus was recently outed on the Internet, hitting the bong and seeming to enjoy it, many shrugged. To them it was simply another in a long line of Young Hollywood mishaps; another Lohan or Britney, a boon to late-night comics, and a cautionary tale to the rest of us. Then the word came out that Miley had not been smoking marijuana, but a totally legal substance named Salvia divinorum, a relative of the mint family and one that younger drug users had apparently been experimenting with for a while. Mainstream media types did a double-take and rushed to put out quickie fact sheet-type articles explaining the drug for listeners and readers.

This is the Weekly’s version of these very stories. However, we’ll attempt to do a better job than traditional media does with drug stories as we hunt down the truth about Diviner’s Sage—one of Salvia’s other monikers. We’ve assembled a crack news team (okay, me) to go out and hunt down the truth about this suddenly high-profile and very legal (at least in California) drug. What is Salvia? What are its effects on the mind and body? Why is it legal? Should it stay that way? And—more importantly—where can we buy some?

The History

Salvia divinorum is an herb from the mint family. The plant’s hallucinogenic properties were known for centuries by natives indigenous to the mountains of Oaxaca, Mexico. The plant itself looks very much like mint in your backyard only with larger leaves and often white flowers. How long shamans in Mexico have used the drug is unclear, but it appears they valued the experience immensely. When the Conquistadors arrived with Christianity, shamans began to connect the effects of the drug with the Virgin Mary, hence one of its other names, María Pastora. 

Traditionally, natives would boil down the leaves into a tea or simply chew on the leaves to get a buzz. Smoking the stuff seems to be a case of American and European users tailoring the drug to their traditional methods of drug use, namely skull-shaped bongs.

Use of Salvia in the States seemingly became popular in the late ’90s and then spiked even further with increased Internet usage early in the new millennium. News articles began to appear around the same time. The New York Times ran a piece in 2001 on the plant, a piece that could run today except for its lack of Hannah Montana references. Estimates of the number of users vary wildly, of course, but it seems scads of Americans have tried Diviner’s Sage at least once; a 2006 study suggested 1.8 million Americans have at least tried the stuff. That’s roughly the same number that still read a newspaper.

The High

Because it comes in smoke-able form and is both a leaf and psychedelic, the tempting comparison for early users and commentators was, of course, pot. Both experts and users of the drug argue that Salvia is unique, powerful and non-addictive. Typically, the effects last about 30 minutes.

Apparently those 30 minutes can be quite a ride.

A study by researchers at Johns Hopkins Hospital found that “the drug could be both surprisingly intense and disorientating.” This makes sense for a drug whose effects some have compared to a short LSD-type experience—a claim some other users suggest is absurd.

In fact, that’s the tack articles on Salvia tend to take: either “This shit is really bad,” or, “Let’s hold off a sec.” Almost all of them mention Miley Cyrus. What’s known is that Salvia works on molecules in the brain called kappa-opioid receptors. These receptors are similar to the ones that respond to opiates like morphine, but they respond to Salvia in a different and apparently non-addictive way. So in this way, Salvia is a bit of a paradox, mind-blowing (or -expanding, depending on your point of view) but also non habit-forming. Animals actively shy away from the stuff—human beings smoke it and then post their videos on YouTube.

The “YouTube drug”

Salvia has been called the “YouTube drug” due to the scads of people who’ve posted trips on the ubiquitous video-sharing site. Perhaps people feel uninhibited when sharing their drug experiences in a way they might not with, say, LSD or Ecstasy because of the legal nature of the drug. A quick search for Salvia trips on YouTube led me to thousands of videos with titles such as “Crazy-Ass First Trip 20X” and “These Girls Trip Balls.” The search also led me to the realization that I have absolutely no urge to try Salvia.

The first trip I watched was called simply “30X.” The numbers in the title are supposed to represent the Salvia’s strength in comparison to the actual herb—how accurate this labeling is seems questionable. In the six-minute clip, a young man (he appears to be 19 or 20) in an Anaheim Angels shirt smokes Salvia out of a small pipe. Within seconds he is rocking back and forth, occasionally twitching and extending his arms and legs spasmodically. At times he laughs uncontrollably but seems incapable of speech. He then makes a trip to the bathroom, but it’s unclear if he vomits or not. It all seems like a major bummer.

I discounted the first video, thinking perhaps this was a put-on; either these kids were pretending to be on the drug or exaggerating its effects. But then I watched some more videos. In one called “Funny Salvia Trip,” five friends dressed like they’re extras for a Soundgarden video circa ’93 all gather in the woods to watch one of them smoke Salvia. This kid also convulses and has a hard time speaking, although he occasionally gets out phrases like, “Help me” and “But why?” If users are connecting with a higher being and getting answers, they don’t appear to be pleasant ones.

To be fair, “Dan” from “Dan’s Ridiculous Salvia Trip” appears to be having fun. Dan is the first person that I see take a second hit of the drug, although he goes through the same curled-up, arms-flailing contortions. Most videos are posted with the word “funny” in the tagline, but I’d pick adjectives like “interesting,” “scary,” even “sad.” And what makes us so desperate for attention that we’d advertise our worst drug freak-outs? I remember a time when we’d actively try to hide moments like these, keeping them from everyone except the falafel stand guy outside the Dead show.

The Buy

After watching the videos, I had no interest in trying Salvia, but I was still curious about where to find it, how much it cost and whether I might be able to find a friend stupid enough to try it for me. It was time to visit a smoke shop, something I hadn’t done since marijuana was really, totally illegal in California; a mysterious, magical time we call the early ’90s.

I first hit up the Tobacco Zone by the Galleria in Riverside. It had some sort of hopeful yet seedy vibe, peddling cigarettes, pipe tobacco and lottery tickets. When I went inside, though, the man at the counter told me they hadn’t sold Salvia for awhile—not since Dec. 24, in fact, which struck me as only a few days ago but was said with such conviction, it sounded like years. It was, he said, all part of their reaction to the new anti-“fake marijuana” law that makes the selling of “fake marijuana,” a concoction of herbs and other ingredients that are sprayed with a THC-like chemical, illegal in California.

“Fame marijuana” products like Spice are different from Salvia. It is sold by other names like K2 and is marketed as herbal incense, although it is usually smoked by users. Its recent ban has apparently chilled the desire in many an owner to bother with selling Salvia as well. When I walked into the Millennium smoke shop (also in Riverside), I saw mostly an endless array of glass pipes. The owner, “Freddy,” told me he hasn’t sold any Salvia since 2006, and at a different location.

Mystic Fire

Now I just felt uncool and late to the party. “Freddy” did tell me that he had tried Salvia back around that time just to see what all the hubbub was about. It was, said “Freddy,” like filling your head with hot air or boiling water, and that any negative feelings were only intensified by the experience. “Freddy” would make a terrible spokesperson for the Salvia experience. On the way out, he offered me two packs of Mystic Fire Extreme herbal incense, which he can no longer sell—he warned me not to smoke it. I opened up the pack when I got home. Mystic Fire Extreme smells like someone combined the ashes of Carmen Miranda with bad homegrown from the ’80s. So much for herbal incense.

I was left with the Internet. If Saliva is the “YouTube drug,” perhaps I’d be able to buy some online, quickly and anonymously. I typed “How do I buy salvia?” into Google and I was off. The first site offered astral projection and enhanced spiritual growth. I clicked onto that one. Salvia Dragon offers a mind-altering experience, plus free shipping. They have a picture of an Aztec Warrior on their website, although he looks a lot like Milli or Vanilli; I never could keep them straight.

I bought a bottle of the 10X stuff for $13, making sure to get the 15% off promised if I bought by Jan. 3. Now I just had to wait in the mail for the currently legal drug that I’m too scared to try.

The Legality of the Thing

In our teens and twenties, my friends and I would occasionally experiment with illicit drugs. We weren’t sure this was wrong, but we sure as crap knew it was illegal. That was part of the charm of it. Of course, we could have been arrested and put in jail for our shenanigans—that’s not charming.

Due to the hype, due to Miley, due to the obsequious videos, many are now trying to get Salvia classified as a U.S. Schedule I drug. Proponents of criminalization point to the psychiatric problems the drug may cause, problems best exemplified by Brett Chidester, whose frequent use of Salvia was circumstantially linked to his suicide and led to the criminalization of Salvia in Delaware under what came to be known as Brett’s Law.

Opponents of criminalizing Salvia point out its non-addictive nature and its lack of any physical harm to the body. Unlike acid or magic mushrooms, Salvia does not raise one’s blood pressure or heart rate, and some cite the plant’s potential use in treating addiction and pain. They also stress that Salvia’s links to any deaths are wildly speculative.

Even the police may be wary about making Salvia illegal. The plant looks pretty humdrum and lacks the distinctive smell of marijuana, thus making it a potential nightmare for cops trying to determine if some kid’s baggy contains Salvia or potpourri.

The Verdict

Perhaps it’s best to leave things as they are. The only thing stupider than putting videos of people getting out of their gourd on the Internet would be arresting them, as if our prison system could handle a new influx of convicts at this point.

Every generation needs its legal drug—one could quite openly take cocaine in 1910, LSD in 1965 or Ecstasy in the early ’80s. Let the youth of today have their Salvia—judging by the video trips, it’s not likely to become an epidemic any time soon.


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