Tempest in a tea leaf

Indigenous people use this Mexican plant for medicinal purposes, which has researchers touting its healing potential. Others smoke the plant for a legal high, which has legislators itching to regulate. What’s to keep Salvia D from being the drug war

Not 20 seconds after the smoke clears the chamber, the mind begins to bend.

By almost any account, Salvia divinorum’s effects start with a sensory high that quickly evolves into a set of psychoactive responses distinct from any other hallucinogen. The body merges with various planes of distance and separates from others, making proximity irrelevant and depth perception subjective. Users often describe visual frames shuffling upon themselves like a hand of cards about to be tossed into the fold. Some who smoke it experience people in the room falling out of contact, becoming either imparted with imagined entities or projected to murals on a distant wall. Still others notice ambient sound musing psychoactive visions as various notes dampen and amplify indiscriminately.

The trip itself has been described as rewarding or as profoundly frightening, but lasts just a few minutes. As quickly as the psychoactive effects appear, they melt back into a mellow body high that endures for up to another half hour. That’s the street report, anyway. The perspective from the lab appears less detailed.

“Nobody’s studied this drug in humans at all. Everything science knows is everything you know through anecdotal reports and YouTube videos,” says neurologist John Mendelson, who just began the first human survey on the brain effects of the hallucinogenic chemical. “This is terra incognita. That’s a shocking statement but true.”

However mysterious, the dried extract of a Mesoamerican herb creating these visions, Salvia divinorum, remains readily available through Internet suppliers and over the counter at some head shops. Salvia D, as it’s commonly known, has been banned by numerous municipal governments, but is still unrestricted in all Western states.

By all indications, that could change quickly. Attempts to kybosh Salvia D on the state level have proven popular and mostly successful in the East and Midwest with legislators choosing especially harsh measures that restrict both recreational and medical use. However, many researchers studying Salvia D for possible medical applications find the movement disturbing—an almost trippy rehash of the circumstances that ultimately made medical marijuana such a tough road.

Researchers hope that Salvia divinorum, a Mexican sage used by Mazatec peoples as a medicinal herb for centuries, won’t become another drug war casualty. Some of them have other plans.


Just days after placing an order with a botanical company in Southern California, a non-descript box arrived to the Indy newsroom containing both dried leaf ($14 per ounce) and extract ($12 per gram). The website promises same day shipping but carries the disclaimer: “The customer understands that these products are not sold for human consumption. Some of the products available are poisonous and have not been tested by the FDA. [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] Use at your own risk.” Sketchier online outlets sell extracts 100 times more potent than dried Salvia D leaves and promise “You will not be disappointed.”

Those who study Salvia D—chemically, pharmacologically or politically—agree the drug’s potency, affordability and availability have fueled its notoriety, which has driven to acute hysteria in many Eastern states.

“The publicity surrounding Salvia divinorum has often been sensationalistic and frequently not helpful,” argues neurologist Ethan Russo, who up until recently conducted opiate studies with Montana Neurobehavioral Specialists in Missoula. The researcher believes the reports fueling the attendant political controversy might also be adding allure to young potential users. “For better or for worse, things that are forbidden are even more attractive to youth.”

Though recent news reports have cast a spotlight on Salvia D, its history has otherwise been inconspicuous. A young anthropologist studying naturally occurring hallucinogens introduced the plant to science in 1938 after noticing the Mozatec brewing the leaves in a medicinal tea. For 60 years, only the Mazatec and an obscure field of researchers known as ethnobotonists, who document how various cultures use indigenous plants, knew of the hallucinogen. The Internet and rave party culture eventually flushed it out in the late 1990s, leading to a 2001 report in the New York Times that outed Salvia D for good.

It didn’t take long before U.S. lawmakers started clamoring for prohibition. Many states now face the quarrelsome debate of whether to regulate a substance that, while chemically unique, occupies a broad realm of naturally-occurring hallucinogens.

According to one scientific survey, botanists know of more than 250 plants with psychoactive properties. The U.S. government has not yet outlawed most of these, including Salvia divinorum. California attorney Richard Boire works with the Bay Area-based Center for Cognitive Liberty and Ethics. He contents that trying to ban the entire psychedelic biosphere seems an effort doomed to failure.

“To try and make them all illegal is venturing down a path that it’s impossible to reach the end of,” Boire says. “People want to have an alternative to illegal drugs. If people can find something that has been used for centuries and has been, so far, shown to not cause any direct damage, at some point they’re going to have to acknowledge that people want to alter consciousness.”

For the time being, politicians appear intent on the traditional case-by-case basis of review. In this instance, some experts argue that Salvia D’s purported widespread recreational use—a point of some debate—is surely leading to abuse among teenagers and young adults.

“Kids make the mistake in thinking it is harmless because it is legal,” argues psychologist Jonathan Appel. “Plus no one really knows the impact on use since the research is limited, and some—a few—may go back to it or mix it with other drugs like alcohol.

“It should be regulated.”


Up until recently, scientists knew almost nothing about Salvia D’s active ingredient, Salvinorin A, or how it could benefit modern pharmacology. That began to change in 2001, when Australian researcher Karl Hanes discovered the drug could prove valuable in the treatment of depression. Hanes, unfortunately, never got the opportunity to build upon his initial study after Australia became the first nation to ban Salvia D in June 2002. Soon after, a group of American scientists authored a report advising the federal government to hold on any plans to outlaw the herb under the Controlled Substances Act.

“Hanes’ case report is interesting, but can only be considered suggestive,” says Russo, one of the American scientists who advocated for research. “Medical proof of efficacy and safety for a drug requires randomized clinical trials in this day and age. This process is certainly more difficult, slower and more costly if the agent is forbidden.”

In 2002, Missoula native and University of North Carolina researcher Bryan Roth gained some insight on Salvinorin A by discovering the chemical acts on a brain receptor partly responsible for the phenomenon of chemical dependency. The study suggests Salvia’s extracted active ingredient could be used to counteract the addictive qualities of pain medication or even treat those suffering from drug addiction.

While clinics would probably pass on Salvinorin A because of its hallucinogenic effects, Roth explains, several chemical derivatives are currently under patent review. Scientists are using the chemical, described by the researcher as “amazingly unique” in its ability to act on just one brain receptor out of thousands, as a model in the creation of new synthetic drugs.

“This is a really novel compound,” Mendelson says. “It’s really big news in drug development.”

Yet, federal and state government actions to grant the drug Schedule I status under the Controlled Substances Act greatly imperil these studies. Schedule I—the same category as cocaine, meth and LSD—means the controlled substance in question bears a high potential for abuse, no medicinal value and no safe applications in a clinical setting. Some describe it as a death sentence for small, non-governmental scientific inquiry.

“There’s a small army of us that are engaged in research,” Roth says. “The big problem with scheduling a drug is that the active chemical and any derivative of the active chemical effectively becomes scheduled. At that point researching it basically takes an act of Congress.”

Congress, in the same year as Roth’s study was published, held its first series of hearings on prohibiting the hallucinogen federally. Lawmakers did not act, largely because its use was not considered widespread at that time.

Officials with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) state the agency began investigating Salvia D in depth in 2007. A thorough analysis on the suspected dangers of the plant is currently underway, along with a parallel report by the FDA on its scientific and medical potential. “Frankly a timetable on it would be artificial,” reports DEA spokesperson Rogene Waite.

Prohibition opponents claim they can already see the wheels turning, as evidenced by what they consider highly biased and presumptive information being circulated among lawmakers. Researchers explain that public efforts to place the drug in preexisting bins can often cause confusion. In various state legislature committee transcripts, statements comparing it to LSD and MDMA (ecstasy) are fairly common. But unlike most psychoactive hallucinogens, Salvia D does not create euphoria for most users, nor is it habit forming like opiates. “It does not cause people to stop breathing, or produce any obvious kidney, liver damage or the like,” Russo adds. “People may scare themselves with it.”

“The idiocy here is that we’re talking about scheduling—as if that’s the only mechanism we have to control drugs,” Mendelson says. “Scheduling in my opinion should be saved for drugs with known harm. The real purpose of scheduling is to identify drugs with no medical use.”

But no matter how quickly researchers acted, they couldn’t get out in front of a state-to-state scheduling movement sped along by YouTube videos showing young people tripping on high-powered Salvia D extracts. Some of these compounds—similar in concept to hash—contain 100 times the Salvinorin A of raw dried leaves. The suicide of 17-year-old Brett Chidester in 2006 acted as the catalyst for the first successful direct ban by a state government—now known as Delaware’s “Brett’s Law.” Chidester’s parents blamed Salvia D for the suicide, even though the teen was not using it at the time of his death.

Many other states, including Illinois, Virginia, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, Maine, Tennessee and North Dakota, decided not to wait for federal action and passed their own Salvia D laws. Currently, 14 more state legislatures are considering making the plant and its active ingredient controlled substances. Members of the various legislative committees charged with altering the criminal code in Montana report that no efforts are currently underway to criminalize Salvia D under the Big Sky.

Most politicians sponsoring bills to ban Salvia D emphasize the risk of injury or death resulting from “anxiety reactions”—displayed through the classic bad trip or freak-out. Since “Brett’s Law,” the bandwagon has loaded quickly.
“I’d rather be at the front edge of preventing the dangers of the drug than waiting until we are the 40th or more,” Florida state Sen. Evelyn Lynn told the Associated Press after she helped pass the Sunshine State’s Salvia D ban this March. The GOP lawmaker co-sponsored the bill along with Rep. Mary Brandenburg, D-Palm Springs.

Lynn did not respond to requests to comment in this report.

Despite the popularity of prohibition movements, almost all of the interest to ban Salvia D remains penned up east of the Continental Divide. California lawmakers put together the West’s most significant push to outlaw the plant in 2002, which still never made it out of committee. Three attempts in Oregon died early, and others in Utah, Wyoming and Alaska similarly failed.

In all of these stifled efforts, legislative misgivings about enacting the law stem from the difficulties of decriminalizing marijuana after its medicinal purposes became documented fact. The concept is that outlawing Salvia D—even just until the medical studies are finished—could thoroughly cement the drug as a scourge in the eyes of law enforcement, leading to the persecution of patients akin to that of medical marijuana users.


Probably the first of these cases occurred in North Dakota earlier this year. Kenneth Rau of Bismarck says he used Salvia divinorum as an antidepressant and to evoke dreams by chewing on the leaves before bed. Police arrested him in early April on charges of possession with intent to sell.

“When I first started looking at it on the Internet it said it was totally legal,” Rau says. “I had no idea North Dakota had acted on it—it wasn’t really well publicized. I thought only the federal government could outlaw something.”

The police, who were executing a warrant for his son, seized six ounces of dried Salvia D leaves from Rau’s apartment—valued at roughly $84. Rau expects the case to go to court in the late summer. He faces penalties of up to 20 years in prison.

“The cops who arrested me didn’t even know what it was; they had never heard of it,” he says. Bismarck police hauled Rau in and also, he claims, tried to charge him with possession of a legal mushroom, Amanita muscaria.

Sgt. Dwight Offerman of the Bismarck Police Dept. says investigators sent the fungus samples to the lab to check for psilocybin—the Schedule I active ingredient of illegal mushrooms—but only the prosecuting attorney can release the results. Burleigh County prosecutors later told the Indy that the mushroom charges fell apart after Rau’s stash came back clean.

By all available accounts, Rau’s is the first criminal case of Salvia D possession in the United States. The curious circumstances surrounding it—especially the distribution charge, which Rau characterizes as “ridiculous”—are prompting medical marijuana advocates to signal that they’ve smelled this smoke before. In an age where the DEA continues to raid dispensaries in defiance of state law, Salvia proponents argue prohibition, especially on the federal level, makes for terrible health care policy.

“To shut down all possible research on it is just not a good use of public policy,” the attorney Boire says. “Even if state law says it’s permissible, the federal government is the powerful one. There is a parallel to medical marijuana: If the federal government moves on this, it’s going to impair research.”

The DEA’s Waite disagrees that putting anything under Schedule I means an end to all scientific inquiry. “There are provisions within the Controlled Substances Act for research,” she says.

Although the medical value of a substance and the question of whether the drug is indeed a menace (or the preoccupation of a small sect of adults) supposedly hold equal weight under federal parameters, reality suggests something different. Researchers suspect ongoing agency studies will find cause to advise Salvia D for Schedule I status just as soon as it can engineer justification.

Even if that’s the case, the task still won’t be easy. Outside of the Chidester suicide, emergency room visits linked to Salvia divinorum are exceptionally rare, despite the concerns over anxiety reactions. A teenager in Rhode Island claimed after stabbing a friend that Salvia D made him do it, but the defense didn’t hold up. All of this prods the question of whether the hallucinogen poses an abuse threat at all.

The Independent posed the question to 10 drug treatment centers in western Montana. Only three clinics responded that staff had ever heard of the substance and, of those, none could testify to a case of detrimental abuse. During a recent trip to Seattle, counselor Tamara Nauts from Missoula’s Turning Point clinic visited a few shops to try and learn more. Nauts found a package labeled “Purple Salvia” with a cartoon monkey, but few answers. She says a few clinic patients who mentioned sampling the hallucinogen prompted the search.

“One of them said they didn’t like it because they felt pretty out of control,” says Nauts, who goes on to explain that some hallucinogens, while not chemically addictive, can be psychologically addictive. Just not if the users don’t enjoy it.

A handful of Montana head shops reportedly sell Salvia D over the counter, but few advertise. Blue Moon Music in Great Falls—a shop advertised as selling Salvia D and other legal highs—did not respond to requests for comment. News reports from other states describe Salvia D sales as fairly subdued, except in markets facing immediate prohibition. “Very few people are even aware of it, let alone is it causing any problems,” Rau asserts.

Randy Hencken of the research group Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies thinks legislators are right to regulate Salvia D, but argues the substance lacks the abuse potential to warrant Schedule I placement. “Salvia is just not a substance that people use often. Most people think it’s not fun,” Hencken says.


Schedule I classification carries one other burden of proof—the declaration of “no medicinal value” by state pharmacists. Of the 10 states to place legal limits on the possession of Salvia D, all but two worded their laws to the harshest restrictions possible. Researchers wonder how this is possible when the studies on Salvinorin A remain a step out of the cradle. The researcher Roth believes, in legislator’s eyes, the opportunity to gain political capital proves irresistible.

“I think senators just look at Salvia and see an easy target,” he says. “It’s interesting—I frequently get contacted by legislators on this topic but none have asked me to testify in favor of [Salvia divinorum]. They’ve basically made up their mind already.

“It’s ridiculous. I go to the Flathead and see places ravaged by meth. Salvia is just a blip,” Roth adds.

More insidious explanations implicate Big Pharma and race politics. Pharmaceutical companies cannot patent botanicals or their active ingredients, which could be seen as competition for existing synthetic drugs. Meanwhile, like with marijuana, most Americans associate Salvia D as a Mexican drug (this time, it actually is). The connections between the prohibition policy and institutionalized xenophobia are well documented in the historical record.

For instance, during a 1927 Montana state senate hearing to outlaw marijuana, Dr. Fred Fulsher told the legislature, “When some beet field peon takes a few traces of this stuff, he thinks he has just been elected president of Mexico, so he starts out to execute all his political enemies.”

Seventy-seven years later, Montana passed the Medical Marijuana Act and has been grappling with contradictions to federal law ever since. Drug law reformists wish to preempt a similar fate by keeping Salvia D unscheduled, at least until research efforts start gaining momentum. Scientists point out the herb’s medical research potential—particularly in the field of anti-addictive treatments—could fill a role previously unoccupied due to its unique effects on brain physiology. Its equally powerful impact on the nation’s political lobe calls that destiny into question.

“I hope that this agent will receive the proper investigation that it deserves,” Russo says. “That can only be less likely if it becomes another political football.”

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