An obscure hallucinogenic herb from Mexico is gaining a toehold in the
world of recreational drugs, prompting law enforcement officials to increase
their scrutiny of the plant, which is legal, and moving health experts to
issue cautions about the drug, whose jarring effects are not fully understood.
The herb, Salvia divinorum, is a type of sage plant that can cause intense
hallucinations, out-of-body experiences and, when taken in higher doses,
unconsciousness and short-term memory loss. Users have also reported
sensations of travelling through time and space, assuming the identities of
other people and even merging with inanimate objects.
"This is a very interesting agent," said Dr. Ethan Russo, a
neurologist in Missoula, Mont., who studied Salvia divinorum and other herbs
while preparing his book, "Handbook of Psychotropic Herbs" (Haworth
Press). "It is really in a class by itself."
Dr. Russo said that scientists had identified the active chemical compound
that causes the hallucinations - Salvinorin A - but knew little else about
Salvia divinorum. Scientists are still unclear about precisely how it
interacts with the brain or may affect the rest of the body, and do not know
if it leads to long-term side effects. "We don't know how it works,"
Dr. Russo said. "It doesn't work on serotonin, dopamine or any of the
known neurotransmitters. People who are arbitrarily using it need to be
cautious. It's totally different from anything they may have tried
Salvia divinorum (pronounced SAL-vee- ah dee-vin-OR-um), which is native to
Mexico, can be smoked or chewed like tobacco. Its leaves can also be boiled to
make an intoxicating tea. It is different from common species of Salvia like
the brilliantly colored scarlet sage or culinary garden sage. And unlike most
other hallucinogenic substances, Salvia divinorum is legal in the United
States, although drug enforcement officials say they are looking closely at
"It's not currently controlled and we're actually collecting information
on it," said Rogene Waite, a Drug Enforcement Administration spokeswoman.
Precise figures about the plant - it is also known as ska Maria Pastora and
diviner's sage - its use and proliferation are almost impossible to gather.
But herbalists, users and sellers say its popularity is growing. National drug
information clearinghouses and law enforcement officials acknowledged only a
passing familiarity with Salvia divinorum. The authorities said they had no
reports of health problems, hospitalizations or emergency room visits that
might be attributed to the plant. And researchers say they are still trying to
conclusively answer such questions about the drug as its potential for
addiction and tolerance.
Users dismiss such concerns, saying that no evidence of an addictive quality
has been documented, and pointing out that the Mazatec Indians in the Oaxaca
region of Mexico have used it, with no apparent ill effects, for centuries.
The mystery of just how Salvia divinorum works seems to be part of its appeal.
It is available almost exclusively through the Internet and has spawned a
small but thriving group of commercial Web sites, like the "Sage Wisdom
Salvia Shop," which offer dried Salvia divinorum leaves for as much as
$120 an ounce.
"The Mazatec people have preserved Salvia divinorum and the knowledge
surrounding its use for hundreds of years," reads one passage on the Web
site. "We are privileged to have them share their sacred herb with
us."Daniel Pinchbeck, a 35-year-old freelance writer from SoHo, said that
when he first tried Salvia divinorum two years ago, "it totally freaked
"It was like you were calling in something, some presence," said
Mr.Pinchbeck, who warned against abusing the drug. "I had to call a
friend; then I started to calm down. It's not like anything else. It's a
totally unique experience."
Despite its upper-middle-class price tag, herbalists and drug experts say that
Salvia divinorum draws those from wide-ranging backgrounds - everyone from
partygoers to practitioners of transcendental meditation - who are attracted
to this year's hip herb.
"There's herbs that come into fashion every year," said Jeffrey
Rosen of Flower Power, an herb shop in the East Village, "and this year,
it's Salvia divinorum."
Adding to the plant's mystique is its relative scarcity. In the New York City
area, as elsewhere, most herbalists supply Salvia divinorum only to customers
who place special orders.
"No, no, no, no, no, we don't have it," said Joanne Pelletiere, the
owner of Aphrodisia, an herb store in the West Village. "I must get about
20 calls a week about this."
The new level of interest in Salvia divinorum troubles some longtime
herbalists at stores like Aphrodisia and Flower Power, who say they do not
process special orders for the plant because of concerns about abuse. "I
think the interest is not medicinal," Mr. Rosen said. "I think the
interest here is recreational. It's contributing to the pilfering of the plant
community. It's denigrating the plant. I don't order because I feel it's a
plant that's going to be looked at more closely."
Those most concerned about the potential abuse and recreational uses of the
plant come from what would seem like an unlikely corner: Salvia divinorum
Daniel Siebert, an amateur botanist in Malibu, Calif., has studied Salvia
divinorum for more than 20 years and admits some unease about the recent surge
in its popularity.
"I think a lot of people who are into this kind of thing see it as a
legal alternative to illegal drugs," said Mr. Siebert, who also manages
the Salvia Divinorum Research and Information's site on the Internet, www.sagewisdom.org,
and sells leaves from the plants online from the Sage Wisdom Salvia Shop.
"That's not what this is. It's a philosopher's tool."
Mr. Siebert said that unlike alcohol or illegal drugs, which often make users
more outgoing and gregarious, Salvia divinorum usually makes those who take it
more introverted. Its harsh smoke, bitter taste and relatively short-term
effects - it lasts about an hour - also keep it from being truly
user-friendly, he said.
"It's really not a suitable drug for parties," he said. "It's
not like Ecstasy or LSD. It's not a good drug for socializing. It's the
opposite of that. Most of the young people who try it are looking for
something that they can use in a recreational context at parties or with
friends, and Salvia doesn't work effectively for what they're looking
Mr. Siebert can feel that dissatisfaction in his wallet. Without discussing
sales figures in great detail, he reports that only about 1 out of every 10
customers places a repeat order for the plant.