The Essential Guide to Salvia
(Ska pastora, Herb of the Shepherdess, Hierba de María, Magic mint, Diviner’s sage, Sally-D)
Salvia divinorum, or “Salvia,” is a perennial herb of the Labiatae (mint) family. Native to the cloud forest regions of the Sierra Mazateca in Oaxaca, Mexico, it typically grows in ravines and other high-altitude, humid areas. Salvia plants can reach over one meter in height and have large green leaves, hollow square stems, and white flowers with purple calyces.
Although not widely used, Salvia is a potent psychedelic characterized by unique visionary experiences. It shows great potential for treating pain and addiction, as well as depression—whether in traditional Mazatec ceremonies or more clinical, Western settings. Many people have also found it useful for personal growth.
Unscheduled by the federal US government, Salvia is controlled in many states. The most prominent advocate for its continued legality is the ethnobotanist Daniel Siebert, who maintains the Salvia divinorum Research and Information Center.
History & Stats02
Salvia has a long history of use among the Mazatec Indians of Oaxaca, who revere the plant as an incarnation of the Virgin Mary—hence its local name hierba (herb) or hojas (leaves) de María. Traditionally used for healing and divination, Salvia is also the first of three sacred plants that apprentice curanderos (or shamans) come into contact with, followed by morning glory seeds and psilocybin mushrooms.
Salvia first came to the attention of Western anthropologists between the late 1930s and early 1950s. R. Gordon Wasson, along with Albert and Anita Hofmann, sampled it for themselves in the 1960s, reporting colorful visions and patterns from an infusion of Salvia leaves and water. Although the plant’s growing locations were kept a closely guarded secret, Wasson also managed to acquire a live specimen from the Mazatec. This was sent to the US in December 1962, where it was identified as a new species of Salvia: Salvia divinorum. Other live specimens collected by Sterling Bunnell in the same year—known as the Bunnell strain—remain the most widely cultivated and commercially available today.
By 1975 Salvia was being smoked by non-Mazatec youths in Mexico City, despite the traditional belief that it became inactive when dried.
The psychoactive compound Salvinorin A was isolated in 1982, but it was another 20 years before researchers identified its precise mechanism of action. By this time, Salvia had already become commercially available in the US, and public awareness was growing, thanks in part to the annual “Ska Pastora – Leaves of the Shepherdess” conference. Early speakers included a host of ethnobotanists, chemists, pharmacologists, and psychopharmacologists such as Ann and Sasha Shulgin, Jonathan Ott, Dale Pendell, Ralph Metzner, and Daniel Siebert.
Salvia’s increased visibility also drew the attention of legislators and a hostile media. In 2005, Louisiana became the first state to ban the plant for human consumption.
Between 2006 and 2008, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) recorded an 83% increase (from 0.7% to 1.3%) in lifetime prevalence of Salvia use. In 2015 a nationally representative sample of college students found that Salvia use had fallen from an annual prevalence of 5.8% in 2009 to 1.8% in 2014. However, the 2008 NSDUH recorded a higher prevalence of Salvia use among people from lower income families, a group presumably underrepresented in colleges. The majority of Salvia users are white, male, 18-25 year olds who reside in cities.
Outside of traditional contexts, Salvia is most commonly smoked as a fortified or extract-enhanced dried leaf product.
Salvinorin A, the psychoactive molecule in Salvia, is considered the most potent naturally occurring psychedelic compound. It is structurally and chemically unique from most other natural psychedelics. Typical psychedelic compounds contain nitrogen, but Salvinorin A is only made up of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms. It was the first non-nitrogenous psychedelic to be identified, as well as the first psychoactive diterpene.
Also unlike the classical psychedelics, Salvinorin A shows no binding affinity for any of the serotonin (5-HT) receptors. Its mechanism of action lies in strong and highly selective bonds to the kappa-opioid receptors (or KORs). KOR agonists are known to cause hallucinations or visions, dissociation, and a sense of altered reality.
Research on the safety of Salvia is limited and further studies are called for. That said, a 2003 study found pure Salvinorin A to be of “relatively low” toxicity to rodents, even at doses of up to 6400mcg—more than three times the highest known human dose and six times the maximum recommended dose. Exposure in this case was also unusually chronic, continuing for a two-week period without adverse effects. Toxic overdose in humans is therefore highly improbable.
In 2013, researchers administered various doses of Salvinorin A to human participants and found no evidence of adverse effects one month later. There is also no evidence that Salvia is addictive.
Salvia can be chewed, smoked, or taken as a purified tincture. A threshold dose of Salvinorin A is 200mcg, while the upper limit for most people is around 1000mcg (1mg). The amount of plant material, extract, or tincture required for a single dose will depend on the strength of the product being used.
Half a gram of natural dried leaf is a fairly mid-level dose for smoking. Smaller amounts of extract-enhanced products are needed for the same dose, proportional to their strength (e.g. 5x, 10x, 20x, etc.). Keep in mind, however, that two products of allegedly the same strength may contain very different levels of Salvinorin A.
The chewing method involves rolling fresh or dried leaves (rehydrated in water) into a “quid” to be chewed once every five minutes or so for at least half an hour and otherwise kept under the tongue. A mid-level dose of Salvinorin A using the quid method requires 30g of fresh leaves or 6g of dried leaves.
What to expect
When smoking or vaporizing Salvia, the onset is typically very rapid, peaking within the first 180 seconds and declining after 5-30 minutes. The quid chewing, or “quidding” method has a more gradual onset and a longer total duration. You may feel nothing for the first 15-20 minutes and any effects you do feel may be diminished by light or noise. Peak effects last 30-60 minutes. Purified tincture effectively offers the same delivery method as quidding, but with a much faster onset.
At low doses you may experience a tingling sensation, increased awareness of the body, and enhanced clarity or presence of mind. Higher doses are associated with a loss of self-awareness, rapidly transitioning visuals, physical impairment or dizziness, and revelatory mystical experiences. Some other, more specific effects include: tunnel vision; the sensation of merging with or becoming objects; seeing entities or beings; hearing voices; laughing uncontrollably; and experiencing overlapping realities or worlds.
Because of the disorienting effect of Salvia, it is strongly advised to have a sitter present when taking it. This is particularly important for first time users and anyone experimenting with higher doses or more effective methods of administration (e.g. vaporizing). Ideally, the sitter will have personal experience with Salvia and know what to expect. It’s also a good idea to lie down for the duration of the trip. Sharp objects and other hazardous items should be removed from the area.
“Salvia is a legal marijuana alternative”
Salvia is often mistakenly referred to as a legal substitute for marijuana—presumably because it’s green, dried, and typically smoked. But the similarities end there. Salvia is chemically and subjectively unique. It is nothing like marijuana, and it has little in common with any other psychoactive substance.
While Salvinorin A isn’t dangerous in itself, it demands respect at higher doses. Anyone expecting a “legal” (implying weak) marijuana high from this potent psychedelic compound is unlikely to prepare themselves or their environment sufficiently for the trip—potentially leading to otherwise avoidable harm.
“Salvia leads to violent behavior”
Many dubious news reports have linked suicides and murders to Salvia, in some cases prompting legislators to criminalize the plant. There is no evidence to support such a direct link. While on high doses, coordinated acts of violence are virtually impossible. In the longer term, other factors, such as underlying depression, are typically far more likely to blame.
Nevertheless, as with any psychoactive substance, caution is advised. Salvia should be used with care, especially by people with a history of mental health issues or aggressive behavior. Adhere to the 6Ss of psychedelic use to minimize any risks and maximize potential benefits.
Salvinorin A’s unusual pharmacology may help researchers to better understand and develop treatments for diseases characterized by hallucinations, including schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s.
It could also be adapted for use in addiction therapy. A 2009 study found that when cocaine-addicted rats were exposed to Salvinorin A, their cocaine-seeking behavior (pushing a lever to self-administer the drug) became less frequent. In part, this is due to the way in which κ-opioid receptors balance out and inhibit dopamine, the “reward” chemical released by cocaine.
High doses of vaporized Salvinorin A also seem to decrease interoception (our awareness of and emotional response to the body), severing the pleasure-seeking mechanism by which “body-after-drug” is negatively contrasted with “body-on-drug.”
This makes Salvinorin A a powerful analgesic as well, and one without the respiratory complications of more conventional anesthetics. While studies on mice have shown the pain-relieving effects of Salvinorin A to be short-lived, the molecule has been used to develop longer-lasting analogs. Anecdotal reports testify to Salvia’s use in treating headaches and arthritis pain.
Salvia also shows promise in the treatment of depression, enhancing mood, relaxation, and self-awareness. One 26-year-old woman who suffered with treatment-resistant depression since adolescence reported total remission through regular Salvia use. Specifically, she chewed 2-3 leaves (0.5-0.75g) three times a week. After six months, her depression was still in remission without any signs of relapse.
When Salvinorin A binds to kappa-opioid receptors in the brain, it effectively shuts down the claustrum—an area responsible for our subjective experience of visual, auditory, and tactile stimuli.
As a result, consciousness becomes temporarily unregulated and a sense of self is lost.This process of ego-dissolution is described by Daniel Siebert as a “trans-dimensional doorway that allows one to step outside of consensual reality, providing a unique opportunity to explore the nature of consciousness”. Some individuals have found Salvia useful for dissolving habitual negative thought patterns and behaviors. Given that it also facilitates the objective retrieval of childhood memories, Salvia shows great promise as a psychotherapeutic aid.
Similarly, in line with the Mazatec tradition, Salvia can be used as a tool for “divination.” By taking Salvia with a question in mind, people are able to re-frame stubborn interpersonal issues and other life concerns.
The plant also appears to enhance meditation, regardless of the spiritual tradition being followed. In a double-blind study conducted by MAPS, Salvia was found to clear the mind and eliminate distracting thoughts. The optimal dosage for nearly all participants was one gram of raw leaf chewed. Any more than that was found to be too powerful for meditation.
Salvia is federally unscheduled in the US, which means it isn’t a controlled substance. In fact, in 2003, the DEA even described it as relatively safe. However, while Salvia remains legal in some states, others have implemented partial or total bans. Shortly after Louisiana banned Salvia for human consumption in 2005, Missouri classified any form of the plant as a Schedule I substance.
The first country to ban Salvia outright was Australia, which designated the plant as Schedule 9, the most strictly controlled, in 2002. In New Zealand, it is illegal to import or sell salvia without a license.
Can it be detected in a drug test?
Will it make me go crazy?
Although the research in this area is limited, there is no evidence of long-term adverse mental health effects arising from Salvia use. In the more immediate term, at least when taking high doses, it’s common to lose one’s sense of self and consensus reality. However, this effect is temporary and a reliable sitter can provide reassurance in case of a bad trip.
The best way to avoid negative experiences is to consider the 6Ss of psychedelic use, and prepare yourself appropriately.
Are there risks?
Salvia appears to be safe both physiologically and psychologically. As with tobacco and marijuana, Salvia smoke gives off carcinogens — but the same is true of almost all combustible matter. Other risks, such as falling over objects, can be avoided by having a sitter present.
Salvia is a powerful psychedelic, and as such there is a risk of an intense or traumatic experience. To minimize these risks, become familiar with the 6Ss of psychedelic use.
Is it legal to grow at home?
Some states, like Illinois, have banned the plant outright—including all seeds, derivatives, and preparations.
Despite growing naturally in a tropical climate, Salvia can be grown indoors for aesthetic purposes. Here’s a guide for Sage that will work with Salvia.
What is the best way to take Salvia?
There are pros and cons to every method. Chewing may be unpleasant for some, due to the bitter taste and the large amount of plant material required. On the other hand, effects are mellower and longer-lasting, allowing for deeper exploration of the Salvia experience.
Smoking is quicker and more efficient, but may lead to discomfort in the chest. It can also be difficult to accurately gauge the dose when using extract-enhanced leaves.
For a more in-depth guide on the practicalities of Salvia use, see here.
Can I microdose with Salvia?
Chewing on small amounts of dried leaf is reported to enhance the mood and improve mental clarity for the rest of the day, without any psychedelic effects. Salvia may have a longer “afterglow” period of up to a week when smoked.
There have been no studies on the efficacy or safety of Salvia microdosing, so all we have to rely on are anecdotal reports.
Reports of Salvia microdosing:
Does it produce tolerance?
Salvia does not produce a tolerance effect. Since Salvinorin A inhibits dopamine release, it also has little potential for addiction.
Can I mix it with other drugs?
Not much is known about Salvia’s interaction with other drugs, so caution is advised. While many people take regular medications alongside Salvia without problems, it’s recommended to start out with a small dose and monitor reactions.
Click here for a detailed chart of safe drug combinations.
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