What is salvia?
Salvia divinorum, a relative of the herb sage, grows wild in parts of Mexico but is also cultivated around the world. The plant’s leaves have traditionally been used by Mazatec shamans for medicinal purposes and healing rituals. The chemical thought to be responsible for the psychoactive effects is salvinorin A. To the surprise of scientists, this molecule has no nitrogen atoms, which is very peculiar for a drug with powerful psychoactive effects.
What are the different forms of salvia?
Fresh leaves can be chewed. A salvia ‘quid’ (lump of leaves) is crushed slowly with the teeth and held in the mouth for about half an hour. Dried leaves are soaked in water first before chewing. The salvinorin A is absorbed through the lining of the mouth, so chewing fast and swallowing is ineffective. Some brush the inside of their mouth with mouthwash, or eat chillies before chewing, in order to increase blood flow and so boost the absorption of the chemical. Just 10 strong leaves have given some people realistic visions of being in another place, so users should be cautious with quantity, and start with a small amount the first time. With this precaution, chewing is likely to be the lowest risk way of using salvia. The effects take about 15 minutes to kick in and last an hour or so before fading, peaking in about 30 minutes.
A variety of tinctures made to be taken by mouth have also been observed, these are concentrated and require even more care to prevent a stronger-than-desired experience.
Some people smoke dried salvia leaves in order to get a stronger experience of the drug. Using a water-pipe (bong) and a cigarette lighter is a popular method. Using matches is risky, as you are likely to drop it as soon as the drug kicks in. The problem with smoking dried salvia leaf is that you need to inhale a great deal of thick smoke over 2 or 3 minutes to get an effective dose as the leaves naturally contain so little of the drug. This is unpleasant, probably unhealthy, and difficult to achieve for most people.
However, salvia for smoking is now mostly purchased in the form of dried, ground-up salvia leaf which frequently has had a concentrated salvia extract added. This allows the entire dose of Salvinorin A to be consumed in just a few puffs or even just one inhalation. This gives a large risk of having an unpleasantly overwhelming experience. Extreme caution must be taken with these products. If you intend to use them, start small and work your way up, rather than jumping in at the deep end.
Concentrated salvia leaf looks a bit like dark dried herbs. This product is usually described by how many times the potency of the original dried salvia leaf has been fortified (e.g. 5x extract, 20x, or even 60x). Quality control for products like these is virtually non-existent. This means that if you buy salvia you cannot rely on the claimed strength of the extract being trustworthy and there is the possibility that salvinorin A may be replaced by another substance. Experience reports on websites like Erowid.org suggest that people have gone through very powerful experiences from products labelled as being any of the available strengths.
How does salvia work as a drug in the body and brain?
Salvia is a very unusual dissociative hallucinogen which does not have the same action in the brain as LSD and other classical psychedelics, or dissociative drugs like ketamine. Its effects are probably due to its action on the κ-opioid receptor, but how this produces the experience of salvia is unknown.
What are the effects of salvia?
Salvia is not a drug that reliably makes users feel ‘good’. People often take it out of curiosity and interest in exploring weird mental states, rather than for pleasure or fun. A few use it for personal spiritual reasons but it appears that most users do not tend to repeat these powerful experiences very often.
Salvia combines hallucinogenic and dissociative effects. At higher doses it can scramble current perceptions, memory and imagination so you can lose all sense of who and where you are and what is going on. Alternatively, you might find the trip meaningful, for example revisiting places from your past, which may appear to be as clear and real as normal experience. This means that, unlike most hallucinogens, when a salvia trip is intense, it is quite possible to be unable to determine what is real and what is not, and even forget you have taken a drug, which cause intensely disturbing ‘derealisation’ and fragmentation of identity.
When smoked, the effects of salvia come on in seconds, peak in the first 5 or 10 minutes and then decrease over the next half hour. The experience can be very unusual and for a minority of people taking salvia feels enlightening and has elements of beauty. However many find that it very difficult to make any sense of. Most people do not regret trying salvia, but plenty find it unpleasant and sometimes terrifying. Small doses of Salvia, for example when the plant is chewed, or smoked in an ineffective way, may make you feel odd and giggly.
If a large dose is taken, which can be with just one lungful of smoke, the user will have a very intense experience, in which no aspect of normal conscious reality stays the same, and it is common to forget that you have taken a drug, or even who or what you are. Every person will experience something different on salvia, and no two trips will be alike. Salvia can make your perception of time and the place you are in different. People can find themselves laughing hysterically. It can bring about cartoonish hallucinations, and even a total immersion in a dream reality outside of the normal universe. You can even experience encounters with other beings. Your whole body feels involved in a salvia trip, and sensations of falling, being pulled around, or floating are common. Some salvia effects are perhaps most comparable to other controlled psychedelic hallucinogens like LSD and DMT, although salvia works very differently in the brain. Salvia is more often scary and confusing, with the experience imposing itself on you whilst you have little control. The classic psychedelics more frequently give trips which feel meaningful and uplifting, where you often feel involved with the experience rather than the experience just happening to you, although salvia has the safety advantage of being very short-acting.
Does salvia have any medical uses?
Salvia currently has no known medical use, however drugs that affect the κ-opioid receptor are thought to be worthwhile starting points for investigations for treatments against drug addictions.
What are the risks of using salvia? Can they be avoided or reduced?
There is no evidence that salvia is toxic to the body or brain but there has not been detailed scientific investigation on the potential of salvia to be harmful. Some people feel headachy or foggy-minded for a while afterwards.
In some countries, salvia is controlled, so make sure you investigate this first.
Traumatic experiences (bad trips and lasting symptoms)
Not enjoying salvia is common, but a truly traumatic experience seems very rare. The chance of it happening to you can probably never be ruled out, but is much more likely on very high doses, especially if you have never taken salvia before and if you are unprepared for its potentially powerful effects. If you are feeling negative emotions like anxiety, self-doubt or depression before you take the drug, bad feelings may become amplified.
People have believed they were dead or dying, that the walls were closing in, or that they were going permanently mad. Salvia often causes sensations of ‘depersonalisation’ and ‘derealisation’, where users lose track of their identity and question reality. For some, this is a profound and valuable experience, but for some it causes extreme fear and distress.
Although the salvia experience does not last long, some people report it feeling like it lasts for hours, or even forgetting that another sort of existence exists outside of the bad trip. During the trip, people can have panic attacks, become agitated, and try to escape. This risks injury to themselves and anyone who tries to restrain them.
There have also been cases, not formally reported in medical journals, of people who have found that a single salvia experience left them with derealisation (the feeling that nothing is real or can be relied upon) that lasted many days or more. They felt spaced out, miserable, and disconnected from reality. Others claim to have suffered lasting alterations of perception that echo the hallucinations during their trip (HPPD). It is important to repeat that these effects have not been scientifically documented, but they are serious enough to be aware of. There may be millions of people who have taken salvia without harm, and very few have suffered these serious lasting problems.
When you are tripping on salvia, you may be totally unaware of your real surroundings, but will often want to move around, which makes you vulnerable to dangerous accidents. Dangerous objects (car keys, knives) should be made inaccessible. Someone tripping strongly is less likely to suffer harm if they have constant supervision by a ‘trip sitter’. Unless it is unavoidable, the sitter should not try to physically restrain someone who is tripping so much that they are unaware of their surroundings, as the user may become frightened and lash out violently. If an appropriate setting is chosen, restraint should not be needed.
Are there health conditions that make salvia more dangerous?
If you have had problems with your mental health, such as bipolar disorder or any psychotic illness, salvia could perhaps provoke bad reactions. In one almost unique case where a man developed a lasting psychotic illness after smoking salvia, it was thought that he may have been predisposed to schizophrenia, and the salvia brought on the appearance of symptoms.
How addictive is salvia?
Salvia does not appear to be addictive.
Salvia harm reduction advice
Salvia is legally available in many European countries, but this should not be taken as a reflection of its power. It can be distressing and even harmful, especially when used by people who are not prepared.
There will always be a risk that you will have a horrible experience with salvia, but thoughtful preparation can help reduce the risks.
Chewing or smoking salvia
Considering what type of experience you want is important, For many people chewing leaves will give a sufficient experience with less of the risk of going too far than smoking might give. Even if you think you want a powerful experience, working your way up through lower doses will reduce the chance of getting more intensity than you wished for. This is true of most drugs.
Having a sitter
A sober and trusted friend, a ‘trip sitter’, can help look out for you, prevent accidents and may be able to reassure you if you are having an unpleasant or frightening experience. Getting comfortable in a safe place such on a carpet, with cushions around and dangerous objects removed, reduces the risk of injury.
Salvia myths and misunderstandings
Is salvia like cannabis?
No. Salvia is sometimes described as or compared with cannabis in the media, for example being referred to as a legal cannabis alternative because it is a smokeable herb and often not controlled. Most users do not find the drugs similar and they do very different things to the brain.