VANCOUVER — Health Canada is warning people to avoid using the hallucinogenic Mexican herb Salvia divinorum — made famous in a Internet video showing pop star Miley Cyrus smoking the stuff — until its effects are better understood.
Native to Oaxaca, Mexico, the plant known as Magic Mint or Seer’s Sage has been used for centuries by Mazatec Indian shamans for medicinal purposes and to induce visions, but has also gained a foothold in Canada and United States as a recreational drug.
Salvia divinorum is not illegal in Canada, but the herb has been under study by the national health agency since at least 2006 to determine whether it should be regulated under the Controlled Drug and Substance Act.
Health Canada warns that products containing Salvia divinorum or its extracts may violate the Food and Drugs Act, said agency spokesman Stephane Shank. Natural health products must be reviewed by Health Canada and approved for sale; so far no Salvia products have been approved.
Fortified Salvia is sold at head shops and some corner stores in a marijuana-like smokable form as well as in alcohol-based tinctures.
In its more potent forms, a few seconds of smoking Salvia induces intense, debilitating hallucinations that may last from 15 to 30 minutes, according to experienced users who responded to the Vancouver Sun.
“It’s not even comparable to marijuana. I could not see, move or speak. I thought I had died and gone to hell,” wrote a woman identified only as Betty C. “I could not remember my name, what I looked like, what species I was. I felt nothing but fear.”
Interest in Salvia intensified late last week when a videotape leaked on the Internet showed pop star Miley Cyrus laughing and hallucinating after smoking the herb through a large plastic pipe.
YouTube contains dozens of videos of teens who enter a state of total disorientation and panic after smoking Salvia divinorum.
“What the video will do is raise awareness of this drug and that may lead to more people experimenting with it and raise demand and profits for legitimate and illegitimate enterprises,” said Robert Gordon, director of Simon Fraser University’s School of Criminology.
U.S. media reports suggest that sales of the herb have tripled in some states since the Miley Cyrus video was released. But Salvia is banned in 15 states, including Delaware, where the herb was blamed in the 2006 suicide of 16-year-old Brett Chidester.
A 24-year-old man convicted of raping and killing a mother of five on Calgary’s C-Train in 2008 claimed to have been drinking and smoking Salvia beforehand. The court ruled that Christopher Watcheston was not so intoxicated that he didn’t know what he was doing.
A 2009 drug- and alcohol-use survey conducted by Health Canada found that 0.5 per cent of adults have tried the herb, compared to 7.3 per cent of youth aged 15 to 24.
Only 0.2 per cent of Canadians report having used it in the past year, compared with 10.6 per cent for marijuana.
The herb has a steady following in Vancouver where it has been sold openly for at least the last 10 years, according to Vancouver Seed Bank owner Rebecca Ambrose.
“A wide range of people are interested in its psychedelic effects and don’t want to be out of it for a long time,” she said. “It’s not like mushrooms or LSD where you are in for an eight-hour journey. . . . It’s not a party drug.”
The store sells Salvia in variety of forms and as fresh cuttings.
Chewing fresh leaves or smoking Salvia in its non-fortified form produces a much milder intoxication.
American academic Daniel Seibert notes that the pharmacological properties of Salvia divinorum are unique and not similar to those of other known psychoactive drugs, such as LSD and marijuana.
He is widely credited with identifying salvinorin A, the psychoactive molecule in Salvia divinorum.
The plant has a low toxicity and appears to have no addictive properties, according to Seibert, who sells the herb in a variety of potent forms on his website.
A 2006 study by Iranian toxicologists at Mashad University of Medical Sciences called Salvia divinorum “the most potent naturally occurring hallucinogen thus far isolated.”
By Randy Shore,
December 15, 2010