Salvia . . . a strange, legal high
AARON HARRIS/TORONTO STAR
ALSO CALLED magic mint, Sally D or simply salvia.
NATIVE TO Oaxaca, Mexico
MEMBER of the sage genus and the mint family.
LEAVES are bright green with simple, oval shape.
GENERALLY SOLD AS fortified leaves – leaves combined with the extract of other leaves for added potency – and smoked with a pipe or bong. Fresh salvia leaves can be chewed.
SOLD IN VARIOUS STRENGTHS, with the weakest, 10x (10 times the potency of a regular salvia leaf) selling for around $25.
Users tend to curl into a fetal ball. Experts say most people don't like it. But YouTube is turning a new generation on to the legal hallucinogen – and Toronto police are watching
Alex Duffy, who works at Roach-O-Rama, says the brief high of salvia gives him a relaxing sense of unity with things larger than himself.
Nov 26, 2008 04:30 AM
In one of more than 6,000 YouTube videos tagged "salvia" for the plant salvia divinorum, a young man introduces himself as "Eric, your host" and prepares to smoke the hallucinogenic drug before giving a driving lesson. Sitting in the driver's seat with his car off and in park, Eric takes a hit from a pipe and adjusts his mirrors. He exhales and becomes almost instantaneously dopey and indecipherable. "Excuse me, I have to go to space now," he says, and spends the remainder of the two-minute video exploring the ceiling of his car like an astronaut who has just landed on the moon.
Such videos are bringing new attention to salvia, which traditionally has been used by Mexican shamans for meditation and healing. It is legal in Canada and can be purchased online and in Toronto head shops and some convenience stores.
But the surge in awareness is prompting U.S. lawmakers to take a closer look at salvia. More than a dozen states have regulated or banned it.
This year the U.S. government published its first estimates of salvia use, finding that 1.8 million Americans had tried it. There are no such Canadian statistics, but the Toronto police and Health Canada both say they are monitoring use of the drug.
"We are aware that it is out there in the community," said Det. Don Theriault of the Toronto police drug squad.
"But in terms of complaints coming to the drug squad, there isn't a large problem with it at the moment, so we'll have to see how it develops over the next couple of years."
Monitoring a drug for abuse means ensuring it is not causing a problem in the community, Theriault says. "It means in a nutshell, are people using it, becoming sick as a result of it, or are there any problems resulting from it, any violence or anything?"
Salvia experimentation brings mixed reviews. Alex Duffy, 24, says the drug's brief high – less than 30 minutes – makes him feel a relaxing sense of unity with things bigger than himself.
Duffy has tried salvia four times, and works at Roach-O-Rama in Kensington Market, where salvia is available to customers who can prove they are 18 or older. Duffy says employees ensure first-time customers know how to use the drug safely – which means, ideally, smoking it with a friend nearby, in a place where you can lie down if you need to.
Others, like Keith Wong, 26, try salvia once and have no strong desire to do it again. It was "interesting," he says, but not for him.
Wong works at the Toronto Hemp Company on Yonge St., which sells the plant but not its derivative drug, and thinks more should be known about the psychedelic. "I guess there's not enough research on it to find out if it might be good or bad for long term."
That's true, says Bryan Roth, a professor of pharmacology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
He says some regulation is needed, but worries that federal criminalization of salvia will halt his research. His lab is one of many around the world exploring how salvia derivatives could be used to treat schizophrenia, depression, Alzheimer's disease and chronic pain.
"Frequently when the parent compound is made illegal, all derivatives are made illegal as well, and that makes it almost impossible to move these forward as potential medications," Roth says.
A December 2005 report by an arm of Health Canada recommends salvia be placed under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act; Health Canada says it is monitoring salvia research.
"Salvia's mechanism of action is still not fully understood, so that's why we need to keep monitoring it," says spokesperson Paul Duchesne. Duchesne says no long-term problems have been observed, but that salvia is known to cause short-term memory loss and out-of-body experiences.
The drug's brief, debilitating high and the fact that negative experiences are not uncommon means salvia junkies are rare, perhaps nonexistent. Eric's other Youtube videos – notably "Gardening on Salvia" and "Writing a Letter to Congress on Salvia" – belabour that it is hard to do anything on salvia besides curl up in the fetal position and mumble.
"It's not going to be a popular drug of abuse," Roth says. "Most people take it once or twice. We don't have any definitive data on this but anecdotal reports would suggest that it has no addictive properties. Most people don't like it."
There is, however, reason to be worried about people injuring themselves while on the drug, Roth says, as with any consciousness-altering substance.
Back at Roach-O-Rama, Duffy describes such an experience. The last time he smoked salvia he imagined he was a molecule on the edge of his own fist.
"And when I woke up, I realized I might have actually punched myself in the face," he says.
Duffy says recent media reports and the U.S. regulations have made the drug more popular in Toronto.
"People are starting to realize they might not be able to access it forever."