Salvia: more powerful than LSD, and legal
Salvia divinorum - aka the 'YouTube drug' - is banned in many countries around the world, but not in Britain. Is it as harmless as its users claim?
In a cluttered living room in south London, Lee Hogan, a sound engineer and part-time disc jockey, perches on the edge of a cheap leather armchair and bends his head towards a glass water pipe. A friend, kneeling on the floor, holds the stem of the pipe and uses a cigarette lighter to burn a tea-smelling herb. The herb glows red, and as it does so, Hogan places his mouth over the aperture of the pipe (better known as a 'bong' to those in the know). He breathes in deeply, taking a lung-full of smoke.
It's the way that many people choose to inhale marijuana, but this weed is far more potent and far more harmful. Hogan is smoking salvia divinorum, a species of sage that also happens to be the most powerful hallucinogenic herb known to man. It's also perfectly legal.
It doesn't take long for the effects to take hold. Seconds after breathing in the smoke, Hogan leans back in his chair and lets out a deep, slightly manic laugh. He hugs himself and starts to giggle. The giggle then transforms into a whimper, which, in turn, becomes a series of high-pitched squeaks. He is trying to talk, but makes no sense whatsoever. Then, mouth hanging wide open, he looks around the room. His eyes have glazed over and he doesn't seem to know where he is. As he slowly manoeuvres himself in his chair, his head rocking from side to side, he looks like a man who has just been hit over the skull by an iron bar.
Later he tells me that, by this stage, he had started to imagine he was a toy soldier carrying a rifle and dressed in a tall black hat, red coat, white trousers and black boots. His friends, known in salvia-speak as 'sitters' – present to make sure that the user does not harm himself or others – looked like enemies on his imaginary battlefield. After a minute, he falls out of his chair and shuffles along the floor on his knees. He clumsily removes his top – he is wearing a shiny hooded jacket with oversized earflaps and large sunglasses – and nearly sprawls across a table in the process, then sinks back into the chair, his head in his hands, his T-shirt pulled up to his chest, a rumpled, incoherent mess.
At 40, Hogan is older than the average salvia user in Britain, who is in his teens or twenties. Shouldn't he know better? Hogan responds by saying he is proud of his 'alternative' lifestyle and, as he puts it, still 'open to new experiences'. Like thousands of others, he bought his salvia on the internet (although many also buy it at herbal stores that specialise in the sale of drug-related paraphernalia). Then he went home, filmed his salvia-taking experience and, in a 21st-century twist, sent the footage to the video-sharing website YouTube.
Watching young people out of their minds on salvia is the latest YouTube sensation and is fuelling the popularity of the herb. But, for those with a clear head, the films – some of which have been viewed more than a million times – are deeply disturbing. Users are reduced to mumbling wrecks, giggling and screaming, gasping and muttering, waving their hands around as they sink into a sofa or crumple to the floor. What we don't see are the visions, lights, swirls and hallucinations that many say they have experienced. Or the nightmarish sense that they are close to death, going insane or under attack. Titles such as Horrible Salvia Trip speak for themselves. 'What we are witnessing is no less than the world's first internet-driven drugs explosion,' says Dr John Mendelson, a San Francisco-based clinical pharmacologist who is conducting medical trials into how the drug works on the brain.
A video of 'Ashley', a young red-haired American woman, sitting on a patch of grass, laughing wildly, and wearing a perplexed look on her face has been viewed more than two million times. As she grabs at her mouth, 'Ashley' mutters to her friends: 'I can't control it. My mouth is going to fall out.' The site also encourages people to comment on the videos and many take this opportunity to describe their own experiences. 'I took a large hit the other night from my bong,' says a user in response to Lee Hogan's video. 'It was my first time taking a psychedelic, and DAMN it was intense! The effects hit so fast it was like being run over by a steam train. It felt like my soul was locked in a dark room in another dimension in which the ceiling was slowly moving down to crush me. I thought I was doomed!' Of course, if this was the experience of everyone who smoked salvia, it wouldn't have much of a following. In fact, many are entranced by the herb's 'spiritual' qualities and find the sensation thrilling.
Salvia, a genus of the mint family, is commonly referred to as sage and derives its name from the Latin 'salvere' (to save), so called because of the herb's ancient reputation for healing properties.
Growing to more than 3ft in height, Salvia divinorum ('sage of the seers') has large green leaves and white flowers and is native to the Mazatec region of southern Mexico. The native shamans have for centuries chewed the plant's leaves to induce visions as part of spiritual and healing ceremonies and it is know in the Mazatec language as 'ska Maria Pastora' – a reference to the Virgin Mary that bears testimony to the fusion of traditional Indian customs and Roman Catholicism. It remained almost unknown outside the region until Daniel Siebert, a Californian ethnobotanist who was studying the use of herbs in spiritual traditions, came across the plant during his research in the Seventies. Today, it is sold as an extract: the '10x concentrate' is 10 times the potency of the unprocessed leaf. Prices for a gram on one British website range from £10 for the 5x extract to £35 for the 50x extract. In return, the website promises a whole range of 'out of body' experiences including: the sensation of travelling through time; encounters with divine beings; a flight over astral landscapes; and the chance to find some of life's hidden answers and secret knowledge.
For his part, Lee Hogan describes his first experience of salvia as the, 'most mind-bending, totally bizzarest, weirdest, strangest experience I have ever had'. It's difficult, he says, to explain the impact that the herb had on his brain. 'I was pulled to my right, into the brain-curve-warp-swirl tunnel is the best I can describe it,' he says. 'My brain, reality as we know it and everything else just sort of fused together and became this swirling tunnel. Endless, infinite. Speaking becomes very difficult, almost impossible.'
In a nod to some kind of 'code of conduct', there are two cardinal rules of the salvia world, and both are spelt out on all the websites and packaging: only take it when seated or lying down in a secure environment; and always have a sober sitter present to look after and reassure the taker.
Hogan insists that the effects are only at their most intense for 10 minutes and that, although the hallucinations can be disturbing, they don't do any permanent damage. But scientists disagree. Research has shown that the herb could trigger serious psychiatric problems. 'I am very concerned about the use and misuse of Salvia divinorum because it contains an active ingredient that can trigger hallucinations,' says Professor Fabrizio Schifano, an expert in drug addiction based at the University of Hertfordshire. 'For some vulnerable individuals, this may mean the onset of a psychotic episode.'
Kathy Chidester has no doubt that Prof Schifano's fears are justified. Three years ago, her 17-year-old son, Brett, committed suicide after smoking salvia.
A straight-A student, Brett was at school in Wilmington, Delaware, and planning to study architecture at university. His relationship with his girlfriend was going so well that they were already talking of marriage. In late January 2006, he called her and suggested a picnic the next day as both had no lessons scheduled. But Brett never made the date – a few hours after the call, he zipped himself into a tent inside his father's garage, lit a charcoal grill and asphyxiated himself.
Straight away, Mrs Chidester suspected salvia was to blame. 'A few months earlier, one of his cousins had told me that he was smoking some weird herb,' she recalls. 'I looked through his computer history and found that he had been going online to buy salvia. It was the first time I had ever even heard the name. 'I confronted him. I asked him why he was doing it and he replied: "Mom, the shamans in Mexico have been using it for hundreds of years. And besides, it's legal". That was always the point he made, that it was legal.' After Brett's death, Mrs Chidester found a note that he had written on his computer about his salvia use. Read together with the end of his suicide letter, it confirmed her fears. 'Once one surrenders the five earthly senses and the mind, they are free,' he wrote of salvia's effect (he used to smoke the 20x extract). 'Salvia allows us to give up our senses and wander in… time and space. One bleak point remains to be established: Once we give up our senses and regard them as useless, we must also give up other things and regard them as meaningless… Also, and this is probably hard for most to accept, our existence in general is pointless when compared with everything else there is in existence.'
Brett's suicide note was basically a 'love letter' to his mother, father, girlfriend and friends, Mrs Chidester said. At the end the handwriting went 'weird and sloppy' as he signed off: 'How could I go on living once I had learned the secrets of life?' The medical examiner subsequently listed salvia as a contributory factor on his death certificate. 'A psychologist who analysed the suicide note told us that he was under the influence of a drug when he wrote it,' his mother said.
'The fact that his posthumous drug test showed no signs of drugs led us to believe definitely that the drug had to be salvia, especially since that was all the police found with him. Since it metabolises within 15 minutes, there's no way it would show up on a drug test of any kind. These facts, not suppositions on our part, led us to believe 100 per cent that his salvia use led him to complete psychosis within the last hours of his life, and to his ultimate suicide.'
Soon after Brett's death, Delaware became the first state to impose a full ban on salvia, passing 'Brett's Law', legislation that places the plant in the same category as cocaine and heroin. The greatest concern is that salvia use could trigger mental health conditions such as schizophrenia, particularly among young people in their teens and twenties who may well be unaware that they are prone to psychotic episodes.
Sally D or Magic Mint, as aficionados know it, remains off the radar of most parents, health professionals and law enforcement agencies. But according to the first federal estimates, published last year, of salvia use in the US, about 1.8 million people had tried the drug, including 750,000 in the previous 12 months. Most strikingly, nearly three per cent of males aged 18 to 23, the largest category, had used salvia in the past year – nearly as many as had taken ecstasy and twice as popular as LSD. The US Armed Forces are developing the first urine tests for salvia amid reports about its presence on military bases and ships. And studies at some US universities concluded that up to 7 per cent of students had tried it. There are no figures for Britain, but among undergraduates I asked,
most had heard of it and many knew peers who had used it.
The effect is indisputably mind-altering. But in the scientific, law-enforcement and drug-regulation fields, there is a growing controversy about how to handle salvia's soaring popularity. Is it a basically harmless plant that delivers an extremely strong but short-lived high, open to use and abuse like other low-level psychoactive drugs such as alcohol and nicotine? And would prohibition be a futile gesture, introducing another level of criminality while having little impact on its availability or popularity?
Or is it dangerous and harmful, risking bouts of psychosis in unwitting users? And should the drug be outlawed or restricted, as some US states have recently done, following Delaware's example? Prof Schifano is certainly alarmed. 'I am concerned about the use and misuse of Salvia divinorum because it contains an active ingredient that can trigger hallucinations,' he says. 'And as a result for some vulnerable individuals, this may mean the onset of a psychotic episode.'
Since 2005, Labour MP John Mann(kill joy) has lobbied for the British Government to review salvia's legal status and last October he wrote to the Home Secretary urging her to take action. Earlier this month the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs met to discuss salvia, among other substances, and there will be a follow-up meeting in May. According to a Home Office spokesperson, 'If a compelling case is made for any "legal high" to be added to the list of controlled drugs under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 because they pose a significant health and social problem, we will not hesitate to seek Parliament's agreement to do so following reference to, and advice from, the ACMD on the case for control.'
Prof Schifano believes that although there is little indication that salvia is addictive – indeed, many users profess that once is enough – the British Government should look closely at restricting its use. He is also troubled by the lack of awareness about its impact among the medical profession. 'The web provides an early warning system about the use of drugs,' he says. 'And in the last three years, we have seen a huge increase in the popularity of psychoactive compounds from herbal drugs such as Salvia divinorum.' Part of the explanation for this boom, he says, is that drugs from herbal origins are commonly viewed as safer than the synthetic party compounds such as ecstasy and ketamine.
'As scientists, we did a good job of explaining that those synthetic drugs are dangerous,' he says. 'But the market reacted brilliantly by promoting herbal alternatives as appealing natural drugs. The message was that if they were herbal, they couldn't be bad for your health, right?' There is, however, considerable dispute about the role played by the herb in Brett Chidester's death. Among the salvia users I spoke to, none reported depression or suicidal feelings. And asked about Brett's suicide, they emphasised that salvia delivers an intense but very short-lived hit, rather than the sort of lingering ripple effects that might induce someone to take their life later.
The herb's defenders believe that Brett was a young man who took his own life and happened to smoke salvia rather than that he committed suicide because he used salvia.
From his 10th-floor office in the Mission district of San Francisco, Dr Mendelson recently began the first clinical trials designed to establish how intoxicating salvia is for the average human. He believes the often heated discussion about the drug's legal status is a 'stupid debate right now… Salvia is being used and abused but does it carry any risk? There is very little evidence that it does.
'It's a very odd experience and most people don't do it often. It's certainly not a social party drug. Crackheads are not switching to salvia. Heavy drinkers are not switching to salvia. It's not that type of drug.'
Pharmacologists such as Dr Mendelson are particularly excited about how the powerful Salvinorin A ingredient stimulates the brain's kappa opioid receptor. If they can find a way to block the hallucinatory effects, they are hopeful that the compound could have a number of medical uses – from attenuating the manic phase of bipolarity; boosting the immune system of HIV patients; treating chronic pain; and helping with irritable bowel conditions, diarrhoea and constipation.
Salvia divinorum has been outlawed or its sale and distribution restricted in Australia, Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Italy, Japan, Spain and Sweden. Thirteen states in the US have also passed legislation that ranges from placing it in the most serious narcotics category alongside heroin and cocaine to outlawing its sale and distribution to minors under 18. US federal drug regulators have followed salvia's impact for several years but say they have yet to identify a convincing case to add it to the list of controlled substances. In the scientific community, there is concern that criminalisation could reduce access to the plant and the scope for research, but Californian Republican assemblyman Anthony Adams insists that medical research will not be affected by banning salvia.
He was first made aware of the drug in 2006 when police officers in his district told him they were increasingly finding students in possession of the herb during raids for other offences.
'It was clear to them that salvia was harmful, emotionally and possibly physically, and they were frustrated that there was nothing they could do,' he says. 'So they approached me to ask about the possibility of introducing legislation to ban it. Even if it's non-addictive, you lose your ability to reason, you are incapacitated, you cannot make informed decisions about your behaviour.'
He ran into opposition to calls for an outright ban in the Democratic-run state legislature so offered a compromise bill to make it illegal to sell or distribute the drug to minors. Mrs Chidester flew in to give her moving personal account and the legislation passed comfortably.
Here in liberal San Francisco, calls for a broader ban carry predictably little sway. The Haight Ashbury district, the epicentre of the Sixties Flower Power counter-cultural revolution, is still one of the most drug-friendly enclaves in America. 'Salvia Sold Here' signs adorn the windows of various 'head shops' – stores specialising in paraphernalia related to cannabis consumption, New Age herbs and hippy art and clothes.
In Distractions, one such local institution, packs of Sticky Purple brand of salvia are displayed behind the counter. The 20x concentrate sells for $25 a gram, the 60x for $45 and the 100x for $65.
Business is brisk and three customers – an American couple and a British friend – were asking an assistant about the options. '100x must be a killer,' said the Briton. 'I've tried the 20x and that was strong enough. The first time I was just giggly, the second time I saw colours and visuals and patterns and the third time I lost all sense of reality, I felt I was merging into the surface of the sofa. It was pretty scary and unnerving initially. I felt my skin was being peeled back.'
After they departed with a gram of the 20x extract, the heavily tattooed assistant vented at calls for the herb to be criminalised. 'How can you make this illegal?' she asked. 'It's entirely natural, it's just sage. What sort of Big Brother society is this?'
Ramon Sender Barayon, a grey-haired grandfather and veteran of San Francisco's drug-taking Sixties heyday, could not be further removed from the students who inhabit the YouTube videos; he is scornful of their quick-hit approach to salvia.
He first heard the buzz about the herb three years ago and now takes it a few times a year in his search for a 'spiritual experience'. He says: 'Every time has been amazing. For the first 30 seconds of the heavy rush, I feel like I'm dying. For the next 10 to 15 seconds, it just feels like I'm going insane. And thereafter, the feeling is wonderful.'
He describes meeting goddesses and encountering the nephew of Buddha while under the influence. 'Make no mistake, salvia is not a recreational drug,' he adds. 'It can be terrifying. It feels in part like a near-death experience but that can also be a blissful experience.'
Such praise for the drug does not impress Prof Schifano: 'Salvia is not some innocuous drug,' he says. 'We should be very concerned about the potential for psychotic episodes.' For Kathy Chidester, the experience is deeply, sadly personal. 'My sincere hope,' she tells me, 'is that no other family will ever have salvia involved in the death
of their child or loved one.'
By Philip Sherwell
Last Updated: 4:08PM BST 06 Apr 2009