Introduction to salvia divinorum (aka fake weed)
Salvia’s real name is salvia divinorum but your kids know it as Serenity or Fake Weed. They can buy it over the counter and the store clerk, who understands perfectly well what the child will do with the product, will tell them that Salvia is legal and harmless. Part of that is true – as of 2022, it was still legal in most states.
How salvia divinorum is sold
Salvia is often sold as incense with a warning on the package – not for human consumption, but the kids know the truth. Like marijuana, it can be rolled into a joint or smoked in a pipe and can be given a distinct smell such as mint or coconut. Salvia doesn’t have the smell of marijuana. If your kids come home smelling like vanilla, you’re not going to think anything of it. As of 2010, it was legal in all but one United States state.
Countries where salvia is controlled in some manner include Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Italy, Japan, Russia, Spain, and Sweden.
Known effects of salvia divinorum
Short term effects include headaches, nausea, heart palpitations, hallucinations, paranoia, physical impairment, and a fast, intense high. The high hits almost immediately and lasts about 8 minutes. The high may include uncontrolled laughing, past memories, sensation of motion or of being twisted or pulled in different directions, merging with or becoming other objects, overlapping realities such as the feeling of being in multiple places at once. Users sometimes describe an “after glow” or pleasant state of mind as the effects of the drug wind down.
In one lab study, it was noted that “you can give a rat free access to cocaine, give them free access to Salvinorin A, and they stop taking cocaine.”
A British journalist who took the drug described it as follows:
Salvia took me on a consciousness-expanding journey unlike any other I have ever experienced. My body felt disconnected from ‘me’, and objects and people appeared cartoonish, surreal, and marvelous. Then, as suddenly as it had begun, it was over. The visions vanished and I was back in my bedroom. I spoke to my “sitter”, the friend who was watching over me, as recommended on the packaging but my mouth was awkward and clumsy. When I attempted to stand my coordination was off. Within a couple of minutes, however, I was fine and clear-headed, though dripping with sweat. The whole experience lasted less than 5 minutes.
Dale Pendell describes the high in his book, Plants Powers, Poisons, and Herfcraft:
It’s very intense, I call it a reality stutter, or a reality strobing. I think that having been a test pilot and flying in that unforgiving environment with only two feet between our wingtips, helped to prepare me for this kind of exploration.
Although potent, scientists have yet to deem it toxic. In fact, lab rats given very high dosages showed no organ damage as a result. Nor have scientists found the drug to be addictive.
Many express concerns with taking the higher concentrated extract solutions though and describe the effects of such a concentration as terrifying and akin to a bad LSD trip. In these cases, a “trip sitter”, or someone to watch over the drug user while they experience the effects of the drug.
In addition, it is generally believed that Salvia can cause dysphoria, or depression. There is at least one documented suicide case where a young teen committed suicide while under the influence of Salvia. In writing the youth made during the Salvia induced trips, he noted that “existence in general is pointless.”
One web site that instructs users on how to take salvia makes the following notations:
Do not use salvia when dangerous objects (knives etc.) are within easy reach. Do not drive when or directly after taking Salvia divinorum. Salvia should not be given to minors, mentally unstable or violent people.
How salvia divinorum is taken
Salvia is one of the most potent naturally occurring hallucinogens (synthetic hallucinogens such as LSD can be more potent). It can be consumed in a variety of ways.
The active principle in Salvia is Salvinorin A. The leaves may be crushed to extract leaf juices (fresh leaves are used) which are then mixed with water to create a “tea” that is then drank to induce hallucinogenic visions. Chewing and swallowing a large number of leaves also produces the same effect. Chewing the leaves produces a slower peaking effect that starts after 10 to 20 minutes and lasts for 30 minutes or longer.
Scientists note that the process of digestion deactivates most of the Salvinorin in the leaves. For that reason, users will typically “quid chewed” the leaves – they will hold them in the mouth or suck on the leaves and then spit out the leaf (a “quid” is a small cylindrical or rolled up ball of salvia leaves). Many hesitate to swallow the leaves anyway because they are bitter and sometimes cause nausea.
The dried Salvia leaves may also be smoked in a joint, bong, or a pipe. Users often prefer a water pipe to cool the smoke before inhalation. Smoking the Salvia leaf produces a much faster effect with a shorter duration.
The temperature required to release the Salvinorin A chemical must be quite high, so a torch lighter is often preferred (a flame is held over the leaves during inhalation). Smoking the Salvia leaf produces weaker effects, so it is common for the preparations to include additional extracts or other chemicals to produce a more pronounced effect. These enhanced leaves are often labeled to indicate the multiplicative factor (e.g. 5x, 10x).
Salvinorin A may also be extracted from the Salvia plant to create a liquid form of the drug. An eye dropper may then be used to place the liquid under the tongue where it is absorbed into the body.
What salvia divinorum looks like
Salvia divinorum has large, green leaves with a yellow undertone. The leaves are from 4 to 12 inches long and the plant itself grows to well over three feet in height. It has hollow, square stems which tend to break or trail on the ground. It has flowers although they are rare. Each whorl will have about six white, curved flowers covered in hair. When the 1.2 inch flowers do bloom, it’s usually from September to May (when the length of the day falls below 12 hours).
Salvia is native to the Sierra Mazateca in the state of Oaxaca in Mexico, growing in the primary or secondary cloud forest and tropical evergreen forest at elevations from 1,000 to 6,000 feet. Its most common habitat is black soil and along stream banks where trees and bushes provide an environment that is low light and high in humidity.
The plant produces few seeds even in the rare instances where it blooms. It reproduces in a clonal fashion when the stems break, fall onto the ground, and then take root. Small cuttings, between two and eight inches long, cut off the mother plant just below a node, will usually root in plain tap water within two or three weeks.
Salvia Use in Religious Ceremonies
Salvia divinorum is still used by the Mazatec, primarily to facilitate shamanic visions in the context of curing or divination. Salvia divinorum is one of several species with hallucinogenic properties that are ritually used by Mazatec shamans. In their rituals, the shamans use only fresh Salvia divinorum leaves. They see the plant as an incarnation of the Virgin Mary, and begin the ritual with an invocation to Mary, Saint Peter, the Holy Trinity, and other saints. Ritual use traditionally involves being in a quiet place after ingestion of the leaf. It is also used remedially at lower dosages as a diuretic, and to treat ailments including diarrhea, anemia, headaches, and rheumatism.
Other Possible Uses
There may be medicinal benefits of Salvia if it is taken in a controlled environment and under the care of a physician. According to Professor Bryan L. Roth, director of the National Institute on Mental Health’s Psychoactive Drug Screening Program,
We think that drugs derived from the active ingredient could be useful for a range of diseases: Alzheimer’s, depression, schizophrenia, chronic pain and even AIDS or HIV.
In addition, clinical pharmacologist John Mendelsohn has also said:
There may be some derivatives that could be made that would actually be active against cancer and HIV […] At the present time, there are a lot of therapeutic targets that have many people excited.
History of Salvia Divinorum
The history of the plant is not well known, and there has been no definitive answer to the question of its origin. The Mazatecs hold its origins in secret. Speculation includes Salvia divinorum being a wild plant native to the area or a plant introduced by another indigenous group. It could possibly be a hybrid plant species.
Salvia divinorum was first recorded in print by Jean Basset Johnson in 1939 while he was studying Mazatec shamanism. He later documented its usage and reported its effects through personal testimonials. Still, flowers were needed for a definitive identification of the species. In 1962, the Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann, and ethnomycologist R. Gordon Wasson, traveled throughout the Sierra Mazateca researching Mazatec rituals and looking for specimens of the plant. They were unable to locate live plants. Eventually, the Mazatec provided them with some flowering specimens which were sent to botanists for classification. It was not until the 1990s that the psychoactive mind-altering properties were identified.
The genus name, Salvia, was first used by Pliny for a plant that was likely Salvia officinalis (common sage) and is derived from the Latin salvere. The species name, divinorum, was given because of the plant’s traditional use in divination and healing. it is often loosely translated as “diviner’s sage” or “seer’s sage”. Albert Hofmann, who collected the first plants, objected to the new plant being given the name divinorum: I was not very happy with the name because Salvia divinorum means “Salvia of the ghosts”, whereas Salvia divinatorum, the correct name, means “Salvia of the priests”, But it is now in the botanical literature under the name Salvia divinorum.
There are many common names for S. divinorum, most of them relating to the plant’s association with the Virgin Mary. The Mazatec believe the plant to be an incarnation of the Virgin Mary, so they take great care in handling the plant. The name “Ska Maria Pastoria”, often shortened to “Ska Maria” or “Ska Pastoria”, refers to “the leaf or herb of Mary, the Shepherdess.” Other Spanish names include “hojas de Maria”, “hojas de la Pastora”, “hierba (yerba) Maria”, and “la Maria”.
Image CreditsCommercially available packet of Salvia divinorum via Wikipedia Commons by Lexicon with usage type - Public Domain
Salvia Dimvinorum via Texas Tribune
Salvia divinorum drug via DEA with usage type - Public Domain
Spice Diamond Salvia packet and drug via Air Force Space Command