A University of B.C. graduate
student who identifies himself as "Max Trotsky," packs some leaves
of the potent hallucinogen into a colourful glass pipe and takes a
long, slow hit. I tentatively inquire, "What does it feel like?"
Max has promised to describe the effects of the drug as they
occur. Instead, he looks suddenly suspicious of my poised tape
recorder and says, enigmatically, "It feels like this." Then he
shuts his eyes dreamily and collapses backwards onto his bean-bag
So much for going straight to the
source. Later, Max, who calls himself a "psychonaut," explains
that the initial effects of smoking Salvia divinorum, a tropical
member of the Mint family known commonly as "diviner's sage,"
render a person totally non-verbal. Body function is apparently
strongly affected as well, but only for a little while.
The time from when Max smokes the
drug to when he is coherent enough to talk to me amounts to all of
three minutes. For another half hour he describes feeling
"altered." By the time we part company an hour later, Max seems
fairly normal and is getting ready to go out on a date with a
He has gone to the edge and back
amazingly quickly. This is what Salvia is known for producing --
an intense experience over a short time. It has been called the
substance that "lets you see God on your lunch break." Instant
enlightenment for the impatient, video game attention span
Never heard of Salvia divinorum?
You're not alone. It was virtually unknown in North America until
a New York Times article created interest in the plant as a legal
hallucinogen. And until recently, even scientists were befuddled.
According to Plants of the Gods by Richard Evans Schultes,
Christian Ratsch and Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman (Healing Arts
Press 1998), the neurochemistry of Salvia divinorum was "something
of an unsolved puzzle." In other words, it was good stuff, but
nobody quite knew why.
The book explains that the leaves
of the plant contain an active ingredient called salvinorin A,
which "has extreme consciousness-altering effects when inhaled in
amounts as small as 250-500 mcg." The problem scientists faced was
that salvinorin A is unlike the active ingredient in any other
hallucinogen. "Salvinorin A contains 59 atoms," says chemist and
author Alexander Shulgin,
making its action "difficult to explain."
But a relatively recent study has
identified the way salvinorin A affects the human brain. According
to a research team headed by Dr. Bryan Roth of Case Western
Reserve University, Salvia divinorum is distinct because it does
not work on the brain's seratonin receptor system the way most
other hallucinogens do. Rather, it has been shown to be a kappa
opioid agonist, an ingredient researchers have found can produce
"visual distortions, feelings of depersonalization and increased
urinary output." Sound inviting? Evidently it does, to a growing
number of psychedelic experimenters.
Salvia divinorum is widely
available over the Internet. A simple Google search under "salvia
divinorum online sales" yields 1,240 hits. One site,
www.sagewisdom.org, even includes a free, downloadable guide for
how best to consume the plant. This step-by-step guide, compiled
by pharmacologist and ethnobotanist Daniel Siebert, contains
information on everything from how to order Salvia, how to grow
it, and how to avoid negative consequences while high on the drug.
One particularly helpful section of this unmistakably American
site recommends that users "avoid taking Salvia in situations
where firearms are present." Thanks for the tip.
In the Lower Mainland, several
shops now sell Salvia divinorum plants and extracts, including the
Marijuana Party Headquarters on Hastings, Hemp New West in New
Westminster and a little shop on Commercial Drive called The
Spirit Within. This last shop, which is just down the street from
just-closed Community Policing Office, has a sandwich board
outside declaring the sale of items such as Salvia divinorum,
peyote, ayahuasca (an Amazonian plant with hallucinogenic bark)
and the South American caffeine substitute yerba matte.
A prominently displayed sign on
the store's front counter emphasizes that they do not sell the
hallucinogenic plants for "personal consumption," nor do they sell
them to people under 19 years of age. Employees regularly ask
shoppers for identification. However, the shop does provide free
literature on how to use the plants safely, implying that they are
aware of the plants' growing popularity for recreational use.
Cheryl, the owner, a friendly woman in her early 40s who doesn't
reveal her last name, says her shop provides information sheets on
how to use salvia, even to those under 19, because it is the
responsible thing to do.
She explains that she can't in
good conscience allow somebody to walk out of the store with
salvia plants, without at least telling them what will happen if
they do indeed consume them. For instance, it is not recommended
to mix salvia with other drugs, since the side effects could be
unpredictable. And she says it's absolutely critical that if
somebody does decide to take it, they have a babysitter with them,
due to the temporary loss of motor co-ordination that many users
While Salvia divinorum remains
legal in Canada, with increased availability comes increased use
-- and controversy. Australia has banned the plant, and the U.S.
may soon follow suit. According to lawyer Richard Glen Boire of
the Centre for Cognitive Liberty and
Ethics, "there is a movement in the States to have Salvia
divinorum banned, as part of the war on drugs." The CCLE Web site
(www.cognitiveliberty.org) details the legal wrangles over salvia
in the U.S. Bill HR5607 was introduced in Congress by California
representative Joe Baca in 2002 in an attempt to make the
substance illegal. [Visit the CCLE's
Congress was adjourned and the
bill was not passed. Oregon state representative Billy Dalto has
introduced another bill,
HB 3845, that
would make the possession of Salvia divinorum punishable by "up to
10 years' imprisonment and a $200,000 fine, or both," and
punishment for delivery could be "up to 30 years and/or $300,000."
Meanwhile, the city of St. Peter's, Mo., passed an ordinance
prohibiting the sale of Salvia divinorum to those under 19.
Health Canada is monitoring the
drug. "It's on our watch list," says spokesperson Jirina Vlk." It
is currently legal to import it, since it is what we call an
'unscheduled' substance. A substance has to be scheduled in order
for police to act on it, or seize it. However, the person
importing or selling it should not be making any kind of health
claim. And they should not be importing more than a three-month
For a legal substance, Salvia
divinorum seems to be a bit of a touchy subject.
While the plant is relatively new
to the radar screen of mainstream culture, it is by no means a
recent discovery. It was first recorded in Western literature in
1939 by Jean Basset Johnston, who was studying the ritualistic use
of psilocybin mushrooms in Oaxaca, Mexico. Traditionally, when the
Mazatec Indians of the Sierra Madre run out of magic mushrooms to
use in their rituals, they turn to salvia.
According to a leading Internet
recreational drug database, www.Erowid.com, the Mazatecs call the
plant, "Hierba de la Pastora," meaning, "Herb of the Shepherdess."
Its ritualistic and sacred properties are said to enable
Curanderos, or Shamans, to enter the body of an afflicted person
and find the source of pain. It's also meant to be handy for
helping people find lost objects, such as wedding rings, love
letters, and so on.
The book Plants of the Gods
explains how such Shamans first sanctify the plant with prayers
and incense, then chew the broad, bright-green leaves very slowly.
These rituals are normally performed at night, in dark, quiet
conditions. The leaves are ingested, though the active ingredients
are primarily absorbed through the mucous membranes in the mouth,
before swallowing. The Shaman then guides the afflicted person
through the resulting hallucinogenic experience.
In a study cited in a
CCLE report to
the U.S. Congress, Mazatec shamans say the plant, "allows them to
travel to heaven and talk to God and the Saints about divination,
diagnosis, and healing.
Recently however, the plant has
grown away from its sacred roots. Most users today, like Max
Trotsky, smoke the dried leaves rather than chew the fresh ones,
eliciting, they say, a more concentrated, shorter-lived effect
than your average shaman's concoction.
Ken Tupper, a master's student in
education at Simon Fraser University who wrote his thesis on the
educational properties of psychedelic or "entheogenic" plants and
chemicals, is philosophical about the secular use of what was once
strictly a sacred plant. He feels strongly that the plant should
remain legal: "Basically, we've seen the results of prohibition.
It tends to exacerbate the problem, rather than solve it. If we
look at the broader cultural context of drug use, the only thing
that really regulates [it] is social mores... teaching people
responsible use and respect for what they're using.
"Telling them not to do it --
it's like the classic example of the forbidden fruit."
As for why academics call
psychedelics "entheogens," Tupper says, "The term 'psychedelic'
connotes the art, music and cultural milieu of the '60s. It
doesn't capture the traditional uses of shamanic plants such as
the ayuashca, peyote, or Salvia divinorum. Entheogen is derived
from Greek. Literally, it translates to 'giving birth to the
divine within.' "
There's no denying that drugs and
God go way back. From ancient mushroom-worshipping cults to modern
day Rastafarians, many people have popped, sniffed, smoked and
sucked their way down a spiritual path. In the '50s, Buddhist and
Hindu texts inspired writers such as Aldous Huxley to seek an
experiential illumination through psychedelics.
In 1996, the leading Buddhist
journal in North America, Tricycle, conducted a reader poll to
explore the relationship between psychedelics and spiritual
practice. Of the 1,454 readers who responded to this survey, 89
per cent said they were engaged in Buddhist practice, and 83 per
cent said they had taken psychedelics. Significantly, more than 40
per cent of respondents said that their interest in Buddhist
practice was actually sparked by psychedelics.
In his article "A High History of
Buddhism," published in the same issue of Tricycle, Rick Fields
refers to the current drug-taking climate as a "psychedelic
revival," and specifically calls plant entheogens such as salvia "sacramentals."
Clearly, there are many outside
the original Mazatec shamanic circles who agree that a plant like
Salvia divinorum can offer significant spiritual insight. Said Ken
Tupper, "It's all context. If it's done with the preparation and
the intent of spiritual seeking, I think that's what validates it.
If it's done for a laugh on the weekend, it's possible that
something spiritual might come out of it, but that would just be
Asked whether there might be any
risk to people who take a substance like Salvia divinorum without
the proper guidance, Tupper said, "I think all psychoactive
substances are tools. They've been used by humans for thousands of
years. But they need to be treated as tools to get their full
"Like for instance a knife: if
you give a knife to a child who doesn't understand what it is, he
can hurt himself or others around him. Whereas if you give it to a
skilled surgeon, a practitioner who understands its potential, it
can do great healing work. So the danger in using them
recreationally is that we are using them as toys rather than
tools, which enhances the risk."
These days, drugs are associated
more with entertainment than with religion; for those of us who
head out to rock concerts without a personal shaman, it might be
wise to heed Tupper's warning.
Jennifer Moss last wrote for Mix
on online dating.