A Prominent Salvia Divinorum Researcher
Speaks Out: Letter to Congress
Honorable Member of Congress:
This letter summarizes the
important medicinal properties of Salvia divinorum and its primary
active constituent salvinorin A. It also puts forth several objections to
bill H.R. 5607, which inappropriately seeks to place this medicinal herb in
Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act.
As a pharmacognosist who
has devoted the last ten years to the scientific study of this herb, I
believe that I am particularly qualified to speak on this issue. I was the
first person to investigate the human pharmacology of salvinorin A and to
clearly identify this compound as the psychoactive principle of Salvia
divinorum (Siebert, 1994). Most recently, I coauthored a paper published
in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), in which
my research group reported our findings regarding the neurological mechanism
of salvinorin A’s action. These findings are of particular significance
because they provide solid evidence for the medicinal value of this
compound. I am currently working in collaboration with several other
scientists on various avenues of scientific investigation into the
pharmacology of salvinorin A and closely related compounds. My collaborators
include Dr. Bryan Roth (Project
Director of the National Institute for Mental Health Psychoactive Drug
Screening Program) and Dr.
Michael J. Iadarola
(Chief of the Neuronal Gene Expression Unit at the Pain and Neurosensory
Mechanisms Branch of the National Institute for Health). In addition to my
scientific endeavors, I am presently completing work on a comprehensive book
about Salvia divinorum.
There are approximately one thousand species of
Salvia worldwide. Salvia divinorum is just one of the many
species that are recognized for their useful medicinal properties. The
common name for all salvias is sage. Most people are familiar with
the common culinary sage, Salvia officinalis, which in addition to
its usefulness as a flavoring agent, is also used for its medicinal
name Salvia is derived from the Latin salvare, meaning “to
heal” or “to save.” The words
salvation and savior
also come from this same root.
is endemic to the Mazatec Sierra of central Mexico, where it has a long
history of medicinal use. It is used both for its psychoactive properties
and as an effective treatment for arthritis, headache, and eliminatory
complaints. The validity of each of these different applications is well
supported by my research group’s recent pharmacological findings.
summarize our recent findings: Salvinorin
A is a uniquely potent and highly selective kappa-opioid receptor agonist,
and as such, it has tremendous potential for the development of a wide
variety of valuable medications. The most promising of these include safe
non-addictive analgesics, antidepressants, short-acting anesthetics that do
not depress respiration, and drugs to treat disorders characterized by
alterations in perception, including schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease, and
bipolar disorder (Roth et al., 2002).
Kappa-opioid receptor agonists
are of particular interest to pharmacologists because they provide effective
pain medications that are not habit forming and do not produce dependence.
In fact, there is a growing body of evidence that indicates that kappa-opioid
receptor agonists are actually “aversive”—the opposite of addictive. This is
an important advantage over most powerful analgesics currently prescribed.
My colleagues and I will soon be publishing a paper that reports the results
of animal studies that demonstrate the effectiveness of salvinorin A as an
analgesic (Chavkin et al., in press).
In my book I describe many case reports
in which people testify to the effectiveness of this herb for managing pain.
traditional Mazatec use of Salvia
divinorum to treat headaches and arthritis also attests to its efficacy
as an analgesic.
The ability of salvinorin A to
block perception of pain also suggests that it may prove quite useful as a
short-acting general anesthetic. The fact that it does not depress
respiration is particularly interesting, because it indicates that
salvinorin A could be much safer than most general anesthetics currently in
Recently Dr. Karl Hanes
published a case report in the
Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology, in
describes a patient that obtained relief from chronic depression by using
Salvia divinorum (Hanes, 2001). In my book I describe several additional
accounts of people who have recovered from serious depression with the help
of this herb. It is
especially interesting that these people were able to obtain persistent
relief from their depression after only a few treatments. Quite unlike the
continuous medication regime required with conventional antidepressants such
as Prozac—which in most cases only offer symptomatic relief from depression—Salvia
produces long-lasting clinical improvement.
Because salvinorin A alters
various perceptual modalities by acting on kappa-opioid receptors, it is
clear that these receptors play a prominent role in the modulation of human
perception. This suggests the possibility that novel psychotherapeutic
compounds derived from salvinorin A could be useful for treating diseases
manifested by perceptual distortions (e.g. schizophrenia, dementia, and
bipolar disorders). This is a promising area of research that is important
to pursue further.
has several properties that make it useful in
psychotherapy: it produces a state of profound self-reflection, it improves
one’s ability to retrieve childhood memories, and it provides access to
areas of the psyche that are ordinarily difficult to reach.
I have spoken with several psychotherapists who
have used this herb in their practice. They are impressed with its
effectiveness as a psychotherapeutic tool. This type of application is not
new—the Mazatecs have long used Salvia divinorum to treat
Salvinorin A is also an
important neurochemical probe for studying the dynorphin/kappa-opioid-receptor
system. As such, it is useful for
research into the
mechanisms of perception and awareness.
A is remarkable in that it belongs to an entirely different chemical class
than any previously identified opioid receptor ligand (it is a diterpenoid).
This fact is of great interest to pharmacologists because it opens
up a vast new area
for future drug development.
No significant abuse potential
There are many popular
misconceptions about Salvia divinorum. Presumably, bill H.R. 5607 is
based on some these. Many of these misconceptions have their origin in a few
sensationalistic articles that have appeared in the popular press, and
others derive from the absurd advertising claims of unethical herb vendors
who deliberately exaggerate the effects of Salvia divinorum in an
effort to increase sales.
The fact is that the effects of
Salvia divinorum are not appealing to recreational drug users. The
majority of people who try it find that they do not enjoy its effects and do
not continue using it. People who use it medicinally take it infrequently.
It is not euphoric or stimulating. It is not a social drug. Since it
increases self-awareness, it is useless as an escapist drug.
It is most useful as a medicinal
is not addictive or habit forming. Its mechanism of action indicates that it
may actually be anti-addictive. Many people have reported that Salvia
divinorum actually helped them to overcome substance abuse problems.
is non-toxic. Toxicological studies have been performed by Dr. Leander
Valdés at the University of Michigan, Jeremy Stewart at the University of
Mississippi, Dr. Frank Jaksch of Chromadex Inc., and
Wayne Briner of the University
Neither Salvia divinorum nor salvinorin A showed toxicity in any of
these studies. There is a vast body of empirical evidence that indicates
is a remarkably safe herb. Indeed, the Mazatecs, who have probably used
S. divinorum for hundreds of years, do not attribute any toxic
properties to this plant.
Salvia divinorum is a
relatively obscure medicinal herb with no significant abuse potential. It
does not present a risk to
public health or safety. Criminalizing it would only
serve to create a problem where one did not previously
regulation of herbal medicines such as this is a matter that should be
handled by the FDA, not the Controlled Substances Act.
There is no reasonable
justification for making
Placing it in schedule I would
deprive people of a safe and useful medicinal herb, and it would seriously
hamper promising medical research. Because of its complex stereochemistry,
salvinorin A is virtually impossible to produce synthetically. It is
important that its source plant,
remain available so
that researchers can continue to study this important compound.
Evidently, this bill is based on
inaccurate information about Salvia divinorum. Schedule I is intended
for substances that have a high potential for abuse, a lack of accepted
safety, and no currently accepted medical use. Salvia divinorum does
not meet any of these criteria.
Daniel J. Siebert
Siebert, Daniel J.
Divine Sage. Work in progress.
Charles, Sumit Sud, Wenzhen Jin, Jeremy Stuart, Daniel J. Siebert, Sean
Renock, Karen Baner,Nicole M. White, John Pintar and Bryan L. Roth..
Paper in progress.
Roth, Bryan L., Karen Baner, Richard
Westkaemper, Daniel Siebert, Kenner C. Rice, SeAnna Steinberg, Paul
Ernsberger, and Richard Rothman.
2002. Salvinorin A: A Potent, Naturally Occurring, Non-Nitrogenous κ-Opioid
Selective Agonist. Proceedings of the National
Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS). Vol.
99, Issue 18, 11934-11939.
Hanes, K. R.
2001. Antidepressant Effects of the Herb Salvia divinorum: A Case
Report. Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology. 21(6):634-635.
Gruber, John W., Daniel J. Siebert, Ara H. Der
Marderosian, and Rick S. Hock.
1999. High Performance Liquid Chromatographic Quantification of Salvinorin A
from Tissues of Salvia divinorum Epling & Játiva-M. Phytochemical
Siebert, Daniel J.
1994. Salvia divinorum and salvinorin A: new pharmacologic findings.
Journal of Ethnopharmacology 43: 53-56.