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ARCHIVE:  June 23, 2003

Salvia Divinorum, Law, & Medicine

Dear Dr. Shulgin:

Is Salvia divinorum still legal in the United States and are there any plans to change this status? And are any reports of negative effects from long-term use? Might it find some use in medicine, perhaps as a relaxant prior to surgery? -- Justin

Dear Justin:

As to your first question, yes. Salvia divinorum (the plant) and Salvinorin-A (the active component) are both completely legal in the United States. I had given an opinion a few weeks ago, to a question that had been asked of me in this column, as to the applicability of the Controlled Substance Analogue law of 1986 in being used to support legal attacks on possession or other related criminal behavior. I felt then that it was an unlikely approach, and I still feel so. The botanical chaos that could result from a prosecutorial effort to prove that one plant is substantially similar to another plant would probably be more amusing than damaging. And the truth is that the diterpene that is responsible for the action of the plant is totally dissimilar from any other Schedule I drug.

So, I believe that if there were to be a move to place it into Schedule I, it would be as an entirely new entity with its own explicit definition. This would invoke the Emergency Scheduling Act of 1984, and would allow public hearings that would consume about a year and a half. I will assume that both the plant and its components would be listed in the Scheduling, and that would present new problems. Let's use Peyote (Anhalonium lewinii or Lophophora williamsii) as a prototypical example of plant identification.

Law enforcement people have been drilled exhaustively on the leaf shape and the smell of marijuana. "Oh, I saw a plant through the window that was unmistakably Cannabis sativa and, when I entered the house, I immediately detected the smell that defined it." But the cactus Peyote, another listed plant, is an unobtrusive button down near the ground and has no smell at all. When the Federal and State law enforcement visited me in 1994 (see the Invasion chapter in TIHKAL) they asked me if I had any Peyote, and I said yes. I pointed to five plants in boxes in the patio. And one of them said, "Oh, that's what it looks like."

Now make the extrapolation from Peyote to Salvia, a plant without a smell and with no dramatic features. I somehow doubt that the average policeman would come through your garden and suddenly point to a clutch of broad leaf mints over there near the fence, and say, "Oh look at the Salvia divinorum growing over there next to the Eschscholzia californica." I somehow can't believe that a weekend training course in Bethesda will fully prepare him for this visual skill. So, the definition of the plant/drug will probably depend on the spectrographic analysis of its components.

Going back to the earlier analogies, Peyote has mescaline as a major component. This is a simple phenethylamine that is easily spotted by chromatography. And marijuana has the well-known THC as a signature icon that can be seen in both the plant and the urine and blood of the suspect. But look for a moment at Salvinorin-A. Here is a monster compound with seven optically chiral carbons, a compound that is somewhat fragile to the usual gas chromatographic analytical procedures, and a compound for which there are no commercial sources available for the getting of a reference sample. How can you establish that the seized sample is indeed identical with an established Schedule I drug, if you cannot find an authentic sample of that Schedule I drug?

The DEA is fully aware of these problems, and is watching the offering of 5X, 10X and 20X extracts on the internet. There have been, so far, no problems of overdose or toxicity reported from the use of the plant extracts and they are just standing by on the side hoping that nothing newsworthy comes out into the public domain. But I feel it is only a matter of time. Eventually some dramatic news-report that Salvia kills children will hit the press, and some compensatory DEA action will be certain.

Your second question concerned any negative consequences reported from long-term usage. There are none that I am aware of. But Salvia divinorum is not one of my favorite plants, and I have almost no correspondence with people who use it continuously. I simply do not know the answer to your question.

And then you asked about its possible use in medicine. Oh my, I do believe that there is a real possibility for something coming out of this that could be of use medically. There are parallels between the action of Salvinorin-A and Ketamine. The subject is projected into an out-there world, quite disassociated from his body. With Ketamine this allows medical aggression upon the patient's body with emergency surgery without pain or even awareness of anything being disruptive. There are parallels to a similar out-of-body experience with Salvinorin-A. It is a reasonable guess that some structural manipulation of its molecular structure could produce an anesthetic with the same medical virtues as Ketamine.

-- Dr. Shulgin

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