What Is Salvia?

In recent years, it seems more and more individuals are seeking out “legal highs” that may be perceived as safer alternatives to illicit drugs. Some of these substances may even be marketed as “natural,” as they may be herbal or come from plants. Salvia divinorum is an herb that belongs in the mint family and indigenous to southern Mexico, as well as other parts of South and Central America. Its leaves, stems, or seeds can be purchased in tobacco shops or online and smoked in pipes or bongs and infused into drinks and swallowed. The leaves can be chewed, or the plant-based material can be vaporized and inhaled to produce hallucinogenic effects.

Salvia is considered one of the most potent naturally occurring hallucinogens. It produces effects that may include altered perceptions, distorted reality, visual and auditory hallucinations, a loss of control over body movements, and anxiety and fear from a “bad trip,” Newsweek reports.

The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Abuse (EMCDDA) publishes that the active ingredient in salvia is salvinorin A, which has atypical hallucinogenic properties and binds to kappa opioid receptors in the brain, producing a rapid-onset and short-lived high that may begin within minutes of ingesting the drug and last for 30 minutes to a few hours.

Although salvia does not have any approved medical uses in the United States, and it isn’t controlled or regulated federally, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) lists it as a “drug of concern” due to its potential for abuse. As of 2010, the National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC) reported that 37 states had attempted to regulate the sale and possession of salvia. The drug, however, is still easy to find and order online. Salvia is known by various slang names, including Diviner’s Sage, Magic Mint, Sally-D, and Maria Pastora.

Like other hallucinogenic drugs, salvia is not usually considered to be addictive; however, regular use of this substance is cause for concern. As a recreational drug, salvia has not been extensively studied. The Journal of Emergency Medicine reports that it has neurological, gastrointestinal, and cardiovascular effects. More research is required to fully understand the scope of side effects of salvia abuse.

Abuse of Salvia

Traditionally, and still today, salvia has been used by the Mazatec people of the Mexican state of Oaxaca in religious ceremonies and to treat illness, the National Capital Poison Center reports.

It has made its way into the United States, perhaps as an alternative to other hallucinogenic drugs that are more tightly regulated and controlled by the federal government.

Salvia may be increasingly popular as a recreational drug of abuse among young adults and teenagers. The Monitoring the Future Survey of 2015 published by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reported that almost 2 percent of high school seniors used the drug in the past year.

NDIC reports that it may be more commonly abused by young adults than teens, however, as a 2008 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) found that close to 2 million Americans had tried salvia at least once, and young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 were three times more likely to have abused salvia than teens between the ages of 12 and 17. Males were also found to be more prone to abusing salvia than females.

Salvia abuse is heralded across many drug-promoting websites, and it’s easy to find information on its desired effects online. The California Poison Control System reported on an adolescent survey of drug abusers that discovered around a quarter of them used the Internet to research information pertaining to salvia.

Side Effects of Salvia

Salvia is considered a dissociative drug that may create “out-of-body” type experiences, cause people to laugh uncontrollably; see, hear, or feel things that aren’t there, including vivid perceptions of colors or shapes; slur their speech; suffer from short-term memory loss and other cognitive difficulties; have nausea, chills, an irregular heart rate, or dizziness; and experience a possible loss of control over motor functions, potentially putting individuals abusing the drug at risk for an accident or injury.

While salvia does interact with some of the opioid receptors in the brain, it apparently does so differently than other drugs; therefore, its addictive nature, as well as other potential long-term side effects are under-researched and may be relatively unknown, NIDA for Teens publishes. It does seem that taking salvia regularly and continuously may create a tolerance for the drug, Psychedelics.com reports, which occurs when a person’s brain and body become used to the amount of drug being taken, and more must be taken each dose in order to get the same effects from it. Using other drugs or alcohol at the same time as salvia can increase all the risk factors of all substances and also potentially cause a cross-tolerance to other drugs.

Some of the signs that abuse of Salvia is cause for concern may include:

  • Taking more and more of the drug each time (tolerance to salvia)
  • Using salvia on a daily basis
  • Using other drugs in addition to salvia to keep feeling, or enhance, the desired effects
  • Drop in grades at school, production at work, or ability to consistently fulfill obligations at home
  • Increased secrecy or social withdrawal
  • Mood swings and unpredictable behaviors
  • Eating more or less, and sleeping or being awake at odd times
  • Increased injuries, accidents, or risky behaviors
  • Decreased interest in physical appearance
  • Trouble concentrating or remembering things

Many hallucinogenic drugs may cause psychosis or delirium when abused in high amounts or regularly for long periods of time. Sometimes, people may become paranoid, suffer panic attacks, and have intense anxiety when taking hallucinogens, which is often referred to as a “bad trip” and can be potentially dangerous. Long-term, NIDA reports on the possibility of chronic hallucinogenic drug abusers suffering from sudden and unexpected flashbacks of the “trip” (good or bad) or developing hallucinogenic persisting perception disorder (HPPD) where these flashbacks and visual disturbances interfere with normal life on a daily basis.

It is unclear exactly what the long-term side effects and potential consequences of chronic and repeated salvia abuse may be, but it is a mind-altering drug that makes changes in brain chemistry. A study was performed on rats that showed salvinorin A having negative effects on learning and memory, the International Journal of Toxicology published.

Help for Salvia Abuse

Screen Shot 2016-07-15 at 2.34.55 PMDetox is often one of the first steps in drug abuse treatment; however, since salvia’s effects are considered to come on quickly and dissipate rapidly, generally speaking, detox may not be necessary. Detox is the safe removal of toxins from the body, and since salvia overdose is rare, detox for salvia may typically only require a person to be in a safe and secure environment with low levels of stimuli until the drug is fully purged from the body.

NIDA reports that currently there are no accepted medications for the treatment of hallucinogen abuse or addiction either. Therapies are helpful in discovering why a person is abusing drugs and helping to redirect these negative behaviors into more constructive ones. Educational opportunities during drug rehab can further explain the potential dangers of continued drug abuse to individuals and families, and preventative measures can discourage continued use of drugs like salvia. Family counseling can also help to rebuild and improve the family dynamic by fostering healthy communication skills and creating a positive support system. Improved stress management techniques and tools for coping with potential triggers are taught during group and individual sessions, further enhancing a person’s self-esteem and self-image during substance abuse treatment.

Salvia may come from a plant, but it is still a mind-altering and hazardous drug that is abused recreationally for its hallucinogenic properties.

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