Saving Salvia

December 16, 2008

An explosion of noisy YouTube videos endangers the sanctity of a visionary herb

by Adam Elenbaas

In a traditional Mazatec vision quest ceremony, before eating the psychoactive herb Salvia Divinorum — Latin for “sage of the seers” — a shaman gives you a series of instructions. First, he explains, the spirit of Salvia Divinorum is a female entity who imparts wisdom and healing visions. You should approach her quietly, reverently. As the Mazatec say, “Her spirit is shy like a deer.”

For generations, salvia ceremonies have inspired spiritual seekers. Search “Salvia Divinorum” on YouTube, however, and you’ll get an entirely different view of the ancient curative plant. Over the past year or so, dozens of homemade salvia “bad trip videos” have been uploaded to the site, capturing teenagers crawling on their hands and knees in dorm rooms, stumbling down stairwells or hiding underneath kitchen tables, all to the amusement of friends and onlookers.

While salvia is still legal and available for purchase in most of the U.S., the YouTube videos and other evidence of salvia misuse have put the sacred plant’s future on the line. In January of 2006, the suicide of a young Delaware man named Brett Chidester was linked to Salvia Divinorum. Although he had not been using salvia at the time of his death and no traces were found in his body during the autopsy, in the wake of his passing, Delaware enacted “Brett’s Law,” putting Salvia Divinorum onto Delaware’s controlled substance list and on the federal radar. Twelve other states and several local governments have followed suit, banning or otherwise regulating salvia; This year, Florida made possession or sale a felony punishable by 15 years in prison, while California made it a misdemeanor to sell or distribute to minors.

Such laws could present considerable challenges for researchers at institutions like the University of Kansas and Harvard who believe salvia’s active compound, Salvinorin A, could play a key role in the development of new pain and psychiatric medications.

As University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill researcher Bryan L. Roth recently told the New York Times, “If we can find a drug that blocks salvia’s effects, there’s good evidence it could treat brain disorders including depression, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, maybe even HIV.”

In addition to its promise as a groundbreaking medicine, Salvia Divinorum is sadly one of the last legal shamanic entheogens in the United States. If administered ceremoniously and safely, as the Mazatecs traditionally teach, salvia needn’t draw negative attention.

— Adam Elenbaas

Source: Common Ground: Saving Salvia