Is Salvia a Miracle Drug?

February 3, 2009

Some researchers argue against criminalizing the psychedelic, saying that it could help treat various ailments, including cancer, HIV, and addiction.

by Tom Spring

Many parents and legislators view the popular psychedelic Salvia divinorum as a public health menace. But the drug has an unlikely set of supporters: scientists. Many medical researchers view the plant as a potential medical marvel. They believe that rigorous scientific study of salvia could lead to medical breakthroughs yielding new treatments for addiction, depression, cancer, and even HIV.

If lawmakers criminalize salvia at the state or federal level, the ban could cripple salvia research in this country before it has a chance to make any headway, says Dr. John Mendelson, a pharmacologist. With federal financing, Mendelson is studying the impact of salvia on humans at the California Pacific Medical Center Research Institute.

At this writing, salvia is legal to buy, sell, and use in most parts of the United States. However, 13 states have adopted legislation banning or otherwise regulating its use; and legislators in a number of other states, as well as federal officials, are considering regulating the drug.

“Salvia is a totally unique compound, unlike opioids and other hallucinogens,” Mendelson says. “We’ve never seen anything like it before.”

Even ten years ago, scientists had paid little attention to salvia. That changed when researchers isolated the active compound in salvia and discovered that it was an extremely powerful short-acting hallucinogen with no known side effects or addictive properties, Mendelson says.

In addition, salvia differs from other psychoactive substances in interacting with specific receptors in the brain that the other drugs don’t affect. This unique physiological reaction makes salvia attractive to researchers.

Mendelson says that salvia research could lead to drugs that activate the specific brain receptors engaged by the substance, and block pain without risk of addiction. (Little is currently known about these particular receptors.) Salvia might even help unlock mysteries related to Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia.

“We have been watching with interest and concern the moving drumbeat toward regulations,” says Dr. Roland Griffiths, professor of behavioral biology in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Griffiths says that criminalizing salvia could hurt research by forcing research labs to follow burdensome regulations similar to those associated with handling cocaine, heroin, and other controlled substances. “We would anticipate that if salvia were scheduled it would increase research costs and place undue red tape on the drug, and delay research,” says Griffiths, who is applying for a research grant from the National Institutes of Health to study the effects of salvia on humans.

Other proposals by medical researchers seeking NIH funding would study salvia in connection with drug dependency, HIV, hepatitis B and C, and depression.

Scientists concede that they face an uphill battle in attempting to change attitudes and reverse the trend among states toward creating laws against salvia. At this writing, 13 states already have such laws on the books: Of those 13, 10 (Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Virgina) classify salvia as a Schedule I drug (putting it on the same legal footing as ecstasy and LSD).

In Tennessee, ingesting salvia is a Class A misdemeanor, but possessing the herb is legal. In California and Maine, possession is legal but sale to a minor is prohibited.

Legislation to criminalize salvia is pending in at least 13 more states. For example, an Iowa bill would make salvia possession a felony, while a bill introduced in Massachusetts would make such possession a misdemeanor.

Griffiths and other researchers are even more concerned about what federal officials may do. “A move by the DEA to put salvia on the controlled substances list could be a real possibility,” Griffiths says.

Asked for comment, DEA officials would say only that they are in the process of evaluating salvia.