The mystery sage

November 1, 2007

In the US and UK teenagers smoke a powerful hallucinogen, video their experiences and post the results on YouTube. The substance is legal. Its defenders say it is harmless. To its opponents it is a potentially dangerous substance that must be investigated.

“My body felt like it was a palette of paint thrown on a canvas and slowly moving down it.”

This description of the effects of digesting the plant salvia divinorum – a relative of common sage – sounds like a parody of 1960s mind-expanding hippies. But it is not untypical of a curious YouTube-centred subculture.

Related to common sage
Legal in UK
Used by Mazatec shamans in Mexico
Active ingredient salvinorum A
Acts on kappa-opioid receptors in brain
Chewed or smoked

Mexican shamans have been using the plant as part of religious rite for thousands of years, but it is now one of a range of “legal highs” sold on both sides of the Atlantic.

Smoked, the effect can be intense but lasts as little as 10 minutes, while chewing it creates a longer period under the influence. Its defenders say it is neither toxic or addictive, but legislators have been concerned enough for it to be banned in Australia, a number of European nations and a handful of US states.

Users can experience uncontrolled laughter, a temporary inability to speak, dramatic visual and auditory hallucinations, uncoordinated movement, a feeling of being out of the body and a wide range of other unsettling phenomena.

In the US, following the suicide of a teenager last year who had at some point smoked the plant, there were calls for a federal ban.

Here, Labour MP for Bassetlaw, John Mann, recently tabled an early-day motion demanding the government urgently rectify its “oversight”. “Some claims made about salvia are very bad. People will be shocked by this,” he said.

One person while he was immersed in this intense visionary state when he regained his senses found some of the furniture in the room was smashed up and he had a broken shoulder
Daniel Siebert

Botanist Daniel Siebert is regarded by some as the guru of salvia, and since 1991 he has been examining the chemistry and history of the substance, as well as using it and selling it. He fears that its widespread availability and irresponsible use by teenagers may lead the US authorities to ban it.

“A lot of people would say even if you don’t have any evidence of psychological harm, just the fact it causes intense hallucinations is dangerous in itself. That can be a dangerous thing to do. You could jump out of a window. In that sense you could make an argument that there is a legitimate concern.”

Mr Siebert says salvia should be used in a safe environment, supervised by someone sober, and in low doses. The consequences of ignoring this advice can be unfortunate.

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