Nothing to fear

April 7, 2008


Guest Editorial for

ATOD coordinator Collin Frazier’s article on the psychoactive herb Salvia divinorum is a perfect illustration of the media hype surrounding this plant.

Since Minnesota State Rep. Joe Atkins is currently pushing for legislation that would make it a criminal offense to use or posses S. divinorum, I wanted to bring to light some of the misconceptions about salvia.

Frazier begins his article by pointing out that salvinorin, the active ingredient in salvia, is an opioid. Since both heroin and the prescription painkiller oxycodone (which, though often demonized by the media, has helped cancer patients and other chronic pain sufferers all over the world manage their debilitating pain) are also “made out of opioids,” it seems reasonable to believe that opioids are all dangerous, addictive drugs, right?

As it turns out, that’s not the case. While salvinorin does activate opioid receptors in the brain, it’s important to draw a distinction between the mu-opioid receptor (activated by narcotics like heroin) and the kappa(1)-opioid receptor (activated by salvinorin).

Drugs that work on the mu-opioid receptor cause sedation, pain-relief, and euphoria, but drugs that work on the kappa(1)-opioid receptor generally cause hallucinogenic, but often unpleasant (or even dysphoric) effects.

Since it’s clear that salvia and narcotics are not even remotely similar, it’s absurd and misleading to lump the two into the same category.

As S. divinorum is perfectly legal in most states, Frazier goes on to correctly point out that the legal status of a drug is not a good indicator of how dangerous it is. However, he draws the unwarranted conclusion that salvia is, in fact, dangerous.

But there are no reports of anyone overdosing or suffering toxic effects as a result of salvia use (there are a handful of reports of people being admitted to the emergency room after allegedly smoking the plant, but the cases are very rare, and the subjects almost invariably have a prior history of substance abuse or other psychiatric problems).

As far as the long-term effects go, a case study submitted by psychiatrists at the University of Michigan Hospital ominously concluded “salvia use may be associated with undocumented long-term effects such as déjá-vu”.

And although some users might find its effects interesting, it has zero potential for addiction. In fact, precisely because salvia causes a high that many users find unpleasant, the majority of people who try salvia have no desire to use it again.

Luckily for most users, a salvia high is also quite short (lasting only 5-15 minutes).

But what about those horrible You Tube videos? You know – the ones that show poor, innocent children slipping into psychosis after smoking salvia?

First of all, since videos on You Tube can’t be independently verified, they should be taken with a grain of salt. It’s not unlikely that the teens in the videos were exaggerating the effects of the drug in order to look “cool,” especially because they knew they were on film.

More important, not one of the videos effectively demonstrated that salvia is dangerous-they merely showed that the effects of the herb are short-lived and intense.

Furthermore, salvia may very well have a therapeutic application. Early studies have shown it to be potentially effective in the treatment of mental disorders like depression, schizophrenia, and Alzheimer’s.

It’s too early to tell exactly how much medical potential salvia has, but the research is both exciting and promising. However, a ban on salvia would restrict researchers’ access to the plant, and prevent them from carrying out further studies.

It’s clear that salvia’s legitimate recreational use and medical potential outweigh its mythological dangers. Also, the fact that a chemical is psychoactive is not grounds for preventing tax-paying citizens from ingesting it if they feel so inclined to.

Criminalizing it would be a waste of time, money, and other resources, not to mention an encroachment upon personal freedom.

(Brendan McNamara is a Pequot Lakes resident.)