Salvia Divinorum: Usage trends

Last modified: Saturday, 20. June 2009 - 3:30 pm

Scope and severity
Salvia divinorum is a newcomer to the drug scene in the United States. In the middle of the last century, specimens of the plant were brought to the United States from Mexico by botanists and pharmacologists, who studied the plant because of its hallucinogenic properties and the associated traditions of shamanic use. Knowledge of Salvia divinorum remained mostly confined within these academic and scientific circles until recent years. Toward the end of the twentieth century, however, information about Salvia became more widely known, and people interested in experiencing of the hallucinogenic herb’s effects transplanted it from academic sites to homes and greenhouses throughout California and other parts of the country.
Salvia divinorum is currently being used as a legal hallucinogen. While the users are still relatively few, the number of persons consuming the plant may be growing. Several developments in the last year or two suggest that Salvia use has begun to spread more rapidly. Growers of the herb in Mexico, California, and Hawaii have been selling their produce for personal consumption on the Internet. A Texas company recently tried to market Salvia divinorum at a trade show for tobacco and head shop supplies in Las Vegas.
Details, a trendy publication for young men, ran a feature on the plant in December 1999, titling the article “The New Ecstasy: It’s not illegal.” In the summer of 2001, information about Salvia divinorum and its increasing use was reported by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Associated Press, and other news organizations. In April 2002, a story appeared on the ABC News website. Salvia divinorum has spread to other parts of the world as well. In 2000, live specimens of the plant were discovered by Swiss authorities growing in a large illegal hemp farm in that country. Subsequently, the Swiss found the plant growing in several horticultural greenhouses.
Despite its current vogue, the availability of Salvia divinorum in the United States has not aroused great alarm among law enforcement agencies. At the present time, federal officials have not received any reports of emergency room visits or health problems resulting from its use. Moreover, in 2001, the federal Center for Substance Abuse Treatment reported that there was no information that use of Salvia was increasing. Although they are collecting information on the use of the plant, the federal agencies are not intending to take any action in regard to it.
For several reasons, Salvia divinorum is not considered a substance with a high potential for abuse. The taste of the leaves is extremely bitter, and it is necessary to chew many leaves for many minutes to achieve the desired effect. These properties would probably discourage many potential users. One supplier of the herb in the United States explained that Salvia divinorum does not act like a party drug that causes users to become expansive and sociable. In contrast, the Salvia experience is directed inward, and users tend to withdraw into themselves. The effects of a Salvia experience are often profound or bizarre, but not much fun. He reports that only 10% of first-time purchasers place a second order for the plant. The peculiar, introspective nature of the hallucinogenic experience induced by Salvia divinorum suggests that it is unlikely that the plant or its active substance, salvinorin A, will become popular.
Age, ethnic, and gender trends
No statistical information about the use of Salvia divinorum exists. As of 2002, use of the plant is so uncommon that reliable estimates cannot be made. Nevertheless, Salvia divinorum is a hallucinogen, and the appeal of the plant seems motivated by the same kinds of interests as that of other hallucinogens. If it does become more popular and widely consumed, the pattern of its usage may be analogous to that of other hallucinogenic drugs.
The National Household Survey on Drug Abuse (NHSDA), which is conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMH-SA), provides statistical data on illegal drug use in the United States. For the purpose of the survey, hallucinogenic drugs were defined to include lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), phencyclidine (PCP), psilocybin, peyote, and ecstasy.
As estimated in the NHSDA, about one million Americans were current users of hallucinogenic drugs in the year 2000. This number comprised 0.4% of the U.S. population age 12 or older. Users of hallucinogens tended to be younger than users of most other illicit drugs. Hallucinogen use is most common among young adults. About half of all illicit drug users were under the age of 26, as opposed to 83% of all hallucinogen users. Moreover, about 15% of people aged 18-34 report having used hallucinogens at least once during their lifetime. This rate is twice the frequency of adolescents in the 12-17 age group or people older than 34.
Gender and ethnic data from the study show disproportionate distributions. Adult males are twice as likely as adult females to have used hallucinogens. Furthermore, whites use these drugs more frequently than His-panics, who use them more frequently than blacks.
Use of hallucinogens may be increasing. The number of persons who used hallucinogens for the first time at least once hallucinogen in 1999 was 1.4 million, the largest number ever. Rates of first hallucinogen use have risen steadily since the 1990, and by 1999, these rates had more than doubled. Moreover, the rate of first use is rising most quickly among the youngest group surveyed, adolescents aged 12-17.
The hallucinatory experience induced by Salvia divinorum has been described by users as unique and more intense than that of other hallucinogens, which often simply distort perceptions rather than cause true hallucinations. Salvia, however, dramatically alters consciousness, producing all-encompassing hallucinations
and a complete loss of contact with reality. Users often report that the experience is not entirely pleasant. One person said it was like calling in some kind of presence. The intense effects last from several minutes to an hour or more. Experienced users caution others that the herb should not be taken while alone.
Several graphic descriptions of the Salvia experience were provided by L. J. Valdes, an ethnopharmacologist who visited the Mazatecs in 1983. The scientist recorded his personal experience of two hallucinogenic trips induced by the plant, which he ingested under the guidance of a curandero. Before his first experience, Valdes drank a liquid prepared by crushing 20 leaves in water. About 45 minutes later, he felt himself rushing through black space past brightly colored objects. Approaching one of them, he saw a Mazatec village, as viewed from above. The houses of the village were flanked by pillars of Kaleidoscopic color.
On a second occasion, the scientist drank a liquid prepared from 50 leaves at about 9 p.m. one evening. Within an hour, he experienced visions of elaborate scenes. Shapes appeared and grew into the forms of plants and flowers. This was followed by a vision of a flaming cross that began to emit light. Humanoid figures appeared in clothes covered with gold. A church appeared around the figures, and they began to pray before a jeweled cross that changed into a sword. The images then began to change rapidly. Visions of animals, plants, and people flew by. Valdes’ last visions were of a castle, which then changed into a Byzantine church, along with a procession of hooded monks who were marching around it.
Valdes emphasized that one should consume the plant in a dark, quiet environment. This is essential if visions are to occur, since light and noise interfere with the effects. The hallucinations that develop include visual, auditory, and tactile sensations. Sensations of floating, spinning, twisting, flying through space, and bodily lightness or heaviness may be experienced. An audiotape recording made during Valdes’ second experience revealed that the scientist slurred his speech and spoke in unusual patterns. Although the hallucinations were most intense at about an hour after taking the drug, a few hours later, Valdes again hallucinated an elaborate vision of himself in broad meadow, where he talked to a man in a white robe, and also touched the figure and held onto him. He continued to experience visions intermittently for about four hours until he went to sleep.
The effects of Salvia are extremely variable and depend on the dose and the environment in which the plant is consumed. Visions of people, objects, and places occur frequently. There have been reports of out-of-body experiences, loss of the sense of one’s body and one’s identity, being in several locations at once, becoming one with objects, and visiting places from the past. A common experience is the feeling that one has become a twodimensional surface or membrane, which is being pulled or twisted. Users may also laugh uncontrollably.
Salvia users in the United States have reported that smoking the leaves or chewing them in a cud induces an experience that can be more intense than one from LSD, but much shorter in duration. While an “acid trip” can last for many hours, the Salvia experience usually goes on for about an hour, peaking around 20 minutes after consumption.
When salvinorin A is consumed, a dose of 200-500 meg will induce an elaborate hallucinatory experience lasting one-half to two hours. Doses greater than 500 meg may cause the subject to lose awareness of surroundings and become delirious. The effect can be frightening. Users may be disoriented, babble incoherently, and stagger about. Accidental injuries may occur. Since so little salvinorin A is needed for an overdose, it would be easy for an inexperienced user to ingest more than intended. For this reason, it would be foolhardy for most users to try to obtain and consume pure crystals of this substance.
Adverse reactions affecting the user’s mental state have been associated with hallucinogenic drugs, and it is likely that Salvia divinorum could produce similar reactions. Since few scientific studies of the effects of Salvia on human beings have been reported, there is very little known about adverse effect related to this herb. However, anecdotal reports by users of the plant have described episodes of uncoordinated, purposeless movement, which may have the potential for causing injuries; Siebert has described the delirious state that can result from a large dose of salvinorin A.
Acute adverse Mental effects that have been associated with other hallucinogens include anxiety states, panic reactions, paranoid ideation, confusion, and delirium. Longer-lasting adverse Mental effects have included a variety of persistent disorders of mood, anxiety, and perception. In some cases, prolonged hallucinatory states and other forms of loss of contact with reality have resulted. These long-term adverse Mental effects have been classified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association (DSM-IV) as hallucinogen-induced mood disorder, hallucinogen-induced anxiety disorder, hallucinogen persisting perception disorder, and hallucinogen-induced psychotic disorders.
A striking form of persistent mental effect of hallucinogen use is called the flashback. This disorder is properly called hallucinogen persisting perception disorder. In a flashback experience, the drug-induced state is re-experienced, along with the perceptual distortions and loss of contact with reality. These episodes occur during the weeks or months following the initial experience. They may occur spontaneously, in response to stressful situations, or during a later instance of drug use. Flashbacks have also been reported to occur as an adverse effect of antidepressant drug treatment. Although they have been widely reported, flashbacks are rare; few hallucinogen users actually have such experiences.

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