Salvia Divinorum: Legal hallucinogen proves too potent for many college students

When Nick Sutton*, a student at East Carolina University, received the $40 ounce of salvia divinorum that he purchased off of the Internet, he thought it resembled the oregano in his mother’s spaghetti. In other words, he felt ripped off, but because it was an uneventful weeknight, he decided to smoke some anyway.

He unsealed the zip lock bag of dry, dark green leaves, crumbled up some of its contents, packed it into his glass pipe, and inhaled deeply. It tasted harsh, but gave him an odd, lightheaded sensation. He inhaled twice more and lost brief contact with reality. He heard voices all around him and saw large patches of black on the room’s well-lit walls. It was overwhelming and freaky. He lied down on his couch and put a pillow over his head. Hours later, he would awaken and swear off salvia divinorum forever.

“The only way to describe the intensity of salvia is to eat a 10-strip of acid, concentrate the 6 hrs of pleasure into 15 minutes of mania and try to keep a grip of your sanity. It’s literally mind-blowing,” he says.

Salvia divinorum, also known as diviner’s sage and ska Marie Pastora, belongs to the mint family or Lamiaceae. The plant is native to the Sierra Mazateca region of Oaxaca, Mexico, a place known throughout the 1960s as a hotbed for psilocybin “magic” mushrooms. The local Mazatec community has orally consumed the plant for thousands of years as an aid in meditation and spiritual guidance. According to a news article written last year by The Associated Press, Dr. Ethan Russo, a Missoula, Montana clinical neurologist and expert on psychotropic herbs, said that the active ingredient in Salvia, Salvinorin A, is stronger than any compound found in peyote, “magic mushrooms” and all other natural hallucinogens. Only LSD, an illegal, synthetic drug, has greater power in smaller doses.

Generally, the plant’s leaves are smoked in a pipe or bong, and must be inhaled deeply and held inside the lungs for at least 20 seconds per hit to achieve the maximum effect. If done correctly, the user should experience a “trip” that lasts from 5-25 minutes and encompasses visual and aural sensation, often bordering on total hallucination. Occasionally, a moderate “coming-down” or “burnt out” feeling follows for hours afterward. The plant can also be chewed or brewed into a tea for a less spontaneous, lengthier high. Small doses are comparable to pre-sleep “eyelid patterns.” High doses are often inseparable from an REM dream-state.

In the last decade, several growers and distributors in the United States have opened up shop over the Internet, selling the plant in numerous forms and varying degrees of quality and price (an ounce of leaves ranges from $40-150). Word-of-mouth about the plant is traveling at a steady rate across the Web, and this has attracted the attention of the DEA. While the plant remains legal and unscheduled in the United States, the DEA has added it to their list of “Drugs and Chemicals of Concern,” and debate is stirring that it might fall underneath some of the same drug laws as marijuana when sold for human adhibition.

In Australia, Salvia became illegal to possess on June 1, 2002, where it was labeled a Section 9 drug, the country’s most stringent schedule. Discussions have also arisen in the U.K., about possibly putting the drug under review.

Shaman’s Garden, an online distributor of Salvia and several other legal herbs since 1997, agreed to provide information and a half-ounce of Salvia divinorum for the research purposes of this article. Michael Walker, 27, a soft-spoken farmer in California and the owner of Shamans Garden, is quite adamant about the plant’s growing sensationalism and the importance of preserving its original, traditional usage.

“I have every person that works for me saying prayers and singing mantras over them,” he says. “We’re not just cranking up the radio and rocking out, it’s an extremely focused job. Every time I drop off packages in the mail, I say a prayer that people will get this and that it will help them in some way.”

Walker, an avid fan of The Matrix who has ingested Salvia “significant times,” says that he gets orders from around the world, Florida being the “second or third most sent-to” destination. He says that customers who contact him range from college students to people working in the military and professional fields.

“One of the major reasons why I’m into distributing Salvia is the hope that people will wake up from this whole Babylonian society – where you’re here just to make money and ignore the inter-connectedness of life,” he says. “The Mazatecs have been using it for thousands of years. Coming into America, it changes a lot, because we don’t have shamans or curanderos; there’s a lot of young people doing it in the States purely for recreation, whereas the shamans have a goal in mind beforehand. They pick their leaves before journeying on a specific vision-quest that has substantial meaning. ”

Two UM students, Colin Newman, a 20-year old junior, and Jacob Sewell, a 21-year old senior, agreed to sample the Salvia received for this article. They smoked the leaves in a bong with five other friends in a partially-lit living room.

“At first, it felt like we were smoking something that we picked randomly from a garden, and then I suddenly got this fiery feeling and saw a lot of blues and oranges,” says Newman. “When I was peaking, it was like I was inside a Robert Crumb drawing from the ’60s. Then I looked at my friend and said ‘We need to get out of here.’ It was weird and once it wore off, I just felt stupid, not for doing it, but just like, kind of toasted.”

Sewell simply describes it as a “loss of control.”

“Everyone that we smoked it with seemed to be keeping these strange, unanimous feelings inside,” he explains, “and then it just became so weird that we all burst into laughter for two or three straight minutes. I like the fact that it’s legal, but I wouldn’t try it again, because I feel that a drug should be inspiring and this wasn’t in the slightest.”

Carl Ragel-an “after my first, not quite second” year student at North Carolina State University, majoring in forest management, but leaning towards ethnobotany-has tried Salvia at least 20 times. He ordered his first ounce from an Internet distributor after reading about it on the DEA Web site. “For something that I ordered off the Internet, I expected “Internet goodness” out of it, you know? These things are always kind of “shadesville,” but this stuff was very impressive,” says Ragel. “The second time I did it, I just got really confused, it was like ‘whoooooa,’ that’s a lot of o’s man…probably until you’re out of breath.”

“During the fifth time, I was watching TV and someone changed the channel from cartoons to this black and white movie. Some guy in the movie said, “You see this line right here?” and I could see a line on my carpet, “if you pull the line on the carpet, I’m going to kill you!” Ragel laughs.

Ragel, whose extensive drug “knowledge” filled up 60 minutes of interview tape, says that he has heard of people partaking in “death bowls,” a bowl filled with black tar opium, kind bud and Salvia. This type of excess is something Walker strongly warns against. “I highly recommend not mixing Salvia with anything. It’s simply not a good plant to combine with other drugs, and that’s some of the most important advice I can pass onto people,” says Walker. The latter also has a skeptical outlook on several head shops in California that sell the plant, often to minors, under the description of the “new, legal ecstasy.”

Calls made to head shops on the East Coast, including High Tide Tobacco & Gifts in Miami, Florida and Flower Power Herbs & Roots Inc. in New York, New York, were met with nothing more than moderate curiosity. The president of Flower Power, Lata Chettri, had recently done an interview for a local television news station on Salvia.

“The reporter actually had some and let me sample it. Unlike the first and only other time I smoked it, this time I felt absolutely nothing. I think there’s been a lot of interest in New York about it, but it seems to be on the decline right now, because it’s so hard to find the real thing,” says Chettri.

Walker, on the other hand, says that over the last year he has been contacted by thousands of customers, and only two of them expressed negative feedback.

“This is not a legal replacement for other drugs, and it shouldn’t be used in social environments like parties,” Walker explains. “It’s better to use it when you’re in nature and things are on a more personal level. Doing it near the ocean is my personal favorite.”

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*Students’ names have been changed by request.

Hunter Stephenson can be reached at