It used to be that addicts were seen as bad people who were weak-willing and who consciously chose not to exercise self-control or self-restraint. Since then, we’ve discovered that addiction is, in fact, a brain disease; those who develop addictions are actually having their brains hijacked by substances that cause both structural and functional changes to their neurology. Of course, the specific effects of addiction vary somewhat, depending on the actual substance. When it comes to addictive substances, we often focus on stimulants, depressants, and opiates, but there are other substances out there that hijack the brain. In particular, hallucinogens like salvia have proven to be dangerous in ways that are quite different from other widely-used and widely-abused substances. But what, exactly, is salvia? What are its effects? And is it addictive in the same way that alcohol and heroin are addictive? Let’s find out.
Before we can really get into the topic of salvia, it’s necessary to look back on hallucinogens as a whole. Much like alcohol, cannabis, and opium, humans have quite a long history with hallucinogens. In fact, hallucinogens have been used for various purposes — particularly for healing and spiritual practices — for more than five thousand years, according to the archaeological record. But these substances were ones that occurred naturally, often extracted from plants found readily in nature. More recently, a number of hallucinogens have been created synthetically in a lab setting, but this is not the case with salvia.
Salvia — also sometimes called ‘seer’s sage’, ‘sage of the diviners’, and ‘yerba de la pastora’ — is a substance derived from a plant of the same name (Salvia divinorum) that was originally found in Oaxaca, Mexico, where it has thrived in the tropical, moist climate. It’s actually in the mint family and a distant relative of common sage. The plant has quite a long history among Mazatec shamans who would use salvia as a conduit for divination and achieving altered states of consciousness during healing sessions. In fact, the plant has holy connotations since post-Columbian Mazatecs believed that salvia was a physical and natural reincarnation of the Virgin Mary.
Interestingly, salvia is just one of several naturally-growing plants in the Oaxaca region with hallucinogenic properties that natives use for religious and shamanic rituals. It’s also commonly used as a diuretic, which means that the plant increases urine production as a means of detoxifying the body; however, natives use salvia for many other purposes, too, include as a treatment for diarrhea, headaches, anemia, rheumatism, and for a semi-magical disease in which a person’s belly becomes swollen. But while much is known of salvia’s more recent use among post-Columbian natives, very little is known about salvia when it comes to the drug’s prehistory and actual origins of its use.
The first mention of salvia in modern record occurred in 1939 when Jean Basset Johnson was studying the shamanic rituals of the Mazatec in Mexico. For many years, most of what we knew about salvia was what Johnson had recorded through his observations as well as getting testimonials from native users of the drug. It actually wasn’t until the 1990s that the psychoactive properties of salvia were finally understood. As well, there have been researchers to suggest that salvia is actually the mythological plant that’s been found mentioned in Aztec records as pipiltzintzintli. Currently, the Mazatec populations will use salvia in their shamanic rituals when their preferred hallucinogenic — psilocybin mushrooms — are not available.
While limited, salvia has gained something of a cult following among recreational drug users today. Compared to man-made hallucinogens, salvia has very minimal effects outside the realm of its hallucinogenic properties. As well, the drug’s very short duration — mere minutes to peak and subsiding completely within about twenty minutes — has made it more user-friendly among communities of recreational drug users. Of course, that’s not to say it’s not dangerous for its own reasons.
Discovered in the 1990s, the active ingredient that lends salvia its psychoactive effects is called Salvinorin A, which is now known to be the most potent of all naturally-occurring hallucinogens. Those who use salvia often perceive similar hallucinations, which could be attributable to how the drug affects the brain. Some of the most common ‘visions’ that salvia users experience include feeling like one is flying or floating, feeling like one is traveling through space, the sensation of spinning or twisting, feeling like one’s body has become extremely heavy or extremely light, visions of a person (especially a female), abrupt emotional changes, feeling detached from one’s surroundings, a variety of other possible visual hallucinations, and bizarre perceptions of reality and oneself.
Like with many other hallucinogens, current research doesn’t seem to indicate that salvia is addictive, at least in the traditional sense. While a person who uses alcohol or heroin frequently becomes physiologically dependent, salvia doesn’t seem to be physiologically addictive in the same way. It’s likely that this is because the vast majority of those who would use salvia wouldn’t use it as a daily drug, but, rather, only occasionally. However, that’s not to say the drug isn’t dangerous.
Despite the fact that salvia doesn’t seem to be habit-forming, it’s still not safe to use. For one thing, users may harm themselves or others — whether inadvertently or intentionally while influenced by hallucinations — through their behaviors while actively on salvia. As well, there have been research studies to suggest that the use of salvia could actually cause mental and/or emotional damage. Specifically, a number of mental illnesses are thought to be potentially made worse by the use of salvia, further lending credence to the fact that salvia is not a drug that people should be messing with. Plus, there’s very little information available about how salvia may react with other substances, so there are many unknowns when it comes to salvia use.
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