Salvia divinorum: Exploring the powerful psychedelic sage ritually used in divination and medicinal practices by the Mazatec Indians of Oaxaca, Mexico.
Overview: Salvia divinorum is a psychoactive plant that holds cultural significance among the Mazatec Indians in Mexico. Western discovery occurred in the 1960s. The legal status of salvia varies across the United States. It features a unique chemical composition with the absence of nitrogen atoms. The plant is cultivated in secret groves to protect it. When smoked, salvia offers distinct, short-lived effects, and its primary active compound is salvinorin A, which interacts with kappa-opioid receptors. Salvia has low toxicity, and research primarily focuses on salvinorin A. Known for its unique effects, further research on salvia is needed. Using salvia requires caution and responsibility due to its powerful psychedelic effects and the limited understanding of its potential benefits and risks.
There are almost a thousand species of salvia in the world, but none have captured the imagination as much as Salvia divinorum. Salvia divinorum, most commonly known as salvia, is a plant species from the mint family that is used in traditional ethnopharmacological, healing, and spiritual practices by the Mazatec Indians of Oaxaca, Mexico to produce ‘‘mystical’’ experiences.
The Mazatecs also use the plant to treat diarrhea, headache, and rheumatism, and to treat an illness unique to the Mazatecs called “panzón de arrego,” or swollen belly, which is reportedly caused by a curse from a practitioner of evil magic called a brujo.
In the 1500s, Spanish colonizers began converting the indigenous peoples of Mexico to Catholicism, which necessitated suppression of traditional salvia use. Although Spanish attempts at conversion were largely successful, the perseverant Mazatecs managed to maintain their traditional beliefs, which they continue to practice today.
The Western world first learned of salvia in 1962 when esteemed ergot chemist Albert Hofmann and ethnopharmacologist R. Gordon Wasson obtained a flowering specimen and gave it to Carl C. Epling, an American botanist, and taxonomist, who later identified it as a new species. Hofmann and Wasson’s expedition to the Sierra Mazateca mountain range contributed much to our current understanding of the historical-cultural use of salvia.
Until 1964, the use of salvia appears to have been confined to northeast Oaxaca. However, use has since spread to Europe and North America, with the majority of non-traditional users mostly accessing concentrated plant extracts through “smart shops” and online vendors.
Despite its initial reputation as a lesser drug, interest in salvia has increased substantially in recent years for the unique non-ordinary states of consciousness it elicits.
Salvia is a psychotropic flowering herb from the Lamiaceae, or mint, family. Salvia’s large green leaves, which contain the psychoactive neoclerodane diterpene — salvinorin A — are used for medicinal and religious purposes by Mazatec shamans in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. Interestingly, salvinorin A is not an alkaloid, as unlike almost all known classical, natural, or synthetic psychedelic compounds, it contains no nitrogen atoms.
The Mazatecs, who call salvia “ska pastora” or “ska Maria pastora,” meaning “leaves of the shepherdess” or “leaves of Mary the shepherdess,” traditionally eat the plant’s fresh leaves or ground them up using a pestle and mortar and ingest the fine pulp as a water infusion.
Populations of salvia grow only in black, nutrient-rich soil of a small region in Oaxaca known as the Sierra Mazateca, and are mostly found in shaded, humid areas nearby streams. Sprouting of the plant’s white flowers is sporadic, mostly occurring between October and June when sufficient sunshine penetrates the canopy of the Sierra Madre de Oaxaca’s pine-oak forest.
Salvia is tended in secret groves deep within the forest by native medicinal practitioners known as “curanderos.” The groves are well hidden in secure locations to avoid both theft and, more importantly, contamination by black magic.
In 1962, Gordon Wasson reported that the Mazatecs initially regarded salvia’s psychotropic effects as rather weak and used it only when sacred psilocybin mushrooms were scarce. However, the plant’s weak potency was likely due to compromised absorption of salvia’s primary active constituent, salvinorin A, when orally ingested.
Contrary to what was initially assumed, salvinorin A can be extremely powerful. To intensify the drug’s effects, recreational users chew the leaves and retain the juices in the mouth to allow absorption through the mucosa, initiating a visionary experience of approximately 2-3 hours.
Consumers of salvia also obtain concentrated extracts that can be administered sublingually or smoked. When smoked, the effects of salvinorin A typically last between 30 seconds and 5 minutes — surpassing intravenous DMT as the shortest amongst psychedelic drugs.
Although the effects of salvinorin A are short in duration, they are felt almost immediately, with evidence from non-human primate studies showing that it crosses the blood-brain barrier in just 40 seconds. Further studies have reported the psychoactive dose of salvinorin A in humans to be around 100 micrograms, a potency that is similar to LSD.
At low doses, salvia produces a deeply introspective altered state of consciousness characterized by increased mindfulness, relaxation, and sensual appreciation. At higher doses, however, salvia produces a highly distorted perception of external reality, that may or may not be all that enjoyable.
The subjective effects can be subtle or profound and range widely. Commonly reported subjective effects, as described in self-experiments and case reports, include:
In a 2006 study that explored patterns of salvia use, questionnaire respondents were asked to state the best and the worst aspects of their salvia experiences. The most frequently cited positive effects were its euphoric and dissociative effects.
The most frequently cited worst aspect of the experience was, interestingly, the drug’s short duration. However, some participants also mentioned the lack of control and after-effects as rather unpleasant. Of course, this study has several limitations associated with its naturalistic and exploratory nature.
Salvia owes its psychoactive properties to its primary active compound, salvinorin A. Salvinorin A is a neoclerodane diterpene that was first isolated and identified by Mexican chemist Alfredo Ortega in 1982.
Salvinorin A is the only compound of its type with psychoactive properties. For this reason, salvia research to date has focused primarily on this compound, with minor attention given to the plant’s other constituents. Salvinorin A is compartmentalized in small glandular hairs on the underside of the plant’s leaves called trichomes.
Interestingly, salvinorin A does not exert its psychedelic effects at the receptor responsible for the actions of other psychedelics, the serotonin 5-HT2A receptor. Recent pharmacological research has found salvinorin A to be a highly selective full agonist of the kappa-opioid receptor (KOR) which plays a critical role in modulating dopamine, serotonin, and glutamate release, and is involved in pain perception, mood, and motor control.
Salvia also interacts with CB1 and CB2 receptors of the endocannabinoid system — primarily known for mitigating the psychoactive effects of cannabis — as well as D2 dopamine receptors, however, these interactions are thought not to mediate its subjective effects.
In published scientific studies, both salvia and salvinorin A are reported to have low toxicity.
The toxicology of salvinorin A has been assessed in both mice and rats, with studies demonstrating no harmful effects on cardiac conduction, temperature, galvanic skin response (sweat gland activity), or major organs. Further research is needed to confirm the low toxicity of salvia and its chemical constituents.
Studies show that salvinorin A is metabolized by both the liver and gallbladder. In vitro and non-human primate studies have shown that salvinorin A is primarily metabolized by rapid ester hydrolysis resulting in the formation of its major inactive metabolite, salvinorin B. The behavioral inactivity of salvinorin B may explain the brief duration of salvia’s subjective effects.
Also, salvinorin A has a very short elimination half-life. Studies have shown the elimination half-life in rats to be 36.1 minutes from the brain and 75.4 min from blood plasma. In non-human primates, the elimination of salvinorin A was observed to be 56.6 minutes.
Currently, in the United States, salvia is illegal in 41 states.
Salvinorin A is legal to possess in the state of Wisconsin, but illegal to manufacture, deliver, or sell.
In the states of California, Maine, and Maryland, salvinorin A is legal, but illegal to provide to underage persons.
In the states of Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, Tennessee, and West Virginia, salvinorin A is legal to possess as long as it is not intended for human consumption, a law which perhaps suggests an element of naiveté on the part of state legislatures.
The reported psychedelic effects of salvia bear many similarities to those induced by classical psychedelics, such as psilocybin and LSD. However, salvia also produces distinct characteristic effects.
For example, salvia’s tendency to detach users from their surroundings, and the consequential hindering of one’s capacity for both introspection and social interaction, is an area where these mind-altering drugs appear to diverge. Also, historically, salvia has not been used in a social context (for good reason), but in a ceremonial setting conducive to the realization of the plant’s full healing and spiritual potential.
These reasons, in addition to the fact that salvia is nonaddictive, are perhaps why it appears unlikely that the use of this plant will become as widely popular as other recreational drugs.
Although the Mazatec Indians of Oaxaca have a long history of using salvia for divination and spiritual exploration, involvement with this plant in North America and Europe is very much a recent phenomenon that requires comprehensive study.
Further studies are required to further clarify salvia’s ethnobotanical and biochemical properties, as well as its pharmacological effects in humans.
While considerable knowledge of salvia’s properties and qualities has been attained over the last 50 years, there are still plenty of research avenues to pursue. Until then, recreational users could educate themselves on the sacred significance of Salvia divinorum, along with the profoundly mind-altering effects it can produce.
Content from the community