Imagine a hallucinogenic trip you can take in the time it takes to peel and eat an orange, induced by a widely available, legal, non-toxic, mystical herb that has an ancient pedigree and a Web-ful of wisdom-sharing enthusiasts. We're talking here about Salvia divinorum, a herb in the mint family originally from Oaxaca, Mexico, and its current fascination for ever-curious psychonauts. But this isn't any old party psychedelic. Its boosters call its effects divine inebriation, praising it as a source of cosmic information and illumination of consciousness.
Me, I say it's just creepy.
After years of research, I finally get up the courage to buy a bag of dried leaves - it's easily available at head shops or online. The experts - whose stoner descriptions fill the chatlines- advise against taking salvia at raves, noisy parties or concerts, stressing that it's a vision quest thing suited to quiet, darkened rooms. And they warn never to do it without a sitter. Advice I don't take. I smoke a bowl with a torch lighter in a water pipe and later thank my lucky stars I didn't use the more powerful extract-enhanced leaves.
What's it like?
If you've done large doses of magic mushrooms or LSD you'll have some idea, but the sensation and visuals are quite distinct. The first thought in my mind is "It worked!" but those words start echoing inside my head to the point where they lose all meaning. I try to stand up, intent on going downstairs to tell my mom that it worked.
Realizing that my motor control is disrupted and my vision too impaired to get to the door of my room, I suddenly remember not only that I do not live with my mom, but even if I did she probably wouldn't be that interested in my successful experimentation with a new hallucinogen.
Depth perception is completely gone - the wall 10 feet away seems right in front of my eyes, but I can't even understand that it's the wall I'm seeing. I can't formulate any coherent thoughts and realize later that when you're under its influence it's easy to forget salvia is the cause. It's also easy to forget where you are. There's a strong feeling of rising higher in the air and of being pulled back inside your head. You feel like you're behind yourself, looking through a tunnel, detached from your body.
After about five minutes, things start returning to normal, but I'm left feeling deeply confused.
In an effort to understand my experience, I invite friends to try it. Responses vary: two of the eight experience virtually no effects, while the remaining subjects have trips of differing intensity, despite all having consumed similar amounts. "It feels like you're in a dream," one remarks. "I don't know what you'd use it for, though. When would you want to feel like this?"
One friend is bothered by the feeling of floating and rising, saying it's triggered her fear of heights. Tellingly, the only ones interested in doing more salvia are those it had no effect on.
Nobody in the test group reports any of the spiritual awakening or revelations common to mushroom trips, but the aftermath does encourage self-examination. Personally, it makes me question my whole relationship with drugs, from caffeine to weed. I also start wondering if substances used spiritually are of any use at all outside their cultural contexts.
Historically, Cuicatec and Mazatec Indian shamans in Mexico have taken salvia to aid in finding lost objects and diagnosing illness. There are also reports of small amounts being given to cure minor ailments, but most of the anthropological information suggests it's an obscure substance - or perhaps deeply secret.
When salvia first appeared on the psychedelic scene, it was described as another form of DMT, the businessman's acid, an assumption that has since been proven wrong. In fact, it wasn't until 2002 that any progress was made in identifying the mechanisms that cause its visionary effects. Scientist Bryan Roth of the Cleveland-based National Institute of Mental Health psychoactive drug screening program says its a potent "kappa-opioid receptor agonist," a kind of analgesic, which was at one point investigated by pharmaceutical companies as a possible painkiller. This effort was abandoned due to its mind-bending side effects.
"A student came to me who had had a disturbing experience with salvia," Roth says. "I had never heard of it. I then obtained some samples online, and we set about trying to find out how it works." There have been reports of people using it successfully to treat depression (against their doctors' advice), but as Roth says, it's unlikely that many people would want to do this. "The drug itself is too intense and unpleasant to be used medically," he says.
And the legal issue? A spokesperson for Canada's Justice Department says the department is aware of salvia and is monitoring it to see if there's a potential for abuse. Currently, only Australia and Finland have made the drug illegal, though the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency is now investigating the matter. Says Roth, "It would be a nightmare to schedule, because it looks like the same salvia that people grow in their gardens, and it can't be synthesized. As well, even experienced hallucinogen users don't like it and generally don't do it more than once."
Well, not exactly. There's a small minority of folks who are hooked on salvia's teachings. A local artist/computer programmer who goes by the name Redgreenvines says he has smoked some extract almost every day since he discovered it 13 months ago. "Salvia has helped me see the sequence of consciousness - you can see it unfolding. There's a long fade-out of each moment, and the immediate moment becomes very dense because it's overlapping with the previous impulse."
He keeps doing it, he says, because he hopes to bring back "souvenirs" to help him grasp and retain the cosmic understanding he feels at the time. You can read more about his excursions on the Yahoo salvia group.
"I'm attracted back again and again because I haven't brought the experience back yet. The souvenirs are empty; you can't keep that understanding with you," he says.
And this may be the ultimate problem. Hallucinogens deconstruct your thought processes so you can see the layers of your own understanding, but the experience is so alien that it's very difficult to translate into something comprehensible outside of that altered reality. In other words - what's the use of looking for enlightenment if you can't remember its secrets when you find it?