The Science of Salvia

By Josh Miosku & Melissa Warner

 

A cultural and scientific exploration of a little known non-traditional psychedelic.

Salvia divinorum, Latin for sage of the diviners, is a perennial plant of the Salvia genus that originates from Southern Mexico (Hanes, 2003). The primary psychoactive component of the plant, Salvinorin A, is reported to be the most potent, naturally-occurring hallucinogen known to date (Listos et al., 2011). Salvia is culturally significant for the Mazatec population of Oaxaca, traditionally consumed ceremonially, by chewing the leaves or drinking an infused tea. It has varied uses in more recent Indigenous medicinal contexts, being utilised in midwifery, and to alleviate stomach issues, inflammation, headaches, and addiction. Beyond this, it also possesses a sacred and spiritual importance that has developed over centuries (Maqueda, 2018), with its vast medicinal use intrinsic to its cultural and religious use.


As a natural, herbal mint plant of the sage family, Salvia’s lawfulness varies internationally. In Australia, the Howard Government was the first in the world to completely criminalise Salvia (and salvinorin A) as a Schedule 9 Prohibited Substance in 2002. While in the U.S.A, the legality of Salvia is subject to state legislation, as it is not regulated federally. Salvia is largely legal in America’s West Coast (e.g. Washington State, Oregan, California) and some parts of the East Coast (e.g. New York), but is completely illegal in the American Midwest (e.g. Michigan). 

It will not come as a surprise that like many other contentious plants, Salvia has a history of medicinal use in non-Western contexts that may precede the formulation of Western law itself.


So why and how did Salvia become illegal? Chemist Hamilton Morris, of the documentary series Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia contends that, in America, ‘entrepreneurs recognised the opportunity to profit from a new drug that was both potent and legal, and supplied salvia to a public with no understanding of the plant or its origins’. Salvia’s ease of access and popularisation via YouTube viral videos , documenting its outlanding effect via personal report, catapulted it into the legislative sphere, and saw it under the scrutiny of  policy makers with little interest in its potential or regard for long-standing Mazatec medicinal knowledge. So, although salvia’s rise as a YouTube sensation provided a wealth of data for citizen science, it may have simultaneously rendered it widely illegal. 


But can popularisation itself be blamed for its criminalisation? Perhaps we can look to the oversight of scientific evidence in drug policy, reportage that presents a simplistic good versus evil binary, and the systematic disparaging of naturally occurring plants. However, as research progresses, we may one day see the West move away from unscientific, fear laden policy, and adopt Salvia for mental health application to alleviate the masses of suffering people and an inundated system.


Salvinorin A has an abundance of potential therapeutic applications
(Maqueda, 2018):

  • Safe, non-addictive analgesics

  • Neuroprotectors

  • Short-acting anesthetics that do not depress respiration

  • Antidepressants

  • Anti-inflammatories

  • Medications for the treatment of addiction (i.e. stimulants and alcohol)

     

‘Here you have this hallucinogenic agent, but paradoxically it may actually have the property of diminishing the reinforcing, or drug-addictive properties of certain drugs like cocaine, heroin and so on’ (Roth, 2008). As salvia antagonises the pleasure/reward system (hedonic system), it may allow a reset of hedonics, which can be useful for interrupting entrenched behaviour patterns and ingrained addictions. Like a “classic” psychedelic (think psilocybin), imagine salvia as shaking up the “snowglobe of the mind”. Like psilocybin, Salvia can produce otherworldly visuals, states that may relate to ego-dissolution,  self-transcendence and interconnectedness. Also like psilocybin this may lead to a shake up of one’s existential framework but, in the case of salvia, particularly in the hedonic system. 

 

Salvia, the most potent known hallucinogen, is unique in that it does not resemble any other known hallucinogens. With Salvinorin A as a primary constituent, it shows no significant activity amongst 5-HT (5-hydroxytryptamine) serotonergic receptors. A structurally novel compound, unique in how it binds only to the kappa opioid-receptor (κ-opioid / KOR), whilst simultaneously eliciting intense hallucinogenic effects. In fact, it is a highly specific compound displaying a monogamous affinity for the kappa-opioid receptor, which is very rare among psychotropic, or mind altering, compounds. For example, each “classic” psychedelics display multiplicitous activity at serotonin (5-HT) receptors, and will also activate various sigma, dopaminergic and adrenergic receptor sites to create their unique range of effects. Salvia shows no significant 5-HT receptor binding, yet is renowned for its profound visual hallucinations and exceptional potency. 

KOR agonists are traditionally understood as being alkaloids with potent analgesic properties, offering considerable pain-relief, though some believe them to be “limited” by potential to induce varied and hallucinogenic non-ordinary states of consciousness (NOSC). Salvinorin A is a terpene KOR agonist – but the only known non-alkaloid to bind to the KOR (Maqueda et al., 2015).


Beyond medicinal use, Salvia may induce vivid hallucinatory experiences in humans, with a typical duration of action being several minutes to an hour.
However, the quality, nature and value of the experiences vary widely in epidemiological reports (Roth et al., 2002). Salvia evokes ‘intense visual and auditory modifications’ (Maqueda et al., 2016) and at higher doses and potentially reduces external sensory perception. 


Today, the three main methods of consumption are
(Grundmann et al., 2007):

 

  • Mastication; chewing or swallowing of the leaves

  • Drinking a juice extract from crushed leaf

  • Smoking the dried leaves

     

Mastication, or chewing of fresh salvia leaves can achieve Salvinorin A’s prolonged exposure to the mucus membranes, which can also provide a longer and more subtle experience than smoking it (a slower release/ascent, though the experience lasts much longer. During this process, the leaves actually need not be swallowed (for an ‘effect’), as Salvinorin A is degraded by the intestinal tract’s enzymes, thus deemed inactive when eaten (Siebert 1994). This intestinal reaction can also make the extracted juice or tea less intense. To achieve an acute psychedelic experience (at least, in a Western context), dried S. divinorum leaf is generally smoked, or the potentiated extracts are inhaled, with an effective human dose in the range of 200 to 1000μg (Siebert as cited in Roth et al., 2002). Journalist and scientific researcher, Hamilton Morris, describes the effects of smoking as ‘dramatic – immediate onset, short duration and a complete loss of connection to consensus reality.

 

  • Though the North American cultural use of salvia is said to be the most potent method of acute effect attainment, it is said to be the incorrect method of use by some Indigenous populations, as they believe ska pastora should never be burnt (Maqueda, 2018). This is not the first instance of Western influence having cultural implications for Indigenous use. In fact, ska pastora (in a Mazatec language, meaning ‘leaves of the shepherdess’) or herba di maria (in Spanish, meaning ‘herb of [Saint] Mary’), both derive from a post-Spanish conquest context. As Christian ideals were thrust upon Indigenous communities, they were adapted ceremonially to avoid persecution (Addy, 2017). Due to this, ‘traditional’ rituals now largely incorporate Spanish Catholicism (i.e. Christianity), and not the array of mesoamerican gods that – perhaps – were once of ritualistic significance. Regardless of original use relative to the contemporary, the Mazatec still view Salvia as a healing deity to be respected, not to be taken for the sake of it. The Mazatec people have a different process – a strict regimen. For instance, particular rituals may see the leaves being chosen and cut from the plant by the person who is to consume it, prepared by a healing guide who is present for the ceremony.

     

Salvinorin A defies our understanding of, or ideas about, psychedelics. Although Salvinorin A can elicit strong hallucinations, the serotonergic psychedelics and kappa opioid-receptor agonists are vastly and distinctly different from each other, in both their function and pharmacology. Salvinorin A also differs from dissociatives (e.g. ketamine), despite typically inducing a sense of detachment from one’s physical body and a diverse sensory experience. Salvia, and the human brain’s reaction to Salvinorin A is intriguing.

There is great scope for research of S. divinorum, an immensely potent naturally occurring hallucinogen, that is made especially interesting by its novel nature, low-to-no abuse potential, and prospective role in emerging pain-relief and addiction treatments.

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