Salvia, a Mexican Hallucinogen Piques Scientists’ and Regulators’ Interest

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Daniel Aguilar / Reuters

The hallucinogenic plant Salvia divinorum has been used for centuries in shamanistic ceremonies led by spiritual healers in Mexico. But now the drug has gotten so popular among recreational users in America (street names: Magic Mint, Sally D) that the government has taken notice: it’s been banned in 15 states and federal legislation has been introduced to regulate the plant as a Schedule 1 drug, like marijuana, heroin and ecstasy.

According to recent surveys, users say burning and inhaling the smoke of dried Salvia leaves produces powerful hallucinogenic effects, and helps reduce anxiety, improve mood and increase insight. In one case, a woman with drug-resistant depression claimed significant improvements in mood after experimenting with Salvia. (More on Time.com: Does Suffering From Withdrawal Really Mean You’re Addicted?)

Based on animal studies of salvinorin A, the active ingredient in the Salvia plant, some neuropharmacologists believe the drug may have merits beyond getting people high. It could perhaps aid in the medical treatment of serious mental conditions or chronic pain — but some scientists worry that strict federal regulation could undermine its utility.

Matthew Johnson, an instructor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University, who recently conducted a small, new study of salvinorin A — the first involving human volunteers — testified [PDF] before Congress in 2009:

[T]his compound is completely unique, and there is good reason to think a derivative of the drug could one day provide a breakthrough medication for chronic pain, Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or cocaine dependence, potentially saving thousands of lives in the long run.

But the first question is, is it safe? In their latest study [PDF], Johnson and colleagues found that it was, at least in the short term. In the experiment, two men and two women who were mentally and physically healthy and free of any drug-abuse problems were each given 16 increasingly larger doses of salvinorin A and four doses of placebo in a lab setting. The participants took the drugs in 20 sessions over two to three months. They were observed for a variety of effects, including motor function, mood, physiology and length of the drug’s “high.” (More on Time.com: What’s Lança-Perfume? The Drug From Rio’s Bust You’ve Never Heard Of)

Two of the four participants — all of whom had previously experimented with Salvia divinorum and other more common hallucinogens like LSD and mushrooms — reported that salvinorin A resulted in a hallucinogenic effect that was “as strong as imaginable.” Researchers noted this was unusual for experienced hallucinogenic-drug users. None of the participants suffered any adverse changes in bodily functions such as blood pressure, heart rate or nerve functioning.

All participants reported that the effect of salvinorin A was markedly different from that of other hallucinogens, stating that previous experiences with LSD or mushrooms had not detached them so completely from their sense of reality. Salvia took them into an entirely different realm of consciousness, they said.

“[P]articipant narratives indicated intense, highly unusual experiences characterized by changes in spatial orientation, feelings of energy or pressure on different parts of the body, and unusual and sometimes recurring themes across sessions such as revisiting childhood memories, cartoon-like imagery and contact with entities,” wrote the study’s authors. (More on Time.com: ‘i-Dosing': Can You Download a Drug High?)

The drug’s effects were immediate and lasted between 2 and 20 minutes, depending on the strength of the dose. The users reported liking the drug’s effects, though only the two strongest doses used in the study were significantly different from placebo. These preliminary findings bode well for the feasibility of future research on the drug, the authors write.

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