Pubdate: Thu, 27 Jul 2006
Source: Globe and Mail (Canada)
Page: A13
Copyright: 2006, The Globe and Mail Company
Author: Sheryl Ubelacker, Canadian Press
Bookmark: (Hallucinogens)


Salvia Divinorum, a Hallucinogenic Popular on Campus, Could Also Be 
Useful in Treating a Variety of Mental Illnesses

Hunter knows how to mellow out on marijuana. It's something he does 
all the time. But the first time he smoked the leaves of a plant 
dubbed the "magic mint," he felt as if he'd been slammed into another 

As drug trips go, this one was more terror than pleasure.

"The first time I did it was with a lot of people," recalls Hunter, a 
Toronto university student who asked that his real name not be used. 
"That was probably a bad idea because I did it and before I even knew 
what was happening . . . Then someone was around me and they just 
tapped my shoulder, and . . . it felt like spikes going into my body. 
I felt like I was being stabbed, but obviously it was the Salvia."

Salvia divinorum, that is -- a member of the sage family that has 
been used for hundreds of years by the Mazatec indigenous people of 
southern Mexico as a medicinal herb and means of divination.

Today, it continues to be used in shamanistic rituals. But it has 
also become popular among the university and college crowd in Canada 
and the United States.

What may be surprising, given its powerful hallucinogenic effects, is 
that cultivating, selling or using Salvia divinorum are all perfectly 
legal in Canada and most of the U.S.

In Canada, neither Salvia divinorum nor its main active ingredient, 
salvinorin A, are regulated under the Controlled Drugs and Substances 
Act, says Health Canada spokeswoman Carolyn Sexauer. The substance 
can be imported and sold provided no health claim is made regarding 
its effects.

The Diviner's Sage, as it's sometimes called, is sold in specialty 
head shops across Canada and the U.S., and can be ordered on-line. 
Most of it comes from Mexico.

But the plant is not a substance to be smoked lightly, says Chris 
Bennett, co-owner with his wife, Renee Boje, of Urban Shaman in 
Vancouver, which specializes in plants used for shamanistic and 
religious purposes, including peyote and Salvia.

"We have a self-imposed age limit of 19 in our store," said Mr. 
Bennett, explaining that anyone under that age will not be sold 
psychoactive plants.

At Urban Shaman, about two grams of dried Salvia leaves sell for $8 
and a 10-times-stronger extract goes for about $25.

Mr. Bennett says it takes about 10 deep inhalations of Salvia smoke 
to achieve its full effect, which is short-lived as drugs go, lasting 
anywhere from 10 minutes to a half hour.

Salvia-induced hallucinations are as individual as the people who 
partake of the plant.

When he first smoked it, Mr. Bennett says the world around him went 
flat, "like the second dimension." Others experience panic because 
they find the cosmic ride too intense.

"There's a real dissolvement of the ego . . . that sometimes can be 
quite frightening for people who have a hard time letting go. But for 
people who have an easy time letting go, it can be quite a blissful 

But it isn't only recreational users who are finding Salvia of 
interest. The plant is creating a real buzz among scientists in the 
pharmaceutical arena.

Bryan Roth, director of the psychoactive drug screening program at 
the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health, says the chemical 
structure of the plant's active ingredient is "totally unique."

Dr. Roth, whose lab at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland 
was the first to map its molecular makeup five years ago, says 
salvinorin A is a "kappa-opiate agonist" that binds to a single type 
of receptor in the brain.

"It's amazing that this drug targets that particular receptor," he 
said. "Most drugs are not so selective. LSD hits about 50 receptors."

While pure salvinorin A is unlikely to have any use as a medication, 
its derivatives could be useful, and about 200 have been isolated so 
far, Dr. Roth says. Compounds that could block the effects of Salvia 
may be candidates for treating depression, schizophrenia or 
Alzheimer's-induced dementia.

"It's a really, really hot area in medical chemistry right now," Dr. Roth said.

When it comes to recreational use, Dr. Roth is reluctant to pronounce 
Salvia divinorum "dangerous," although he doesn't encourage people to 
smoke the leaves or extract.

"The big problem with it from a safety standpoint is that people are 
pretty incapacitated when they take a hefty dose. They're pretty much 
disoriented in space and time and they could wander off a building or 
walk in front of a car and not know where they are."

That's why Mr. Bennett of Urban Shaman warns that anyone taking 
Salvia "should always have somebody there with them. That's a No. 1 rule.

"Because you enter into a waking kind of dream state in which you 
lose your critical judgment in a similar way you might in a dream. So 
you want to make sure a person remains sitting down or lying down. 
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