Salvia is an inhalable haunted house. Sometimes it’s a fun little trip and sometimes it’s a terrifying roller coaster ride, even if it only lasts for a few minutes. Like weed, people have used it for therapeutic and spiritual reasons for generations. And also like weed, governments have banned the psychedelic plant without much research into its danger or medical potential. So is it safe and why would you do it?
The push to ban salvia started in California in 2002
While California has been a leader in marijuana legalization in the United States, it was the first state to support scheduling salvia as a controlled substance. Democratic congressman Joe Baca introduced legislation that would move it from its totally non-regulated status to a Schedule I drug.
Baca’s reasoning was that it is a “new drug” that is marketed to young people and especially popular at raves. He also referenced an unsubstantiated story about a young person who did salvia and stabbed his friends.
Ultimately, this original bill failed, partially because some organizations banded together and wrote Congress. “It has tremendous potential for the development of a wide variety of valuable medications,” wrote researcher Daniel Siebert at the time.
Even though a ban at the federal level failed, states started to ban salvia
Since the first push for a federal ban in 2002, salvia remains legal in only 18 states. Some of those legal states, like California, have age restrictions.
Unsurprisingly, the states which ban it are often states where access to marijuana is most restrictive as well, like Nebraska and Kansas. Many states that have criminalized salvia go one step further and have also banned its active ingredient, salvinorin A.
How dangerous is Salvia?
With all these bans, there must have been some serious problems with salvia, right? Anyone who’s followed weed prohibition over the years knows this isn’t necessarily so.
Despite wide, legal availability for years, salvia use has always hovered around five percent. Its known death count is the same as weed’s: zero.
Still, there are no long-term studies on its effects on the human brain. UC Berkeley Neuroscience Ph.D. student Matthew Baggott led a government-approved online survey of 500 Salvia users which found few “serious adverse events.” However, he recommended further research saying “very little is known about its toxicity and possible physical health risks.”
Short-term effects, like all psychedelics, can be unpleasant. More than 25 percent of users in Baggott’s survey reported weird thoughts and increased sweating, but roughly the same number also reported an increased connection with the universe or nature. This sense of connectivity has been proven in psilocybin mushroom studies to directly relate to how much healing a person receives during a trip. If someone is determined to trip, an upside to salvia, other than that its legal status in some states, is that it only lasts about 30 minutes relative to a mushroom trip which can be four to six hours or an LSD trip which can last ten hours.
Potential medical applications
Salvia, and more specifically the active ingredient salvinorin A, may have medical benefits.
In northern Mexico, people have used it as a pain medication for decades. They’ve also used it as a treatment for mental health, arthritis, and headaches, among other conditions. Researcher Daniel Siebert writes that it’s promising as a treatment for depression, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease, and bipolar disorder.
One case report published in the Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology confirmed its promise as an antidepressant. The online survey by Baggott found that more than 40 percent of users reported improved insight, mood and calmness directly after taking Salvia.
So there’s a lot of unknowns, but there’s also enough promise to indicate that the feds shouldn’t ban it under the assumption that it has no medical applications. Chances are that it does. But, as usual, more research is needed to know for sure.