A University of B.C. graduate student who identifies himself as "Max Trotsky," packs some leaves of the potent hallucinogen into a colourful glass pipe and takes a long, slow hit. I tentatively inquire, "What does it feel like?" Max has promised to describe the effects of the drug as they occur. Instead, he looks suddenly suspicious of my poised tape recorder and says, enigmatically, "It feels like this." Then he shuts his eyes dreamily and collapses backwards onto his bean-bag pillow.
So much for going straight to the source. Later, Max, who calls himself a "psychonaut," explains that the initial effects of smoking Salvia divinorum, a tropical member of the Mint family known commonly as "diviner's sage," render a person totally non-verbal. Body function is apparently strongly affected as well, but only for a little while.
The time from when Max smokes the drug to when he is coherent enough to talk to me amounts to all of three minutes. For another half hour he describes feeling "altered." By the time we part company an hour later, Max seems fairly normal and is getting ready to go out on a date with a friend.
He has gone to the edge and back amazingly quickly. This is what Salvia is known for producing -- an intense experience over a short time. It has been called the substance that "lets you see God on your lunch break." Instant enlightenment for the impatient, video game attention span generation.
Never heard of Salvia divinorum? You're not alone. It was virtually unknown in North America until a New York Times article created interest in the plant as a legal hallucinogen. And until recently, even scientists were befuddled. According to Plants of the Gods by Richard Evans Schultes, Christian Ratsch and Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman (Healing Arts Press 1998), the neurochemistry of Salvia divinorum was "something of an unsolved puzzle." In other words, it was good stuff, but nobody quite knew why.
The book explains that the leaves of the plant contain an active ingredient called salvinorin A, which "has extreme consciousness-altering effects when inhaled in amounts as small as 250-500 mcg." The problem scientists faced was that salvinorin A is unlike the active ingredient in any other hallucinogen. "Salvinorin A contains 59 atoms," says chemist and author Alexander Shulgin, making its action "difficult to explain."
But a relatively recent study has identified the way salvinorin A affects the human brain. According to a research team headed by Dr. Bryan Roth of Case Western Reserve University, Salvia divinorum is distinct because it does not work on the brain's seratonin receptor system the way most other hallucinogens do. Rather, it has been shown to be a kappa opioid agonist, an ingredient researchers have found can produce "visual distortions, feelings of depersonalization and increased urinary output." Sound inviting? Evidently it does, to a growing number of psychedelic experimenters.
Salvia divinorum is widely available over the Internet. A simple Google search under "salvia divinorum online sales" yields 1,240 hits. One site, www.sagewisdom.org, even includes a free, downloadable guide for how best to consume the plant. This step-by-step guide, compiled by pharmacologist and ethnobotanist Daniel Siebert, contains information on everything from how to order Salvia, how to grow it, and how to avoid negative consequences while high on the drug. One particularly helpful section of this unmistakably American site recommends that users "avoid taking Salvia in situations where firearms are present." Thanks for the tip.
In the Lower Mainland, several shops now sell Salvia divinorum plants and extracts, including the Marijuana Party Headquarters on Hastings, Hemp New West in New Westminster and a little shop on Commercial Drive called The Spirit Within. This last shop, which is just down the street from just-closed Community Policing Office, has a sandwich board outside declaring the sale of items such as Salvia divinorum, peyote, ayahuasca (an Amazonian plant with hallucinogenic bark) and the South American caffeine substitute yerba matte.
A prominently displayed sign on the store's front counter emphasizes that they do not sell the hallucinogenic plants for "personal consumption," nor do they sell them to people under 19 years of age. Employees regularly ask shoppers for identification. However, the shop does provide free literature on how to use the plants safely, implying that they are aware of the plants' growing popularity for recreational use. Cheryl, the owner, a friendly woman in her early 40s who doesn't reveal her last name, says her shop provides information sheets on how to use salvia, even to those under 19, because it is the responsible thing to do.
She explains that she can't in good conscience allow somebody to walk out of the store with salvia plants, without at least telling them what will happen if they do indeed consume them. For instance, it is not recommended to mix salvia with other drugs, since the side effects could be unpredictable. And she says it's absolutely critical that if somebody does decide to take it, they have a babysitter with them, due to the temporary loss of motor co-ordination that many users experience.
While Salvia divinorum remains legal in Canada, with increased availability comes increased use -- and controversy. Australia has banned the plant, and the U.S. may soon follow suit. According to lawyer Richard Glen Boire of the Centre for Cognitive Liberty and Ethics, , "there is a movement in the States to have Salvia divinorum banned, as part of the war on drugs." The CCLE Web site (www.cognitiveliberty.org) details the legal wrangles over salvia in the U.S. Bill HR5607 was introduced in Congress by California representative Joe Baca in 2002 in an attempt to make the substance illegal.
Congress was adjourned and the bill was not passed. Oregon state representative Billy Dalto has introduced another bill, HB 3845, that would make the possession of Salvia divinorum punishable by "up to 10 years' imprisonment and a $200,000 fine, or both," and punishment for delivery could be "up to 30 years and/or $300,000." Meanwhile, the city of St. Peter's, Mo., passed an ordinance prohibiting the sale of Salvia divinorum to those under 19.
Health Canada is monitoring the drug. "It's on our watch list," says spokesperson Jirina Vlk. " It is currently legal to import it, since it is what we call an 'unscheduled' substance. A substance has to be scheduled in order for police to act on it, or seize it. However, the person importing or selling it should not be making any kind of health claim. And they should not be importing more than a three-month supply."
For a legal substance, Salvia divinorum seems to be a bit of a touchy subject.
While the plant is relatively new to the radar screen of mainstream culture, it is by no means a recent discovery. It was first recorded in Western literature in 1939 by Jean Basset Johnston, who was studying the ritualistic use of psilocybin mushrooms in Oaxaca, Mexico. Traditionally, when the Mazatec Indians of the Sierra Madre run out of magic mushrooms to use in their rituals, they turn to salvia.
According to a leading Internet recreational drug database, www.Erowid.com, the Mazatecs call the plant, "Hierba de la Pastora," meaning, "Herb of the Shepherdess." Its ritualistic and sacred properties are said to enable Curanderos, or Shamans, to enter the body of an afflicted person and find the source of pain. It's also meant to be handy for helping people find lost objects, such as wedding rings, love letters, and so on.
The book Plants of the Gods explains how such Shamans first sanctify the plant with prayers and incense, then chew the broad, bright-green leaves very slowly. These rituals are normally performed at night, in dark, quiet conditions. The leaves are ingested, though the active ingredients are primarily absorbed through the mucous membranes in the mouth, before swallowing. The Shaman then guides the afflicted person through the resulting hallucinogenic experience.
In a study cited in a CCLE report to the U.S. Congress, Mazatec shamans say the plant, "allows them to travel to heaven and talk to God and the Saints about divination, diagnosis, and healing.
Recently however, the plant has grown away from its sacred roots. Most users today, like Max Trotsky, smoke the dried leaves rather than chew the fresh ones, eliciting, they say, a more concentrated, shorter-lived effect than your average shaman's concoction.
Ken Tupper, a master's student in education at Simon Fraser University who wrote his thesis on the educational properties of psychedelic or "entheogenic" plants and chemicals, is philosophical about the secular use of what was once strictly a sacred plant. He feels strongly that the plant should remain legal: "Basically, we've seen the results of prohibition. It tends to exacerbate the problem, rather than solve it. If we look at the broader cultural context of drug use, the only thing that really regulates [it] is social mores... teaching people responsible use and respect for what they're using.
"Telling them not to do it -- it's like the classic example of the forbidden fruit."
As for why academics call psychedelics "entheogens," Tupper says, "The term 'psychedelic' connotes the art, music and cultural milieu of the '60s. It doesn't capture the traditional uses of shamanic plants such as the ayuashca, peyote, or Salvia divinorum. Entheogen is derived from Greek. Literally, it translates to 'giving birth to the divine within.' "
There's no denying that drugs and God go way back. From ancient mushroom-worshipping cults to modern day Rastafarians, many people have popped, sniffed, smoked and sucked their way down a spiritual path. In the '50s, Buddhist and Hindu texts inspired writers such as Aldous Huxley to seek an experiential illumination through psychedelics.
In 1996, the leading Buddhist journal in North America, Tricycle, conducted a reader poll to explore the relationship between psychedelics and spiritual practice. Of the 1,454 readers who responded to this survey, 89 per cent said they were engaged in Buddhist practice, and 83 per cent said they had taken psychedelics. Significantly, more than 40 per cent of respondents said that their interest in Buddhist practice was actually sparked by psychedelics.
In his article "A High History of Buddhism," published in the same issue of Tricycle, Rick Fields refers to the current drug-taking climate as a "psychedelic revival," and specifically calls plant entheogens such as salvia "sacramentals."
Clearly, there are many outside the original Mazatec shamanic circles who agree that a plant like Salvia divinorum can offer significant spiritual insight. Said Ken Tupper, "It's all context. If it's done with the preparation and the intent of spiritual seeking, I think that's what validates it. If it's done for a laugh on the weekend, it's possible that something spiritual might come out of it, but that would just be fortuitous."
Asked whether there might be any risk to people who take a substance like Salvia divinorum without the proper guidance, Tupper said, "I think all psychoactive substances are tools. They've been used by humans for thousands of years. But they need to be treated as tools to get their full potential.
"Like for instance a knife: if you give a knife to a child who doesn't understand what it is, he can hurt himself or others around him. Whereas if you give it to a skilled surgeon, a practitioner who understands its potential, it can do great healing work. So the danger in using them recreationally is that we are using them as toys rather than tools, which enhances the risk."
These days, drugs are associated more with entertainment than with religion; for those of us who head out to rock concerts without a personal shaman, it might be wise to heed Tupper's warning.
Jennifer Moss last wrote for Mix on online dating