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Last Updated: Thursday, 1 November 2007, 15:23 GMT
The 'mystery sage'
Salvia divinorum (creative commons licence - this work can be shared or remixed as long as it is attributed, the use is non-commercial and the new work is available to share
(Picture: Rogerio Enriquez)

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

In the US and UK teenagers smoke a powerful hallucinogen, video their experiences and post the results on YouTube. The substance is legal. Its defenders say it is harmless. To its opponents it is a potentially dangerous substance that must be investigated.

"My body felt like it was a palette of paint thrown on a canvas and slowly moving down it."

This description of the effects of digesting the plant salvia divinorum - a relative of common sage - sounds like a parody of 1960s mind-expanding hippies. But it is not untypical of a curious YouTube-centred subculture.

Related to common sage
Legal in UK
Used by Mazatec shamans in Mexico
Active ingredient salvinorum A
Acts on kappa-opioid receptors in brain
Chewed or smoked

Mexican shamans have been using the plant as part of religious rite for thousands of years, but it is now one of a range of "legal highs" sold on both sides of the Atlantic.

Smoked, the effect can be intense but lasts as little as 10 minutes, while chewing it creates a longer period under the influence. Its defenders say it is neither toxic or addictive, but legislators have been concerned enough for it to be banned in Australia, a number of European nations and a handful of US states.

Users can experience uncontrolled laughter, a temporary inability to speak, dramatic visual and auditory hallucinations, uncoordinated movement, a feeling of being out of the body and a wide range of other unsettling phenomena.

In the US, following the suicide of a teenager last year who had at some point smoked the plant, there were calls for a federal ban.

Here, Labour MP for Bassetlaw, John Mann, recently tabled an early-day motion demanding the government urgently rectify its "oversight". "Some claims made about salvia are very bad. People will be shocked by this," he said.

One person while he was immersed in this intense visionary state when he regained his senses found some of the furniture in the room was smashed up and he had a broken shoulder
Daniel Siebert

Botanist Daniel Siebert is regarded by some as the guru of salvia, and since 1991 he has been examining the chemistry and history of the substance, as well as using it and selling it. He fears that its widespread availability and irresponsible use by teenagers may lead the US authorities to ban it.

"A lot of people would say even if you don't have any evidence of psychological harm, just the fact it causes intense hallucinations is dangerous in itself. That can be a dangerous thing to do. You could jump out of a window. In that sense you could make an argument that there is a legitimate concern."

Mr Siebert says salvia should be used in a safe environment, supervised by someone sober, and in low doses. The consequences of ignoring this advice can be unfortunate.

Hobbit houses

"One person put his arm through a window because he didn't see a window. Another person while he was immersed in this intense visionary state when he regained his senses found some of the furniture in the room was smashed up and he had a broken shoulder. He was running around not knowing what he was doing."

Mr Siebert says his first experience, chewing raw leaf, was pleasant.

"I noticed some shifts in visual perception, objects had a glow or coloured aura. I looked up at the hills. There were Hobbit-like houses nestled into the hillside. There was light coming from the windows. There was something fairytale-like about the scene, there was something very comforting about the whole thing."

Salvia divinorum
Use of the plant originated in Mexico (Pic: Garry Nixon)

Others, particularly those that smoke a stronger extract, often have a bad time of it, experience a much more dramatic "visionary" effect that leaves many unnerved.

"They find it frightening or disorientating, not a good substance for a social situation. Most people find it uncomfortable," Mr Siebert suggests.

And this perhaps goes to the root of the fear of salvia. While studies have suggested depressive effects in rats, there is yet to be a major scientific study completed into its effects on humans. But there is perhaps understandable fear over the legality of such a powerful hallucinogen.

Tim Kendall, deputy director of the research unit of the Royal College of Psychiatrists and a consultant psychiatrist, says there are grounds for concern and that "all hallucinogens should be treated with caution", but usage is clearly rare in the UK. He has never seen a patient with problems where salvia has been mentioned.

Clinical pharmacologist and addiction expert Professor Fabrizio Schifano, of the University of Hertfordshire, agrees the hallucinogenic nature of salvia is enough for it to be of concern.

"Do I have a reason to be concerned? Yes. Do we need further studies? Yes."

One thing that concerns him is the theory that interaction with the receptors in the brain that salvia acts on may be linked to schizophrenia. Salvia's role in brain chemistry therefore needs more research, Mr Schifano says.

But even if one cannot conclusively establish that a substance like salvia is toxic or harmful to mental health, can't one take the view that powerful hallucinogens are necessarily something bad for society and ban them anyway?

Access to pleasure

Bioethicist Professor Julian Savulescu, a former doctor and director of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, says one should be able to argue at least for "direct pharmacological effects or disturbance in social function" before considering restricting individual freedoms.

"There has been a long history of attempt to control access to pleasure.

"I can't see a good reason to interfere in individual liberties when people aren't harming themselves or other people. If they were inducing altered states through meditation or chanting, people wouldn't think of asking for a ban."

It is a view that the UK government is yet to contradict. The Home Office says: "We are not aware of any evidence of significant misuse of this plant and we have no plans to review its legal status."

In practice though, it may be the strange qualities of the plant that stop it spreading beyond the current YouTube minicraze.

Steve Henderson, whose firm sells herbal products advertised as "not for human consumption", has been stocking salvia for five years. He has taken it. Once.

"Personally, I think it's awful. It was very intense, quite hard to understand what exactly was going on. It's something that I've never repeated. People will try it and not go back."

An investigation into salvia divinorum was broadcast on the BBC's Inside Out on Wednesday 31 October at 1930 GMT.

Here is a selection of your comments.

More prohibition? Why are we, the people of this country, forever being treated as if we are children, or too stupid to decide how we want to live our lives? What makes some minister more of a judge of my life and the effects of my actions on myself and those around me than me? This arrogant, patronising attitude is but one of the pebbles on the road to a true police state.
Jai Gomer, UK

Hm, a quick glance into any book on the use of mind altering plants in traditional cultures should quickly disabuse us of any ideas of being able to legislate. There are thousands of them, taken correctly even parts of the corn plant can have an effect. Shouldn't we instead be looking to teaching our children to make informed decisions when it comes to taking drugs and how to do so safely if they really have to? Someone who wants to get high, will get high. After all, surely we cannot ban everything that could have an effect right down to glue?
Michael, Glasgow

I have tried and test Salvia Divinorum many many times in the past and the present including the 5, 10, 20, 40 and 60X strengths. I work a normal everyday 9 to 5 job, have a mortgage and am an upstanding citizen. But I like to indulge in this legal high.
Phillip N, Warrington

So some teenagers misuse a substance and a ban on its use is called for - how absurd! Did we ban glue which killed many people who abused it? Deodorants and other sprays which have been abused? Nutmeg - a notorious hallucinogenic? Marker pens? There are few substances that are not open to abuse by those seeking some kind of thrill. As always, the key is education and not a blanket ban.
Clare Donaldson, Scotland

Well done the BBC for publicising a drug which probably very little people were aware of. How irresponsible can the media be? They are now introducing the youth of today in to new ways to get out of there skulls.
Coli Kennedy, Aberdeen

I've tried this stuff and it is pretty intense but once is quite enough! I think that's the nub of the argument - I've no desire to do it again (and neither does anyone else I know who's had the experience!). I've tried bungee jumping once as well and similarly have no desire to do that again either - abuse potential limited!
Karl, Leeds

Yes - make it illegal, and watch its popularity soar.
J Boyle, Belfast

It should not be banned, although its legality does seem to be a bit confusing considering the illegality of many other drugs with less potential for harm but thats not the issue here. More consideration and regulation should perhaps come into play to stop this herb being advertised as something it's not and to educate its users and potential users as to the particular dangers associated with it. Drug use is not necessarily drug abuse, the difference is all in education.
Fraser Wade, Aberdeen, United Kingdom

Is it more or less dangerous to the user and others around than alcohol?
AD, Edinburgh

Oh no! God has made yet another mistake and created a mild hallucinogenic leaf. How careless. Thank goodness he had the foresight to create conservatives...!
Robert, Cardiff, UK

Yet again we have the knee-jerk reactionaries, notably Labour politicians, calling for a ban on something that brings pleasure. It should not be the job of governments to protect people from themselves, only to protect people from any adverse effects of others' actions. If people want to enjoy this plant and do not harm others in the process they should be allowed to in a free society, as they should be allowed to enjoy any other substance. Stop the nanny state before it removes all our freedoms!
Alan Forbes, London, UK

In the end - who pays for those (especially young teenagers and those not working) who DO end up in hospitals because of drug use? Usually someone else... Anything designated as a 'non-food' and which with deliberate and unnecessary use may lead to hospitalisation or any kind of subsequent treatment being required, should be banned.

I say - let the 'user' pay for all the associated consequential costs of their drug use - and that goes for any drug - including tobacco.
A W, Northants

Drugs like Salvia have been taken out of their indigenous culture and mass marketed in the overconsumptive West. In a culture like ours where excess appears to be the rule it isn't any wonder that incidents occur - most often than not with teenagers. Unfortunately the whole idea of moderation, appropriate use, set and setting etc are anathema in our culture. This is encouraged by some retailers of Salvia who's lurid websites glorify 'getting off your head'.

Salvia looks like going the way of Magic Mushrooms - with the 'one size fits all' drug laws labelling even responsible takers as criminals. The key should be strict regulation and control, however blanket restriction is more likely as it is cheaper and simpler to implement.
Met, London


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