of teenagers are becoming concerned about an emerging
drug of abuse that, until recently, few had ever heard
of: Salvia divinorum.
Salvia is a member of the sage family.
It's also a cousin to the popular flowering salvia
plants that many of us may have in our gardens.
Scientific researchers say the public
is right to be concerned about the herb's growing
abuse. But some say salvia is also showing promise in
legitimate laboratory research.
Salvia divinorum's active ingredient,
Salvinorin A, is a powerful hallucinogen, "as potent
as LSD, and essentially, the most potent naturally
occurring hallucinogenic drug," says Dr. Bryan Roth, a
biochemist and neuroscientist at Case Western Reserve
Roth also directs the National
Institute of Mental Health's Psychoactive Drug
Screening Program. Three years ago, he and others in
his Cleveland lab discovered how Salvinorin A affects
"What we found is quite remarkable and
unprecedented among naturally occurring drugs of
abuse," Roth says. "This compound seems to have
absolute specificity for a single receptor site on the
Studies have shown that Salvinorin A
works in the same place in the brain as morphine and
related pain reducers known as opioids.
"There's been some showing that by
modulating opioid receptors, you can potentially treat
stimulant abuse," says Thomas Prisinzano, a University
of Iowa professor in the division of medicinal and
natural products chemistry.
Most studies of salvia's effect on the
brain have been on rodents, and no one knows yet
whether the results can be duplicated in humans. Such
scientific developments still may be a long way off.
Other medical, biochemical and
pharmacological scientists have published early
studies suggesting that research on Salvia divinorum
and Salvinorin A might eventually lead to new drugs
that could be used to treat Alzheimer's, schizophrenia
and other diseases.
"The bottom line is, we really don't
know enough and we need to know more," Prisinzano
says. "The field is really beginning to grow, and we
are beginning to know and understand more of what
Salvia and Salvinorin A are able to do in the body."
He and others worry that classifying
Salvia as a Schedule One drug of abuse -- a class that
includes marijuana and LSD -- could slow or even halt
promising research. Yet because of salvia's powerful
effects, few believe that the drug shouldn't be
regulated at all.
"Even experienced hallucinogen users
say that the effects of Salvia divinorum are
qualitatively and quantitatively different than any
other hallucinogen that they have ever taken," Roth
says. "It appears to cause an experience that we have
dubbed 'spacio-temporal dislocation.'"
In other words, if the dose is strong
enough, users take an instantaneous trip to another
time and place, an experience many first-time users of
salvia find too intense, disturbing and even
frightening. Those who try salvia often don't like it
and won't try it again.
"Most people who do it hoping to have
just an interesting high find it confusing and
disappointing," says Daniel Siebert, who has
researched Salvia divinorum extensively and urges its
responsible use. "It's not something that's
fun to do. It doesn't have a stimulating effect. It
doesn't really have a euphoric effect."
Siebert worries that salvia is being
marketed to teens and young adults as producing a
marijuana-like high, when nothing could be further
from the truth. He thinks salvia should be regulated
in the same way as alcohol -- and be kept strictly
off-limits to teens.