What is Salvia and why is everyone at my school talking about it?

Lately there have been lots of people at my school talking about salvia. I had a quick look on the web and it sounds a lot like weed but I wasn't quite sure. I don't know if many of the guys in my class are actually using it but they're all talking about it - it sounds like most of them are buying it on the web but I'm not sure. One guy I know said that it's like a legal form of weed - is that true? What is it exactly and is it dangerous?

That's a great question.  I've been receiving an increasing number of questions from young people about Salvia lately and it’s important to know the real deal on the plant Salvia divinorum and its products.

First of all, it is incredibly important for young people to know that Salvia is a prohibited drug in Australia and has been since 2002.  Our laws put it in the same class as heroin and cocaine. If you are caught with Salvia in your possession you could be charged and if convicted, receive a criminal record for a drug offence. This could severely limit the career and international travel opportunities available to you for the rest of your life. It is also important to know that there are some parts of the world where it is not an illegal substance and there are international websites that sell Salvia products.  Operators of these websites do not necessarily inform potential customers that they are committing a crime if they order Salvia products for delivery to an Australian address. Be warned - get caught bringing this into Australia and you can get into real trouble!

Salvia was very much an underground drug for a long time and even when it was banned, it received little media attention. That all changed in 2010 when a video of Miley Cyrus smoking what was reported to be Salvia from a 'bong' or waterpipe made it onto the web. Suddenly everyone wanted to know what this drug was and over the past few years interest has continued to grow.

Salvia divinorum is a psychoactive plant that originated in Mexico and like a number of other plants from that region has been used for centuries in religious ceremonies. Salvinorin (the chemical compound responsible for the effect, like THC is to cannabis) is a unique substance (also banned in 2002 by Australian authorities) and is difficult to fit into any of the usual classifications (stimulant, depressant or hallucinogen) particularly well, even though it is often referred to as a hallucinogen due to the visual hallucinations users experience when they take the drug. Although it is the actual plant that is preferred by more traditional users, with the leaves being either chewed or smoked, if the product is being bought online it usually looks a lot like cannabis - dried leaves finely cut in some type of packaging. Not surprisingly, this is usually smoked.  
If you read through comments made in internet chat rooms about the experiences people have on this drug they vary greatly, like any drug. Some sound very similar to a cannabis experience - laughing and giggling, altered perception, feeling lightheaded and sweating, while others have far more extreme experiences including merging and becoming inanimate objects around them and leaving their body and being able to be in two places at the same time! Of course, this can be quite frightening if you're not prepared for it but luckily a Salvia experience is usually quite short-acting, lasting between 5-10 minutes (of course, even 5 minutes can seem like a lifetime if you are seeing things that are terrifying!).

One of the things that concerns me about young people using substances like Salvia is when they throw comments around like "But people have been using it for centuries in rituals and ceremonies - it must be ok!" Let's make something very clear here - shamans (priests or priestesses in cultures who used 'magic' to cure people and control events) knew just how dangerous these substances could be if not used extremely carefully and when they used them they ensured that the user was well-prepared, looked after by others while they were under the effect of the substance and then helped to recover. It wasn't something they did lightly! This is not usually how today's young people use them - instead they are far more likely to take them in a party situation (although that is certainly not always the case) and not be at all prepared for the potentially extreme experience.

Does the evidence indicate that Salvia is a particularly dangerous substance? Most probably not, but buying a packet of dried Salvia over the internet and then puffing on it in a bong at a crowded party with a group of friends is far from risk-free (and unfortunately that is how some young Australians appear to be using this drug). It is important to remember that it is illegal in Australia (it is certainly not a "legal form of weed") and that it can be an intense experience. Most importantly, almost every site that promotes the product recommends that users have a 'sitter' with them when they take it and that they make sure they are in a safe and quiet environment, just in case the experience becomes too much and they need help ...

First published: March 2016