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Salvia: Harmless Herb or Dangerous Drug?

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Brett Chidester committed suicide in January 2006 after suffering carbon monoxide poisoning in a tent where he lit a charcoal grill. The subsequent hysteria over his death was attributed to more than the typical adolescent angst and depression so many teens suffer. Brett, 17, of Delaware, unknowingly would become the poster child for the anti-salvia movement, leading to a state-wide criminalization of a little-known psychoactive herb often compared to LSD. “Brett’s Law,” or Senate Bill 259, classified the herb as a Schedule I controlled substance in Delaware, attaching criminal penalty to its use. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency classifies drugs according to their potential to be abused and to cause dependence. Brett’s parents argued his use of salvia led to depression they blamed on his death.


Salvia divinorum, also known as “Diviner’s Sage,” is a member of the sage and mint family and grows in Oaxaca, Mexico. Historically, it has been used by the Mazatec people of the region to bring about shamanic visions during healing rituals. They would crush the leaves to extract juice, mixing them with water which they would drink. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimated in 2006 that 1.8 million people, 12 and older, had used salvia in their lifetime. Today, people smoke or chew the leaves, or make it into a tincture, using a glass dropper to take it sublingually. When taking salvia, experiences range from uncontrollable laughter, improved mood, a sense of calmness, increased feelings of insight and connection with nature. Effects don’t last long. When smoking salvia, effects last a few minutes. Other effects reported include increased sweating, weird thoughts, visions, lightheadedness and feelings of floating.


No conclusive scientific evidence exists that says salvia is toxic or addictive. Negative media attention in recent years, however, has cast a dark shadow over salvia, comparing it to other psychoactive drugs. Salvia is legal in many states though some have bills in various stages that could criminalize it. Some researchers say salvia may have therapeutic benefits and could possibly help in the treatment of depression, addiction, chronic pain, schizophrenia, AIDS and HIV. Some fear criminalizing salvia will put an end to the research needed in those areas. A dozen states currently have legislation on the books to regulate its use and more may soon follow suit.


Many people have not heard of salvia. That is sure to change as more states move to ban it and media outlets sound the alarm bell in covering the issue. The popular “Dr. Phil” show recently highlighted the herb in a segment on teens and risky behavior. The show featured a teacher and her son, both who used it. Dr. Travis Stork, host of the show “The Doctors,” was a guest on Dr. Phil and warned that continued use in young people poses a threat because their brains are still developing. Depending on which side of the fence you stand on, salvia could be seen as a dangerous threat to society, a substance with promising medical potential or something to use recreationally. What happens from here remains to be seen.

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