Legally high ? Legal considerations of Salvia divinorum, O. Hayden GRIFFIN III et al., 2008

Legally high ? Legal considerations of Salvia divinorum

O. Hayden GRIFFIN III, Bryan Lee MILLER, David N. KHEYS

Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 2008, 40, (2), 183-190


In the past few years, there has been an apparent increase in the recreational use of Salvia divinorum. Its origins lie in the Mazatecan culture where its ceremonial use had historic ties to the traditional mystic religion and medicine practiced by its people. This psychoactive plant is native to the forest ravines of Oaxaca, Mexico–the area inhabited by the Mazatecs. It is a relative in the mint family, a family of plants that includes several psychoactive species. “The plant propagates itself by the decumbent branches fallen to the ground and rooting. It seems, however, to be in cultivation and to be absent in areas where it is not under the care of man…. [It] flowers only when the branches are about seven or more feet in length, at which time it is sprawling. The leaves are almost an iridescent green, and the stems are quadrangular with wings that are crenate” (Emboden 1979: 93-94). The point in time when the plant was discovered as a recreational inebriant in the United States is unclear; however, it does seem that this change has been gradual and recent.

Aided by its availability in “head shops” and Internet sites (Halpern & Pope 2001), Salvia divinorum has indeed crossed over to recreational circles, but with only a few studies addressing prevalence, incidence, and continuance rates. The plant contains a highly potent hallucinogenic substance, salvinorin-A; researchers are only beginning to understand its effects (Grundmann et al. 2007). Smoking the leaves of Salvia divinorum or leaf material impregnated with tinctures of salvinorin-A extract results in a short-lived, intense intoxication (Gonzalez et al. 2006; Bucheler et al. 2005; Siebert 1994). Salvia divinorum can also be used by chewing the leaves or brewing the leaves into a tea (Halpern & Pope 2001; Valdes 1994). In fact, salvinorin-A has been labeled “one of the most potent naturally occurring hallucinogens” as small dosages can cause dramatic effects (Bucheler et al. 2005; Valdes 1994).

Despite the public realization by some that Salvia divinorum is being used for recreational purposes, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has thus far declined to place salvia (1) on the list of controlled substances. On October 10, 2002 U.S. House Representative Joe Baca, proposed H.R. 5607 (known as the Hallucinogen Control Act of 2002) which proposed placing Salvia divinorum or any substance containing salvinorin A into Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). The bill was ultimately referred to the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security on November 12, 2002 and ultimately died in committee. This has resulted in leaving the legal regulation of the substance in the hands of the states, an interesting, and since the passage of the CSA, highly unusual situation. This article reviews the current state of knowledge and legal regulation of the substance as a case study of how state legislatures (and the military) respond to media and other reports of a “new” and “dangerous” substance on the scene.