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What Is Salvia?

Salvia is an herb that's related to mint. It's native to the mountains of southern Mexico, where it has long been used by the Mazatec Indians for religious practices.

There are many types of salvia plants. Only one, salvia divinorum, has a substance called salvinorin A that can cause intense psychedelic experiences.

Salvinorin A affects structures in the brain called opioid receptors. This makes salvia different from other hallucinogenic drugs like LSD and mushrooms, which affect the brain's levels of a chemical called serotonin. There are other opioid drugs, like heroin and morphine, but they affect different opioid receptors and have different effects than salvia.

As a drug, salvia usually comes as fresh green plant leaves or dried shredded green leaves. Salvia can also be a liquid extract. Traditionally, users chewed the fresh salvia leaves or drank the extract, but now people also smoke the dried leaves.

Short-Term Effects

Salvia's effects come on quickly, sometimes in less than a minute. They usually disappear about 30 minutes to an hour later. Salvia's effects on the mind can range from mild to intense. They may be frightening, depending on how strong a dose of the drug someone takes.

Common short-term effects include:

  • hallucinations and changes in visual perception
  • uncontrolled laughter
  • mood and emotional swings
  • difficulty concentrating
  • a sense of detachment from self and reality (not being able to tell the difference between what's real and what's imagined)
  • dizziness and lightheadedness
  • lack of coordination
  • slurred speech

Long-Term Effects

Little is known about the long-term effects of salvia abuse. It's possible that taking large quantities of the drug, or taking it regularly over a long period of time, might lead to a psychological dependence. Experts are still studying salvia's effects.

Some studies suggest that, over time, salvia use may contribute to a condition called dysphoria that is characterized by feelings of depression, discontent, and restlessness.

Smoking any substance over a long period of time, including salvia, can lead to breathing trouble and other health problems.

Other Possible Problems

The biggest problem with salvia is that it has such dramatic psychological effects. Because the drug can impair a user's coordination and reality so much, people under the influence of salvia can be a real danger to themselves. There is a substantial risk of injury or accidental death to salvia users.

Salvia is illegal in a number of foreign countries and in many American states. Possession or use of salvia in states where it is illegal is punishable by fines and jail time.

How Can Someone Quit?

Salvia is not believed to be physically addictive, and there are no known withdrawal symptoms when quitting the drug. But some people might become emotionally dependent on it. Signs that someone might have developed a dependence on salvia include problems at school or work and thoughts that revolve around getting and taking more salvia.

If you think that you are dependent on taking salvia and might not be able to quit, it can help to talk to a trained therapist or seek out a support group like Narcotics Anonymous.

Avoiding Salvia

Because it's still legal in so many places, it might seem like salvia isn't dangerous. But it can be. Losing control of your thoughts and body can put you at risk for a fatal accident.

Right now, no one really knows what damage salvia might do to the brain. If someone offers you salvia, you can't really know what it is or what it might have been mixed with. On top of that, laws vary by state (and a person's age), so you could be committing a crime if you take it — and that could affect college acceptance or getting a job. Because of these risks, it's best not to take salvia.

Reviewed by: Julia Brown Lancaster, MSN, WHNP-BC
Date reviewed: February 2014