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Salvia; Legal, but How Safe is it Really?

Medically Reviewed by: Charley Allen

Table of Contents

Salvia Abuse and Addiction

Salvia, a drug that is derived from the salvia divinorum plant that is native to South America and Central America, is a drug that can be smoked, chewed, or brewed into a tea. The drug has a long history that goes back thousands of years. However, it was not until the 21st century that it emerged as a popular recreational drug in the United States. It attracts people because of its pleasurable and at times disturbing hallucinogenic effects. In fact, salvia is often known as the world’s most powerful natural hallucinogen, and it’s extremely brief but powerful side effects are in many ways similar to psychosis. It should come as no surprise, then, that salvia abuse can be very dangerous. When individuals suffer from salvia addiction, they face a wide variety of harms that can make it difficult to function normally in their everyday lives.

What is Salvia?

While salvia’s history goes back thousands of years, most of what people do know about the drug comes from anthropological studies on indigenous Mazatec shamans. Today, research on salvia as a recreational drug is only in the preliminary stages. There are many questions about salvia that remain unanswered, such as how physically addictive it is and what dosages can be life threatening. Researchers are working hard currently to come to a better understanding of salvia, determine how it interacts with the brain, and perhaps figure out ways of using the drug to produce new pharmaceutical medications. It is an undeniable fact, however, that salvia is one of the most widely abused new recreational drugs of the last decade.

Salvia goes by many different nicknames. These include:

  • Magic Mint
  • Shepherdess’ Herb
  • Maria Pastora
  • Diviner’s Sage
  • Seer’s Sage
  • Sally-D

It is common for drug dealers to use these alternative street names for salvia to avoid detection by law enforcement authorities. These street names also proliferate among recreational drug users themselves, who often glamorize the substance. Many of the individuals abusing salvia have a poor understanding of the nature of the drug. They might recognize that salvia gets them “high” but have no knowledge of salvia’s actual effects.

Side Effects of Salvia Abuse

Salvia is a powerful hallucinogen that results in a number of effects that are both psychological and physical in nature. Many of the side effects that people experience on salvia are unpleasant or distressing — not at all what people expect or hope for when they “get high.”

Salvia is a very short-acting drug. It is known for having a rapid onset of effects. These short term effects of salvia abuse also dissipate rather quickly. For many, this is part of the appeal of salvia. Unlike other hallucinogens like psilocybin mushrooms or LSD, salvia does not cause people to “trip” for many hours. Instead, it provides people with a brief but extremely powerful psychedelic experience that requires very little in the way of a time commitment. The most common short-term effects of salvia are as follows:

  • Dizziness
  • Sense of time being distorted (a few minutes feeling like hours)
  • Altered thought patterns
  • Dissociative hallucinations
  • Changes in body temperature
  • Uncontrollable laughter
  • Dysphoria (a prevailing sense of unease and displeasure)
  • Psychosis
  • Changes in vision
  • Emotional swings
  • Feelings of panic or detachment
  • Flashbacks
  • Low heart rate
  • Motor function impairment
  • Losing contact with reality
  • A feeling of being “out of body”

Like other hallucinogens, it is possible — and in fact common — for people to have “bad trips” on salvia. A “bad trip” is the colloquial term for a state of drug-induced temporary psychosis. Salvia causes people to experience powerful delusions and hallucinations, and it also makes people feel disconnected from reality and often even their own bodies. It is possible for people to be extremely frightened while experiencing these symptoms. In many cases, individuals who are driven by fear or panic are motivated to engage in dangerous or self-harming behaviors. While these “bad trips” wear off quickly, it doesn’t take long for people to suffer serious consequences. Furthermore, the experience of a “bad trip” due to salvia can leave lasting trauma, and many people reportedly experience flashbacks years afterwards.

Signs and Symptoms of Salvia Abuse

Young people abusing drugs and alcohol tend to hide their substance abuse habits from parents, teachers, and other authority figures. Sometimes they even hide their substance abuse from their friends. For many people, substance abuse and addiction are shameful. Even people who recognize their salvia abuse as problematic often prefer to try to manage their addiction on their own rather than reach out for help. The reality, however, is that getting support and help is essential for recovery. It is important for friends and family to be able to recognize a salvia problem when there is one.

Salvia is particularly difficult to detect, since many methods of consuming salvia leave very few physical traces. When someone eats salvia leaves or brews it into a tea, there will be no drug paraphernalia left around. Smoking is often easier to detect, since it requires the use of a small pipe, and of course the smell of smoke is quite noticeable.

Another reason salvia abuse is often difficult to detect is that the effects are so short-lived. Most people remain high on salvia for only a few minutes, which can make it difficult to catch someone in the act of getting high on salvia. However, if someone is behaving out of the ordinary, there is a good chance they are intoxicated. Common signs of symptoms of recent salvia abuse include:

  • Uncoordinated movements
  • Physical imbalance
  • Slurred speech
  • Chills
  • Seeming disconnected from reality
  • Bouts of uncontrollable laughter
  • Being more emotional than normal

Given how short-lived the effects are, the likelihood of discovering someone while they are high on salvia is low. However, if a person is abusing drugs and alcohol, their behavior even while they are not intoxicated is likely to be markedly different. Common behavioral and physical signs of salvia addiction include:

  • Sudden weight loss or weight gain
  • Sleep problems, including insomnia or oversleeping
  • Lack of attention to grooming
  • Unusual body odors
  • Irritability, anxiety, or depression
  • Aggression or violent behavior
  • Increased social isolation
  • A change in social groups (spending time around known drug users)
  • Worsened work or academic performance
  • A decreased interest in activities and hobbies that formerly gave them pleasure
  • Increased talk or joking about drugs or alcohol
  • An unexplained need for money
  • Legal problems

How Do People Abuse Salvia?

Salvia has a long history of use as a shamanic drug. In fact, the Mazatec people of Oaxaca were known to have used salvia for religious and ceremonial purposes. They believed that this “mental medicine” provided hallucinations that were insightful and healing. It is important to recognize that salvia’s role in these religious ceremonies was regulated by the cultures — it was never simply abused for the purpose of getting high.

Today, salvia is widely consumed among young people who are hoping to get high or have a “trippy” experience. Salvia leaves can be consumed in many different ways. One of the most common traditional methods of using salvia is simply eating or chewing on the leaves. However, these leaves can also be brewed into tea. Today the most common route of administration for salvia is smoking, which requires the leaves to be dried and placed into a pipe, bong, or rolled into a cigarette. This method causes the effects to occur more quickly but they also wear off faster, which for many people is seen as an advantage.

Salvia is not difficult for people to obtain. In fact, in many states of the United States it is perfectly legal to buy salvia in a store. This is because salvia is such a new drug on the scene that the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has only begun taking the initial steps to regulate it. As such, young people can easily purchase salvia tinctures, which are essentially concentrated liquid extracts of salvia that have been distilled with alcohol, either online or from a smoke shop.

Salvia’s ease of access makes it particularly appealing to adolescents who are unable to purchase alcohol or other drugs. In fact, the National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that the drug is most popular among teenagers. In 2017, an estimated 1.5% of 12th graders had tried salvia, and nearly 1% of 10th graders had abused the drug. Salvia abuse even extends to children in middle school, with an estimated 0.4% of 8th graders abusing salvia. This rate of abuse is cause for concern, especially since immature developing brains are far more susceptible to addiction.

How Long Does Salvia Last in a Person’s System?

Clinical tests have shown that salvia has a half-life of only about 60 minutes. This means that not only do the subjective effects of the drug wear off in only a few minutes, but the body actually eliminates half of the drug in only an hour. The half-life of salvia is very rapid compared to other common drugs of abuse, such as prescription opioids or even marijuana. This can make salvia abuse difficult to detect using standard drug tests. Only a few very expensive specialized drug test kits can detect salvia abuse. However, even these tests can often only detect salvia abuse shortly after it is consumed.

Can You Get Addicted to Salvia?

Not enough research has been done on salvia to determine if it is a physically addicted substance. However, it is a well-known fact that people can become addicted even to substances that are supposedly not physically addictive. There are countless documented cases of people seeking addiction treatment for their salvia problems. While clinical research is currently lacking on the exact nature of salvia addiction, the fact remains that salvia abuse can lead to addiction.

How does salvia addiction occur? To answer this question, it is perhaps best to look at the underlying causes of addiction itself, rather than the effects of salvia. Salvia itself does not make people feel pleasure, and in fact most reports indicate that the effects of salvia are terrifying at worst and disturbing at best. However, individuals who are susceptible to addiction are likely to seek mind and mood-altering experiences, whether the effects are pleasurable or not.

What causes a person to engage in substance abuse? Research indicates that there is rarely one single cause to which an addicted can be attributed. Genetics and psychosocial factors both play significant roles. Individuals who have a family history of addiction or substance abuse are far more likely to develop problems with drugs or alcohol themselves. Suffering from trauma as a child, being exposed to substance abuse at a young age, or trying drugs or alcohol at a young age are all factors commonly associated with the later development of addictions. Another important factor is the presence of a mental health condition, such as anxiety or depression. People who suffer from mental health disorders frequently turn to substances like salvia, alcohol, or opioids as a way of escaping from their distressing mental states. For these individuals, what starts off as self-medication can quickly turn into a larger problem!

What Happens During Salvia Withdrawal?

When the effects of salvia wear off, users are likely to experience a number of symptoms that can be painful and unpleasant. This phenomenon, known as withdrawal, occurs with all psychoactive substances, but it can be particularly unpredictable when it comes to salvia. There is relatively little research on the effects of salvia withdrawal. What we do know, however, is that salvia withdrawal can cause a wide range of emotional effects. A young person experiencing salvia withdrawal may suffer from anxiety, confusion, apathy, or have impulse control problems. Many young people often have difficulties with their moods and behavior already, and adding salvia withdrawal to the mix can worsen pre-existing problems.

The experience of salvia withdrawal can also drive people to abuse salvia again. They may do so in an attempt to escape their distressing emotions. Unfortunately, this can simply drive them more deeply into the cycle of salvia abuse and addiction.

Can You Overdose on Salvia?

Given the lack of research on salvia, it is not clear whether it is possible to overdose on the drug. In the coming years, as clinical studies are carried out, more information about the toxicity levels of salvia will likely emerge. In the meantime, however, public health experts caution that it is dangerous to consume salvia to any extent. Given that salvia is an unstudied and under-researched substance, there is no dose of the drug that can be said with any certainty to be safe.

What can be stated about salvia and drug overdoses stems from statistics alone. Only a few emergency room visits occur each year that can be directly attributed to salvia. However, many people who go to the hospital for drug overdoses do have salvia in their systems. This is because young people who are abusing salvia often do so while abusing other substances. While it is likely that salvia alone rarely leads directly to drug overdoses, the substances that people abuse alongside salvia present many risks.

Salvia Abuse and Polysubstance Addiction

Salvia abuse most frequently occurs in the context of polysubstance abuse. What is polysubstance abuse? Polysubstance abuse is a clinical term that refers to the practice of abusing multiple drugs at the same time. Individuals who abuse salvia often do so while abusing alcohol, marijuana, opioids, or prescription stimulants. In fact, few people consider salvia to be their drug of choice. Rather, young people tend to abuse salvia alongside other substances.

Polysubstance abuse leads to a number of risks beyond those of mere salvia abuse. Drug interactions in the body can increase the chances of an overdose. When central nervous system (CNS) depressants are combined with central nervous system (CNS) stimulants, for instance, the result can be respiratory depression, a condition that is often fatal if not treated immediately. Furthermore, the behavioral effects of combining substances can also be dangerous. Salvia on its own can lead to hallucinations and dangerous delusions. When salvia and alcohol are combined, the chances increase that a person will act on their delusions. This can put other people or the salvia users themselves in significant danger.

Moreover, polydrug addiction presents additional difficulties when it comes to recovery. People who suffer from multiple addictions frequently face more complex and long-lasting withdrawal symptoms. This can make it difficult to achieve sobriety. Ironically, individuals who suffer from polysubstance addiction are often the most reluctant to admit to having an addiction problem in the first place. While one might imagine that they would recognize the severe nature of being addicted to multiple substances, the fact is that polysubstance addicts often believe that they have successfully “quit” a substance, despite the fact that they’ve merely replaced one addiction with another. As such, recovering from salvia addiction in the context of polysubstance addiction requires extensive work on the underlying problems that are driving a person to substance abuse in the first place.

Long Term Risks of Salvia Abuse

People who abuse salvia face a number of risks with their mental health. The cycle of getting high and then experiencing withdrawal can be taxing. Furthermore, salvia abuse can lead to dramatic mood changes and severs people’s connections to reality. As such, people who abuse salvia over the long term are more likely to face depression, psychosis, anxiety, and panic attacks. The behavioral changes associated with salvia abuse put people at a higher risk of impaired driving, car accidents, problems at work or school, relationship problems, and issues completing everyday tasks. When salvia is combined with other drugs, these risks are further compounded.

You can get sober at Design for Recovery….recovery is possible.

Salvia may be legal in many states, and it may be widely perceived as benign because its effects wear off quickly, but it is an extremely powerful hallucinogenic drug. Furthermore, the people most likely to abuse salvia are those who are already struggling with other drugs. As such, salvia abuse is often a sign of a significant substance abuse problem. People who abuse salvia are more likely to abuse the following substances: LSD, MDMA, heroin, phencyclidine, and cocaine. The consequences of abusing these drugs — and the consequences of being addicted to them — include severe legal, financial, interpersonal, and health problems. While salvia may not be as infamous as crystal meth or heroin, individuals who abuse it often suffer consequences just as severe.

If you or a loved one is engaged in salvia abuse or suffering from polysubstance addiction, it is important to seek outside help. Design for Recovery, a sober living home for men in West Los Angeles, provides a safe and supportive environment for people to rebuild their lives. Our compassionate staff work with young men to help them develop new values, tools, and coping strategies to avert potential relapses. Moreover, we believe that physical sobriety is only half the battle. While residing at Design for Recovery, young men work to rebuild their lives from the ground up, starting academic programs or new careers and putting their newfound sober skills into practice. But they won’t do it alone: Design for Recovery helps young men who are hopeless, isolated, and addicted build strong sober social support systems that studies show help people stay drug and alcohol-free over the long term.

If you are ready to put down substances and begin a new way of living, remember that you don’t have to do it alone. Contact Design for Recovery today. We’re here for you.

Salvia Addiction Related Resources


Edited by: David Beasley

David Beasley - Design for Recovery

David Beasley is a certified RADT (Registered Alcohol/Drug Technician). David, moved to California from North Carolina after many failed attempts to get sober.

Medically Reviewed by: Charley Allen

Charley earned his Masters of Clinical Psychology from Antioch University, Los Angeles, and is a California Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT).He teaches mindfulness to both adults and children in group setting such as schools, corporate workplaces, and medical treatment facilities.

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