For centuries, shamans of the Mazatec people of Oaxaca, Mexico, have used a plant called Salvia divinorum in their religious practices.
Smoking salvia could send you for a loop, but it doesn't seem particularly dangerous for healthy people.
Salvia is a member of the mint family. Smoking it gives you a blast of Salvinorin A, a psychoactive substance.
More recently, recreational drug users of the American people of North America have been using the drug in a variety of social settings. Now, medical research people at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore have taken a scientific look at salvinorin A. Their conclusion from a small safety study: it packs a punch that can mess with your mind, but probably won't hurt your body.
Hopkins' behavioral pharmacologist Matthew W. Johnson and his colleagues administered the Salvinorin A to four volunteers, picked because they were psychologically and physically healthy and had plenty of experience with hallucinogenic drugs. The volunteers inhaled various doses of the chemical or a placebo 20 times over a couple of months.
As he reports in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, subjects experienced few if any physical side effects, but all subjects reported intense psychological experiences with the drug.
Johnson has quite a bit of research experience with psychoactive drugs. He's been studying the hallucinogen psilocybin for a decade. He says the high from Salvinorin A is quite different.
Although someone's perceptions are altered on psilocybin, "people still report being in this world, so to speak" Johnson tells Shots. "They can interact with friends. They can pick up objects. They might have a very different experience of the world, and they might feel that they're having experiences beyond this world. But in some sense they're still 'here.' "
At the height of a Salvinorin A trip, people are practically comatose, and they experience a completely different reality. "They say they're interacting with things they're calling 'entities' or angels of some type," Johnson says.
The Justice Department says three-quarters of a million people try the drug each year.
Part of salvia's popularity may be due to the fact that it's not a federal crime to possess it, although DoJ says that as of October 2009, 14 states had passed laws controlling its use.
Johnson didn't conduct his study of Salvinorin A to reassure stoners. He says the drug acts on a brain pathway that's been implicated in some dementias, so it's possible the chemical or some drug like it may have a therapeutic future.