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What is Salvia and Why Should Teens Avoid It?

Green plant.

One of the biggest weapons for parents in the battle against teen drug misuse is information. Openly discussing the effects, risks, and consequences of using drugs can go a long way toward getting adolescents to buy into the idea of avoiding these substances.

However, this approach is fairly toothless when it comes to drugs that no one seems to know much about – like salvia. That is one reason why some parents may worry about it.

Usage, History, and Prevalence

Salvia is not a synthesized drug like cocaine or methamphetamine, but rather an herb that grows naturally in the southern part of Mexico (and can be cultivated in the U.S.). The leaves of the salvia plant are often chewed or their juices extracted and drunk; also, dried salvia leaves can be vaporized and inhaled, sucked through hookahs, or rolled into cigarettes and smoked.

Salvia divinorum, which is in the same botanical family as sage, is known for its hallucinogenic properties. In fact, salvia has been used for centuries by indigenous peoples like the Mazatec Indians not only for medical applications but also for spiritual purposes by shamans. Because so few people have admitted to salvia misuse in the U.S. (only 1.5 percent of 12th graders surveyed had tried it in the previous year), the plant is not illegal in 19 states, nor does its sale or possession violate federal law.

The Effects of Salvia

The active ingredient in salvia is a molecule called salvinorin A. When salvia is consumed, salvinorin A changes the brain chemistry by adhering to areas of cells in the central nervous system known as kappa opioid receptors. 

The hallucinogenic effects of salvia appear quickly in users, often in just a couple of minutes, and only last for roughly twenty to thirty minutes. Some of the symptoms reported by users include:

  • Seeing objects or images that are not there
  • Visual distortions and “animation-like” imagery
  • Time and space distortions 
  • Sensations of being moved, twisted, flipped, stretched, or pulled
  • A feeling of being detached from reality or their environment
  • Uncontrollable talkativeness or laughter
  • Recollection of memories from long ago
  • So-called “out-of-body experiences” or interaction with nonexistent entities
  • A euphoric mood

Though its users do not generally experience hangovers once the effects wear off, some of the negative consequences of salvia can be:

  • Dizziness
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Confusion
  • Slurred speech
  • Loss of physical coordination
  • Loss of concentration or memory
  • Psychotic damage due to being frightened by the distortive effects of the drug
Teenage boy with dark circles around his eyes.

Knowledge of Salvia is Sparse

The problem is, much of the information gathered about salvia have been provided by anecdotes from users instead of from scientific examination. A 50-year review of studies pertaining to salvia (most of which involved animals instead of humans) was published in 2014 in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology; its main conclusion was that more research is needed.

Perhaps the most in-depth exploration of salvia was undertaken by Johns Hopkins scientists on four human subjects. Writing in 2010 in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, researchers noted the high intensity and short time period of the hallucinogenic effects of salvia, and also concluded that the drug did not appear to be addictive. Because of the limited knowledge about the short- and long-term impact of salvia use, the biggest takeaway is that there are many unknowns associated with the drug.

Play it Safe – Stay Away From Salvia

On a more practical level, adolescents should avoid salvia because even though it may not be against the law, the teenagers are still responsible for the consequences of their behavior in an impaired state (i.e., falling and breaking items, injuring someone else, or driving under the influence). Moreover, school administrators and leaders of extracurricular events may fail to see the distinction between salvia and conventional illicit drugs when determining discipline for salvia users.

In short, salvia still has the potential to wreak havoc on the lives of teens. Therefore, parents should do their best to stress to their children that salvia is not a “loophole drug” to experiment with simply because it may not be illegal.

If you suspect that your teenage son or daughter is struggling with substance use disorder,  contact us today.

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