Salvia: Miley Cyrus Brought This 'It' Drug Into the Spotlight, Is it Dangerous?

Salvia divinorum is a highly potent herb from the mint and sage families. But unlike its relatives, salvia's leaves are sold as an alternative to marijuana because of the hallucinogenic effects it produces.
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It causes hallucinations and impairs coordination. The high is almost immediate when smoked. Within five minutes it causes uncontrollable laughter or panic.

While this could be a description for LSD or even marijuana, it can also be used to describe the new "it" drug, salvia. But there is one important difference to note -- salvia is legal, at least for now.

Before last week, many people had never heard of the herbal drug salvia, let alone thought about smoking it recreationally. But a leaked video of pop princess Miley Cyrus changed all that, bringing salvia to the mainstream.

As early reports began circulating that there was a video of Miley smoking out of a bong, her camp immediately went on the defense stating that she wasn't smoking marijuana, rather the herb salvia, which they stressed is legal in California.

Legal or not, the video has stirred up heavy controversy and left many parents wondering what exactly is salvia and whether it is something they need to worry about.

Salvia divinorum is a highly potent herb from the mint and sage families. But unlike its relatives, salvia's leaves are sold as an alternative to marijuana because of the hallucinogenic effects it produces.

While the drug is currently legal in many of the states, Florida, Virginia and Illinois are among the 15 that have prohibited the substance.

In addition to controversy, the video has stirred up sales for the herbal drug. TMZ is reporting that salvia sales have surged since the release of the video last week.

This increased interest is causing several states, including California, to reconsider their stance on its legal status. Politicians, doctors and parents are concerned about the impact the video will have on kids and young adults, especially considering the accessibility of salvia. Because it is considered a legal substance, in some cases it can be easier for minors to buy salvia than cigarettes.

But again, simply because it's legal doesn't mean there isn't cause for concern. Salvia is often compared to illegal drugs; it is smoked and has a similar appearance to marijuana, and brings on hallucinations, a similar effect to LSD. The high is intense but the trip is substantially shorter than that of other hallucinogens. Often the effects are gone within 20 minutes. Even with the relatively short trip time, the experience can be intense and even scary for some.

Unlike LSD and mushrooms, which act like serotonin, salvia acts through opioid receptors and even more specifically through Kappa opioid receptors. This is in contrast to the receptors that morphine and heroin act on. These receptors are responsible for the feelings of paranoia and anxiety that can lead to dysphoric effects like unease and depression. Despite the increased likelihood that negative side effects will be produced, not all users experience them and they are subject to the individual and dependent on the actual amount consumed.

The number of hits, as with other drugs, has been found to closely correlate with the amount of functionality problems exhibiting themselves in diction and fluency of movements.

The effect salvia has on an individual is subjective, but additional effects that have been tied to the drug include revisiting past memories, sensations of motion, visions of membranes, merging with or becoming objects and a sense of overlapping realities.

Although evidence seems to show that salvia use is relatively safe in the short-term, little is currently known about the long-term effects of salvia and studies are underway to find out if it holds any medicinal value. Studies are also being conducted to learn whether or not the drug holds any addictive properties.

But in the meantime, the medical community stresses caution, as there are still a lot of unknown variables with the drug and its effects, both short and long-term. What we do know is that salvia puts teenagers at high risk for a "bad" trip, which could mean anything from extreme anxiety attacks to sadness and depression. And while the high doesn't last a significant period of time, the intensity is severe and can lead to severe reactions.

Importantly, the hallucinations and distortions of reality make one thing pretty clear -- this drug should NEVER be tried when driving. As for Miley, it seems she has introduced salvia to a new following with her endorsement -- so expect this drug to become increasingly popular in the coming months.

About the Author:
Adi Jaffe, Ph.D. is a Los Angeles addiction psychologist and researcher. Himself a former drug addict and convicted drug dealer, Dr. Jaffe is an expert on substance abuse, especially on the neuroscience and policy issues involved. Today, he is a UCLA-affiliated researcher on addictions, founder of and a columnist for Psychology Today.

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