Several weeks after Miley Cyrus turned 18 last month, a video surfaced showing the pop singer and actor celebrating her adulthood with uncontrollable laughter, garbled speech and a shapely bong. It was neither marijuana nor hashish in the pipe, she explained in the face of public furor, but Salvia divinorum, a powerful hallucinogenic that adults can legally use in California.
The controversy involving Cyrus, the former child star from Hannah Montana, has led to new interest in this psychoactive Mexican herb. Google searches for “salvia” in the United States spiked 600 percent in the days that followed, Twitter went aflutter, and Saturday Night Live spoofed the incident last weekend.
However inadvertent, salvia now has a celebrity endorsement. Since the video was leaked, Black Myst Smoke Shop, a store in Los Angeles that sells the drug by the gram for US$10 to US$60, has seen a surge in business.
“We used to sell one or two a day,” said Steve Kinsman, an employee of the shop. “Now it’s 10 or 15. We’ll get a bunch of young people coming in, then a creepy 40-year-old who’s obviously a Miley fan.”
Once the domain of Mazatec shamans in Oaxaca, Mexico, Salvia divinorum — a name that means “divining sage” — has spent the last decade crawling from stoner novelty to the fringes of the mainstream. Evidence of its popularity is online: A YouTube search for “salvia” reveals thousands of clips showing young people cackling, moaning and tripping out of their gourds under the herb’s influence.
“After two or three hits, I spat everywhere and was coughing and laughing and drooling,” said Lee, a 22-year-old from Brooklyn who tried the drug while attending a university in upstate New York, and who requested that only his first name be used for anonymity. “I started yelling random words, then my legs gave out, and I dropped to the floor.”
While the intense, 15-minute highs are often described as otherworldly, it’s not an experience that everyone is eager to repeat, or try. Several states have banned the herb because of its psychoactive effects; several more have set limits on possession or consumption. Meanwhile, the Drug Enforcement Administration deems it a “drug of concern” rather than a controlled substance.
“Just because something is not controlled under federal law doesn’t mean it’s wise to ingest or smoke,” said Rusty Payne, a spokesman for the DEA. “It does have hallucinogenic effects, and that’s never good.”
The attention given to salvia has provided ammunition for those who insist salvia is a public menace.
“In a weird way, the Miley Cyrus thing has helped to highlight some of the issues,” said New York state Senator John Flanagan, a Republican. He plans to reintroduce a bill next year to render salvia illegal in New York state.
Although salvia has been sold in places like head shops for years, levels of salvia use appear static. A recent Monitoring the Future survey by the National Institute on Drug Abuse reported a slight dip to 5.5 percent in usage from last year to this year among high school seniors. “It doesn’t appear to be a problem,” said Lloyd Johnston, a professor at the University of Michigan who worked on the study.
A rush to regulate may also stifle medical opportunity, some researchers say. The herb’s active component, a complex molecule called salvinorin A that affects the brain’s Kappa receptors, could be useful in understanding Alzheimer’s disease, cocaine addiction and chronic pain.