The oldest herb store in Canada — and perhaps North America — often gets requests for the mind-altering salvia divinorum.
"We're the kind of place people call for that stuff — and that's why we don't have it," says Roger Lewis, chartered herbalist with Thuna Herbals, a family-run business since 1888. Lewis has been in this field for 10 years and has a healthy respect both for the healing abilities of certain plants and for the role they play in some cultures and traditions.
"If people are using it as a recreational herb for a cheap buzz, then I'm not sure we need it," he says. "My concern is that a society that takes an excessively slack attitude toward those kinds of products has little respect for them."
In the case of salvia divinorum, the plant has been used for hundreds of years in specific ceremonies and for explicit reasons. It has, like the blends used in First Nations ceremonial pipes or sweat lodges, long been used with knowledge and reverence. In Lewis' opinion, doling out salvia to everyone who simply wanted to try a puff would feel almost sacrilegious.
"It wouldn't be proper, just like it wouldn't be proper to take peace pipe herbs and turn them into chewing gum for people who wanted to chew their peace pipe herbs." That being said, Lewis admits some interest in maybe trying salvia just once. But that's with a strong knowledge of plants — including those that can be harmful.
"Some plants can be very toxic, like Datura Stramonium, or Jimson weed," he says. "Kids ask for that a few times a year, and I scare them off, because every year a few kids in the U.S. die from this."
When customers ask for advice on what herbs can help them feel better, Lewis advises that they avoid the quick fix.
"The ideal nerve tonic is something that you don't feel. It's something that keeps your nervous system sustained and normalized."