(Previously published in "The Entheogen Review" Vol. 3, No.4: Winter Solstice, 1994)
Salvinorin A (the major active principal of the plant Salvia divinorum) is an extremely powerful consciousness altering compound. In fact it is the most potent naturally occurring hallucinogen thus far isolated. But before would-be experimenters get too worked-up about it, it should be made clear that the effects are often extremely unnerving and there is a very real potential for physical danger with its use.
When the herb Salvia divinorum is consumed either by smoking the dried leaf or chewing the fresh leaves the effects are usually (but not always) pleasant and interesting, this is because when used this way the amount of salvinorin A absorbed into the blood stream is usually very small and in the case of the chewed leaves it is absorbed into the blood stream very gradually.
The pure compound salvinorin A is active at 200 - 500 mcg when vaporized and inhaled. Since very few people have the costly equipment necessary to accurately weigh anything close to this small an amount, it is inevitable that people will try to visually estimate the dose. Unfortunately there is little room for error before the effects become potentially dangerous. When the dose goes above 500 - 1000 mcg the effects can be very alarming, I have seen several people get up and lunge around the room falling over furniture, babbling incomprehensible nonsense and knocking their heads into walls. Several people have tried to wander out of the house. When the experience is over they have no memory of any of this. In fact they usually remember very different events. To an outside observer people in this condition have a blank look in their eyes as if no one is present (and perhaps no one is). It is also common for people to have a facial expression which is probably best described as being like that of a frightened animal. It appears that at these "larger" doses one completely loses awareness of, and control over, the physical body and for some reason part of the brain causes the body to get up and move about recklessly while the individual has no awareness of where their physical body is or what it is doing. It seems inevitable that one of these days some careless person will do too large a dose without a sitter and will wander out in the street, or hurt themselves in some way.
Because the dose is so small and insignificant looking, there is a tendency for people to think they need more than what they are told is a safe dose. Another problem is that the technique of vaporizing and inhaling the compound can be a bit tricky. Salvinorin A has a relatively high boiling point and people often don't get it hot enough to remain a gas all the way down into the lungs. Another problem is that so little is used that the vapor often disperses before it gets inhaled. Sometimes people just don't hold the vapor in their lungs long enough for thorough absorption. Several people after trying a dose in the recommended safe range and not getting an effect assumed that they needed a larger dose, when in fact the problem was that they did not vaporize the material efficiently the first time. I have already seen more than one intelligent, careful and experienced person accidentally do too large a dose because of this. Fortunately they had sitters and managed to get through the experience safely.
It is also important to understand that there have been no toxicological studies of this compound in humans. It is true that the Mazatecs have used the plant for a very long time and don't seem to have problems with it, but when the pure compound is used it would be a simple matter to consume a dose hundreds of times greater than anything ever encountered by the Mazatecs.
Not only is salvinorin A chemically different from other hallucinogens (it is a diterpene not an alkaloid) but its effects are quite different as well. Many people consider the effects less manageable and harder to work with than other entheogens. The majority of people who have had a full blown experience with salvinorin A are reluctant to ever do it again. Anyone choosing to experiment with this compound should always have an alert, clear-thinking sitter present to prevent them from injuring themselves or others.
Salvia divinorum as an herb can be used quite safely and many people claim that it has proved beneficial to them. Hopefully there will not be a rush to isolate the pure compound as it is almost inevitable that it will cause problems, people will get hurt, the compound and possibly the plant will get negative attention and it will become scheduled. We will just be adding one more potentially valuable plant ally to the list of species which are already feared and condemned in our society.
If you choose to pursue a relationship with this plant please treat it with respect and care. Perhaps if people can use the plant safely and responsibly it will be able to grow and thrive freely into the future.