This post was originally published on October 27, 2014.
After reading the article “Why Is Salvia So Uniquely Terrifying?” the message seems pretty clear: This drug is probably not something anyone should take to party no matter how badly they want to get high. The headline alone screams it, and the points made in the piece (as well as some follow up research) paint a picture of the most un-fun hallucinogen under the sun—a description I would not have thought possible when I was regularly ingesting LSD, mescaline and mushrooms in my 20s.
If the frequent use of the word “terror” in the collective writings about ingesting the drug isn’t enough to deter potential users, knowing that the primary effect produced is “tactile hallucinations” (which the author described as “kind of like a bug crawling on your skin”) certainly should be. That’s the same sensation that alcoholics experience when going through withdrawal and develop the DT’s (delirium tremens), and if you’ve ever seen The Lost Weekend or Days of Wine and Roses, you know it’s a lot more horrifying than just your standard bad trip.
Even websites that advocate the use of the hallucinogen as a way to “produce a profoundly introspective state of awareness” are plastered with bold red-lettered warnings like “Never, ever, attempt to drive under the influence of salvia—doing so could prove fatal!” and “Never use salvia if guns, knives or other dangerous objects are within easy reach.” And while both of those caveats could easily be applied to booze (the liquor industry at least makes an attempt to implore folks to not drink and drive, although the part about not adding weaponry into the mix won’t be showing up at the end of any Budweiser commercials soon), the effects of salvia clearly make these “musts” instead of mere suggestions.
Maybe that’s why the salvia advocacy websites also recommend that if you’re going to trip on the shit, you really should have someone they refer to as a “sitter” on hand. In other words, a sober person who will keep you from harming yourself or others, because they also warn that the drug should never be used in a public environment. One of the warnings provided for the sitter is this: if the person under the influence is attempting to wander into a potentially dangerous situation (like, where other people are), “Use the minimum touching necessary (in their altered state, the person may think your touching is an assault and react to the imagined danger).” I’m thinking another solid warning would be to not volunteer to be a sober sitter for an extreme fighter, right?
Apparently, what sets salvia apart from other traditionally “fun” psychedelics is its chemical makeup. It doesn’t work anything like other hallucinogens, which activate the brain’s serotonin receptors. Salvia activates opioid receptors in the brain, but they’re not the same ones that produce sedation, pain relief and euphoria the way that heroin and morphine do. Instead, they work on the kappa(1)-opioid receptor, which causes hallucinogenic effects. But instead of the euphoria that other psychedelics produce, you get dysphoria, which is a profound state of unease or dissatisfaction. Every article or website I visited clearly states: “This is not a party drug.” And Dr. Peter H. Addy, a research associate at Yale who has studied the substance for five years, told the article’s author, “Very few people would consider (salvia) to be fun in any way.”
So why would anyone want to take it?
If you have to ask that question, you don’t understand the mind of the addict (or teenagers for that matter). Most people would say, “Wow! That shit sounds insane, I’d better not try that.” But the still-sick portion of my recovering head ignores the terror portion of the information and only remembers the phrase “Salvia makes you trip harder, and weirder, than pretty much anything else,” then justifies the terror consequences by selectively paying attention to the fact that it only lasts “20-30 minutes,” that no one OD’s on it and that it’s not even habit-forming! I become further intrigued when I learn that the peoples of the Sierra Mazateca mountains in Southern Mexico use it in mind-expanding rituals that allow its proponents to speak to the Virgin Mary, St. Peter and even Jesus Christ himself. So what if I don’t necessarily believe those folks are real? It certainly would be cool if I got to talk to them, I think.
Luckily for me, even l though I have many fond memories of taking hallucinatory agents, the one that still sticks out for me was the bad trip I had in the woods where I imagined that everyone hated me. And with no booze or pills in sight to come down with for hours, it was fucking miserable. So I think I’ll take a pass on the chance to meet Jesus and company—until someone comes up with another way.