The plant is in the same family as sage and mint and was originally used ceremonially by the Mazatec of Mexico for spiritual rituals, owing to its reality altering properties. It contains the drug Salvinorin A which is often cited as one of the most potent hallucinogenic compounds ever discovered.
It’s fascinating for a number of reasons, not least because it can completely and intensely detach the user from reality, lasts no more than 15 minutes, and works on an opioid receptor in the brain – unlike most other hallucinogens that typically affect serotonin (e.g. LSD) or glutamate (e.g. ketamine).
Unlike opiates such as heroin and morphine which mainly work on the mu opioid receptor, salvia seems to have a unique and specific affinity for the kappa opioid receptor and so has very different effects.
The NYT piece discusses its rising popularity and the prevalence of trip videos on YouTube where incapacitated users are filmed while off their heads. Apparently, it is becoming increasingly outlawed in the US at the state level and apparently the federal government are considering banning it.
I tried salvia once and found the experience very intense but quite unpleasant, mainly for the deep physical discomfort it caused (I wonder whether this is explained by evidence suggesting it also inhibits the mu opioid receptor – known to modulate pain perception). It’s also quite incapacitating and hardly seemed to qualify as a ‘recreational drug’ in any sense of the word.
Fascinating compound scientifically though, and one which is likely to teach us a great deal about the little known role of the opioid system in perception.
Link to NYT piece on salvia.