Salvinorin A is a powerful hallucinogen and psychoactive chemical. It’s used as a recreational drug, especially among teens who are looking to experiment with psychoactive drugs. Most surprisingly, the drug is federally legal. Though it’s banned in certain states in the U.S., it’s not scheduled as a controlled substance.
In fact, it was once commonly called the “YouTube drug” because teens and young adults would take the drug and post the videos on the internet. Salvinorin A is the active ingredient in a drug widely known as salvia.
Salvia comes from a naturally occurring plant that grows in the remote alpine forests of the Sierra Mazateca mountains in Oaxaca, Mexico. The plant needs ideal conditions with the right shade and elevation to grow. These ideal conditions allowed Salvia divinorum to be used in rituals by Mazatec shamans for decades. The plant was used for its psychedelic properties in spiritual rituals, but it was also used for medicinal purposes as a diuretic.
Today, the drug is really only used recreationally in the U.S. The fact that it’s legal in some places makes it a popular option, especially among new users. A 2012 study, found that salvia is most popular among people who are ages 18 to 25.
The study looked at the 2008 National Drug Use and Health Survey and found that 2.8 percent of the sample population used the drug at some point in their life. However, since then, marijuana has been legalized and decriminalized in more states, which may make salvia a less popular option.
However, is Salvinorin A as safe as its legal status would suggest, or does it have negative effects? Learn more about this psychoactive drug and its effects.
Salvinorin A, the active ingredient in salvia, is what causes the drug’s psychoactive effects. The substance is a bit of a mystery in that we don’t yet know exactly how it works in the brain to produce its effects. Unlike other psychedelics like LSD and mescaline, Salvinorin A doesn’t affect a specific serotonin receptor that’s associated with psychedelic effects. Although it has some effects on kappa-opioid receptors, it’s missing a nitrogen atom that would make it an alkaloid like opioids.
Salvia is a psychedelic that also has some powerful dissociative effects. Salvinorin A hasn’t been studied extensively, so how it affects the brain is unclear. However, it’s known to cause various hallucinogenic effects, including:
Many psychedelic drug experiences have what’s referred to as a “breakthrough,” a period when you go from hallucinations, and perceptual changes that are still grounded in reality give way to a complete psychedelic experience where you feel like you are in another place entirely.
Reaching a breakthrough often requires a high dose, and many people have such an intense experience that they stop using the drug. Salvia breakthroughs involve what many people call “Salvia Space” or “Sally Space.” The experience of entering this “space” often involves extreme disassociation, a loss of a sense of self, and a loss of the perception of time. Many people feel like they are no longer a human with a body and that they’re in another place.
People who experience it often warn against taking high doses, particularly because of the loss of a sense of time. YouTuber Philip Markoff uploaded a video describing his experience with a salvia breakthrough to his channel named “Cg Kid.” In it, he says, “It felt like forever, and I can’t emphasize that enough. The scariest thing about the salvia breakthrough experience for me was there was no beginning or end.”
Markoff described another dangerous effect of the drug: when you’re on it, you move. Psychedelics generally don’t cause dangerous physical side effects unless you take an extremely high dose. For the most part, the danger of psychedelics comes from its psychological effects. However, psychedelics and hallucinogens are the most dangerous when you get up and move around.
If you’re experiencing a psychedelic experience, and you start to feel frightened or panicked, you may walk, run, jump, or even fight to get away from danger. This can cause you to put yourself in dangerous situations like falling out of a window or running into traffic.
For that reason, experienced psychedelic users often recommend having a “trip sitter” with you, or someone to supervise you who isn’t taking the drug. One of the side effects of an intense salvia trip is anxiety, panic, and trauma that can sometimes last well after the trip is over. Some people experience a form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and have panic attacks long after taking salvia.
In some cases, you may need treatment to address anxiety and trauma effectively. The psychological effects of the drug may be worse in people that have underlying mental health issues. Psychedelics can be especially dangerous to people who have schizophrenia or may be vulnerable to psychosis.
Salvinorin A can also affect your heart rate, causing palpitations and heart arrhythmias. People who have cardiovascular diseases may be at risk when taking salvia in high doses. One study found that salvia can cause neurologic, cardiovascular, and gastrointestinal effects that can be unpleasant or even dangerous.
Salvia may be a legal substance, but the abuse and overuse of any psychoactive substance can be dangerous. High doses of the drug, especially extracts of the drug, can have intense results. Salvia isn’t known to cause a severe substance use disorder, but it can be habit-forming, leading people to come back to it for recreational use.
However, salvia can be unpredictable. Since it’s legal and unregulated in some places, there may be very little standardization, which means it can be hard to determine an appropriate dose.
If you’ve started to develop a dependence on salvia or another substance, there may be help available. Addressing a substance use disorder early can help you avoid more intense consequences like mental or physical health problems. To start your road to recovery, learn more about salvinorin A, addiction, and how it can be safely treated today.
Cg Kid. (2018, September 3). What's Salvia Like? Most Terrifying Experience of My Life. from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z1Yux33LMPQ
Lalanne, L., Ayranci, G., Kieffer, B. L., & Lutz, P.-E. (2014, December 8). The kappa opioid receptor: from addiction to depression, and back. from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4258993/
National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2019, March 1). Salvia. from https://teens.drugabuse.gov/drug-facts/salvia
Perron, B. E., Ahmedani, B. K., Vaughn, M. G., Glass, J. E., Abdon, A., & Wu, L.-T. (2012, January). Use of Salvia divinorum in a nationally representative sample. from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3408869/
Vohra, R., Seefeld, A., Cantrell, F. L., & Clark, R. F. (2011, June). Salvia divinorum: exposures reported to a statewide poison control system over 10 years. from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19765944