Salvia is the commonly used name for Salvia divinorum, a hallucinogenic plant species that grows naturally in southern regions of Mexico and can also grow when cultivated in controlled circumstances. Although references to this plant in mainstream culture are fairly uncommon, it ranks in the top 10 of the substances used by U.S. teenagers for recreational purposes. Researchers from the University of Michigan follow ongoing trends in teen salvia abuse through a project called Monitoring the Future. Current findings from this project indicate that adolescent use of the plant/drug dropped somewhat in 2013.
Salvia divinorum contains a substance called salvinorin A, which is responsible for the plant’s mind-altering effects. Although salvinorin A is a hallucinogen, it changes brain function in a way that differs from the changes produced by better-known hallucinogens such as LSD or the mushroom-based chemical psilocybin. The specific changes triggered by salvia use include altered visual perception, an altered sense of “self,” a sense of detachment from one’s surroundings, unusual fluctuations in mood and a general decline in the ability to track changes in one’s environment or situation. Unlike LSD or psilocybin — which can trigger drug effects that last for 12 hours and 6 hours, respectively — salvia triggers effects that typically last no longer than half an hour. Common methods of use include chewing and swallowing fresh S. divinorum leaves, drinking S. divinorum extract and smoking dried S. divinorum leaves.
Salvia’s history as a recognized substance of abuse is brief enough that no one really knows all of its potentially harmful short- or long-term effects. Noted possible problems include increased risks for exposure to accidental injury, adverse reactions to the drug’s mood and perception alterations, and disruption of the brain processes responsible for making memories, recalling memories and acquiring new skills or information. Teen users of the drug, who by definition have not reached full mental maturity, may have increased risks for any salvia-related harm, especially if they take the drug repeatedly over time.
The University of Michigan researchers use Monitoring the Future, an annual survey sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, to track substance-related trends in 12th-, 10th- and eighth-graders. Although this survey has been in use for decades, questions related to the intake of salvia were only added in 2009. In 2012, 4.4 percent of all 12th-graders used salvia at least once over the course of the year. The rate of use among 10th-graders was 2.5 percent, while 1.4 percent of all eighth-graders used the plant/drug. For 12th- and 10th-graders, the 2012 rates of intake represented a decline of more than a full percentage point from the rates recorded in 2011. The rate of salvia use among eighth-graders fell only a little bit.
In 2012, Monitoring the Future began recording teen attitudes on salvia use. In that year, about 23 percent of all 12th-graders viewed occasional use of the plant/drug as dangerous; almost 14 percent of 12th-graders held the same opinion on salvia experimentation. A little more than 20 percent of 10th-graders viewed occasional salvia use as dangerous, while a little more than 12 percent of the teens in this grade held the same opinion of experimentation. About 16 percent of eighth-graders had a negative take on occasional salvia use, while 9.5 percent of the teens in this grade felt the same way about experimentation with the plant/drug.
In 2013, the rate of salvia intake among 12th-graders fell from 4.4 percent to 3.4 percent. Among 10th-graders, the rate of intake fell from 2.5 percent to 2.3 percent. Among eighth-graders, the rate of salvia use fell from 1.4 percent to 1.2 percent. The University of Michigan researchers view the decline in use among 12th-graders as significant, especially when compared to the peak rate of use (5.7 percent) recorded in 2009. While the 2012 to 2013 changes were not significant among 10th- and eighth-graders, levels of use in both of these grades were also considerably lower than the peak recorded rates of use in previous years.
Between 2012 and 2013, the number of 12th-graders with a negative perspective on occasional salvia use dropped by almost 2 percent; the number of teens in this grade with a negative perspective on experimentation with the plant/drug fell by almost 1 percent. Among 10th-graders, the number of teens viewing occasional salvia use as dangerous dropped by over 3 percent; the number of 10th-graders viewing salvia experimentation as dangerous fell by 1.6 percent. Belief in the danger of occasional salvia intake fell among eighth-graders by 1.5 percent; belief in the danger of experimentation fell in this grade by just over 1 percent. Public health officials track attitudes regarding salvia and other drugs because these attitudes can partially predict future trends in actual substance use.