Controversial legal hallucinogen “safe”

It's more hallucinogenic than LSD or marijuana -- and it's legal. Salvia divonorum, commonly known as salvia, thanks to its powerful psychedelic punch and its availability in legitimate retailers, has made a huge jump into...

Salvia divonorum, commonly known as salvia, thanks to its powerful psychedelic punch and its availability in legitimate retailers, has made a huge jump into Canada’s recreational drug scene, particularly among youth.

“It’s a very intense hallucinogenic experience that is thankfully short-lived—usually 15 minutes, some people report five minutes and the longest would be half an hour,” said Wende Wood, a psychiatric pharmacist with the Toronto-based Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

Native to Mexico, the drug was originally used by the Mazatec culture for spiritual journeys.

On YouTube, posted videos of young salvia users under the debilitating effects of the drug have caught the attention of parents and lawmakers worldwide.

In the United States, Ohio will soon join nine other states that have made the drug illegal and punishable by jail time.

In 2002, Australia became the first country to ban the drug. Germany, Belgium, Denmark, Sweden, Croatia, Spain and Italy have all prohibited the herb, with penalties ranging as high as 20 years imprisonment.

The substance is technically not vetted for human consumption by Health Canada, but it is also not listed under the federal Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.

“It’s not legal, it’s just not illegal,” said Wood.

Health Canada is not investigating the herb, but is “collecting information as it becomes available” to determine an “appropriate level of control for the substance,” said Health Canada media liaison Philippe Laroche.

“Personally, I think it should be controlled—anything that causes people to hallucinate should be controlled,” said Porter Creek Secondary drug awareness co-ordinator and drug dog handler Doug Green.

“This is one of those (drugs) where kids think it’s OK because it’s legal—so they don’t worry about the health risks,” he said.

In 2005, the marketed health products directorate, an arm of Health Canada, recommended that salvia be placed on the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.

The directorate’s efforts were ultimately stalled because they lacked “sufficient scientific and empirical data that concludes it has the potential for misuse and abuse,” reported a 2007 article in the Globe and Mail.

The drug’s sole risk is “falling and hurting yourself,” said the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse.

“Is it dangerous? No,” said Heather Wilcox, a media relations liaison for the centre.

Green described coming into contact with Whitehorse high school students kids who had encountered six-hour-long highs that had “messed them up” for weeks afterward.

A high that long would have had to come from salvia that was “laced with something, because that’s not what the scientific reports have found, that’s for sure,” said Wood.

Salvia has been found to carry no clinical long-term effects, save the mental repercussions of a particularly illuminating psychedelic trip.

“If it happens to cause a good deal of introspection, that could still be weighing on someone a few days later,” said Wood.

The sheer intensity of the drug bars its potential for addiction, say experts.

“The fortunate thing is that most people don’t have a particularly good experience with it,” said Wood.

“It’s a novelty, most people seem to try it and then move on, it doesn’t appear to be a drug that leads to other drug use,” said Wilcox.

“Even people that have used it more than once don’t use it every day—from our perspective they don’t show up for addictions treatment,” said Wood.

“Some kids do it and say, ‘Yeah, it’s great,’ some kids do it and say, ‘It’s the most horrific thing I’ve ever done and I’ll never do it again,’” said Green.

The Adult Warehouse on 4th Avenue has sold salvia for 12 months, and has encountered “absolutely no issues with it,” said owner Richard Rupert.

“It certainly isn’t harmful—it’s about five minutes of heavy hallucination and then it’s over—it’s not like it’s a 10-hour LSD trip or something,” said Rupert.

Adult Warehouse staff are carefully trained in selling the drug only after its effects have been made clear to the customer.

“It’s something that should be done in familiar surroundings—a quiet comfortable spot—generally with a friend,” said Rupert.

“There’s particular ways you want to be doing this; you don’t want to be doing any other drugs, you don’t want to be drinking,” he said.

On occasion, the Adult Warehouse has turned down customers who have failed to demonstrate a “mature respect” for the herb.

“There was one gentleman, he remarked when he was buying it that he was going to send it to his buddy and tell him it was really good pot,” said Rupert.

“We said, ‘Nope, sorry, that’s not funny,’” he said.

Since the store restricts access to minors, Adult Warehouse’s salvia is only available to customers over 19.

“Yeah, OK! So’s the liquor store! That’s a hard argument, I mean, the liquor store’s 19-plus too and we have the highest rate of alcohol used by teenagers in the country,” said Green.

For many Canadian salvia users, especially minors, online ordering sites provide the most convenient way of getting the drug. Recently, the active ingredient has been rendered into pill form.

In early 2008, Canada’s first salvia cafe—les Mentheurs—opened in Montreal’s Plateau Mont-Royal Neighbourhood.

For , customers received light dosages of the herb, served through a water pipe.

“There’s a risk, but I wouldn’t say there’s more of a risk than anything else,” said owner Matthew Lipscomb.

If you took salvia while “driving or standing on a 20-storey balcony” the risks would be increased, he said.

The cafe never gave out full strength, “melt into the floor” salvia dosages, and Lipscomb was very strict about having a “spotter” to supervise each customer who was on a high.

Judges, doctors, lawyers and off-duty police officers soon joined the ranks of Les Mentheurs’ diverse clientele.

Most controversially, minors were also served at Lipcomb’s cafe.

Surprisingly to Lipscomb, it was often the minors that showed the most prudence.

“They didn’t come in, guns blazing; ‘Yeah, let’s get high, man,’” he said.

“They’d come in curious, they’d come in inquisitive, they’d ask a lot of questions,” and quite often, they would make the decision not to do it, said Lipscomb.

Contact Tristin Hopper at