It’s easy to walk by a Salvia divinorum plant without really noticing that it’s there. To the average person, it looks much like any other flowering shrub: mostly inconspicuous green leaves, sometimes adorned by long purple and white flowers. Pretty, but not spectacular. Yet, this average-looking shrub has a special power: It produces a unique psychoactive terpene called Salvinorin A, considered to be the most potent hallucinogen of natural origin. So, of course, salvia is not legal in many Western countries.
Within seconds after smoking the herb, consumers are set adrift into an unusual psychoactive experience, where hallucinations, shifts in sensory perception, and changes in your perception of reality are all possible. But, unlike more famous psychoactives, like LSD, the effects of salvia are short-lived. The average salvia trip lasts a mere 20 minutes when smoked, and up to two hours if chewed.
What’s Salvia Divinorum?
Salvia divinorum is a psychoactive herb native to southern Mexico—and Salvia divinorum is just one type of salvia. The intoxicating plant is a member of the mint family and a relative of “common sage.” Salvia is so common, in fact, that the plants make up the largest genus in the mint family. Scholars estimate that there are between 700 and 1,000 different species of salvia.
Yet, even among such a large family, Salvia divinorum is unique. Most plants in the Salvia genus are non-psychoactive. These non-intoxicating plants are popular choices for flower gardens and decorative landscaping. Salvia divinorum, however, stands out from the crowd. The plant produces a unique class of opioid-like compounds that inspire intense but short-lived hallucinations.
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These hallucinations are the inspiration behind the plant’s name. Salvia divinorum is traditionally used in divination amongst Mazatec peoples in Southern Mexico, hence divinorum. In Mazatec tradition, salvia sits alongside psilocybin and other psychoactive plants that have strong spiritual significance. The Mazatec often chew salvia or drink salvia tea in conjunction with prayer and ceremony; the plant has a spirit of its own and chewing salvia leaves is a way to be in communication with the wild herb.
Uses of Salvia in contemporary Western culture are quite different; most Western consumers use the plant recreationally, not as an integral part of spiritual practice. It’s also smoked, much like cannabis or tobacco. The plant was introduced to the Western World through Jean Bassett Johnson, an American anthropologist who studied Mazatec shamanism in the 1930s. Yet, while Westerners knew about psychoactive salvia from 1939 onward, the hallucinogenic plant did not become popular within recreational drug culture until after the new millennium.
Is Salvia Legal?
Psychoactive salvia exists in a legal gray area. In general, Salvia divinorum is regulated only loosely around the world—it’s legal in more places than it’s not. But, the plant is still out of legal reach for many in the United States, Canada, and Europe. In the United States, the majority of states have banned salvia as a controlled substance. But, not every state has adopted hardline policies toward the plant. Similarly, salvia is regulated differently across Europe. Most European countries have banned the possession and sale of the plant, but a handful, like Denmark, regulate salvia as a potential medicinal plant.
Believe it or not, Salvia divinorum is federally legal in the United States. The plant is not included in the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, making it legally different from cannabis, mushrooms, and other psychoactive plants and fungi. But, there’s a catch. While federal law does not regulate salvia, the plant is illegal to possess, process, and sell in most states.
Here’s where salvia is legal in the United States:
- New Hampshire
- New Mexico
- New York
- Rhode Island
- South Carolina
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The salvia plant is also legal in California, Maine, and Maryland with age restrictions—you have to be 18 in California and Maine and 21 in Maryland. In the rest of the country, the possession, sale, and/or growth of Salvia divinorum is banned. In some states, salvia may be purchased only when it is not intended for human consumption. It may also be legal to grow saliva in several U.S. states not listed above, but checking local laws is always recommended before you plant it.
Salvia divinorum is native to Mexico. As mentioned above, the plant is still used in the Mazatec tradition as a spiritual aid and it grows wild in the Sierra Mazateca mountain range in the state of Oaxaca. The plant has a long history in Southern Mexico and is not banned or regulated by the Mexican government. When used for traditional purposes, most Salvia divinorum is foraged in the wild, not bought and sold. Although, it may be possible to buy salvia leaves from markets and other vendors.
Where Do You Buy Salvia?
Although salvia is legal in many countries, the plant is sold in a variety of different ways. In many countries, psychoactive salvia may be extremely difficult to come by, as the market for the natural hallucinogen is still relatively small and the plant is not heavily exported as a consumer good. Other plants, like cannabis and tobacco, are far more likely to dominate recreational plant markets.
In the United States, salvia can be purchased in smoke shops in states where the plant is legal. Salvia can also be purchased and sold online and shipped to your home. Buying salvia online, however, can come with its own share of risks. Before purchasing online, it’s important to find whether or not it’s legal to do so in your state or country.
Types of Salvia to Buy
Buying salvia can be a tricky process—the herb is largely unregulated in most places where it is legal, making it difficult to ensure the safety and integrity of salvia products. In Mexico, the herb can be foraged in the wild. But, in other parts of the world, salvia comes from small to medium-scale cultivators.
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The odd nursery in legal U.S. states may stock Saliva divinorum plants, but chances are the pickings are slim. Most nurseries and garden centers stock many different types of salvia, but divinorum is not often one of them. Even in states where salvia is legal, the plant’s hallucinogenic reputation means that many large nurseries avoid the plant. So, connecting with a local enthusiast may be the easiest way to find a salvia plant if you’re interested in growing one yourself—where it’s legal, of course.
Some small businesses also ship salvia plants and seeds to legal U.S. states. But, before you buy, it’s always recommended to check reviews and contact the supplier to ensure that you’re purchasing from a safe and reliable source. If a supplier offers to ship plants or seeds to a region that outlaws the plant, consider it risky.
Dried salvia is one of the most common ways to purchase the plant. Dried salvia looks a lot like any dried spice; little flecks of green leaves. But, given the gray legal status of salvia in most Western countries, buying dried salvia from a gas station or head shop can be a risky task. Many products sold as dried salvia or “herbal incense” may actually be different herbs coated with salvia extract.
If you are legally able to purchase salvia in your own state or country, it is recommended to research local vendors first. Some important questions to ask your vendor include:
- Do you know the country of origin of this salvia?
- Is this dried salvia, or has this product been treated with salvia extract?
- How does the vendor ensure that they’re selling a pure product? Do they use any quality standards when sourcing their salvia?
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Salvia extracts contain concentrated Salvinorin A, the primary psychoactive terpene in the plant. This extract is often sprayed onto spice mixes in varying concentrations, which means that you can theoretically smoke saliva that is substantially stronger than what naturally occurs in the plant. But the overall safety of these concentrated extracts is generally unknown; they’re not standardized or subject to basic safety regulations, as put forth by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Further, the use of extracts is very different from the traditional use of the herb, which is chewed and not smoked. So, overall, salvia extract is a very new commodity and little is known about its relative safety.
Here’s Where Salvia is Illegal
Although Salvia divinorum is unregulated in most countries, more than two dozen ban the sale and possession of the plant. In some countries, the plant’s active chemical constituent, salvinorin A, is also banned. Here’s where salvia is illegal:
- Czech Republic
- South Korea
- United Kingdom
Note: Laws regulating salvia use, possession, cultivation, and sale are subject to change. Please research laws in your area before purchasing, selling, or cultivating Salvia divinorum.
A botanical enthusiast, Anna Wilcox has over five years of experience as a health and wellness writer and marketer. Her content specialties include writing about cannabis and other natural products. She has been published in Leafly, HERB, and Cannabis Now. When she’s not writing, she can be found in the yoga studio or playing with her dog. You can follow her work on Twitter and Instagram.
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