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Posted at 7:00 AM ET, 12/ 8/2010

Hallucinogen salvia has no short-term dangers, study says

By Rob Stein

A hallucinogenic drug that is apparently becoming increasingly popular is extremely powerful but does not appear to produce any adverse effects in the short term in healthy people, according to what researchers say is the first careful study to examine the substance.

In a study funded by the National Institutes of Health, Matthew Johnson of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and colleagues gave four physically and mentally healthy paid subjects the drug known as salvinorin A. The drug is the active ingredient of Salvia divinorum, an herb in the mint family that has been used for centuries by shamans in Mexico for spiritual healing and is becoming increasingly popular as a recreational drug. That has prompted increased efforts by law enforcement to restrict its availability, including bans in at least 12 states.


Salvia is available at stores in the District and in parts of Maryland. (By Alan Pinon -- Salisbury (Md.) Daily Times)

Animal studies have found that the drug has unique effects on the brain, prompting some scientists to speculate that it or a similar compound may have medicinal uses for diseases such as Alzheimer's, pain and drug addiction.

In a paper published online by the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, two men and two women--all of whom had taken hallucinogens in the past--inhaled a wide range of doses of the drug or placebos during 20 sessions that over two or three months. The subjects began to experience the drug's effects almost immediately after inhaling it, but the effects were very brief--peaking after two minutes and virtually disappearing after about 20 minutes. Two participants rated the strength of the effect as "as strong as imaginable," which is unusual for people with prior experience with hallucinogens, the researchers reported.

The subjects also reported the effects were very different than those caused by LSD and hallucinogenic mushrooms. Those drugs tend to be powerful but a person taking them is still aware of the world around them and can interact with it, the researchers said. While under the effects of salvia, the subjects said they felt as if they had completely left reality, gone to "other worlds or dimensions," had "contact with entities," and experienced "mystical-type" effects, the researchers reported.

There were no significant changes in heart rate or blood pressure, no tremors or other advsere side effects, the researchers reported. Animal studies indicate it is not addictive.

But the researchers cautioned that the study was very small, and the effects would be extremely dangerous if taken while doing certain activities, such as driving.

By Rob Stein  | December 8, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Alcohol and Drugs, Drug Abuse, Mental Health, Neurological disorders, Psychology  
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