by Janet Pothier - Health Advisor, CMM

For thousands of years sacred medicines have been used by Indigenous people as part of ceremonies and healing. Since contact we have seen some sacred medicines outlawed and others appropriated to be used by large pharmaceutical companies. Recently the substance Salvia Divinorum or Diviners Sage has been in the news because of the increased misuse and abuse of this traditional medicine and hallucinogenic drug by youth in North America. The issue was brought to the Mi’kmaq Maliseet Atlantic Health Board in April of 2011 after it was identified as an issue in some communities. What is Diviner’s Sage?

Salvia Divinorum also known as Sally D, Lady Sally, Maria pastora, ska maria pastora, ska pastora, diviner’s sage, magic mint, puff, incense special, and salvia is a natural health product found growing only in the Oaxaca region of Mexico. The herb has been used for centuries by the Mazatec Indians as a ceremonial medicine that assists on spiritual and Shamanic healing journeys (Griffin, Millar, Khey, 2008). The psychoactive ingredient is known as salvanorin A and it is this substance that acts on a specific pathway in the brain to produce a very intense intoxication that can be accompanied by:

  • visions or hallucinations;
  • out-of-body experiences;
  • uncontrollable laughter;
  • short-term memory loss;
  • lack of physical coordination;
  • slurred speech and awkward sentence patterns;
  • loss of consciousness; and
  • dysphoria (feeling anxious, depressed, or restless).

Small doses of the substance are reported to clear the mind while also impairing a person’s physical coordination. It is said to be a useful tool for meditation or just ‘being in the world’. This ‘being’ has been described as an introspective experience where the world and person are one. Large doses produce more dramatic effects including fully formed visions, a sense of complete detachment from reality and even loss of consciousness. One of the main concerns for individuals using Salvia is increased risk of physical injury when intoxicated as the individual experiences minimal external awareness which can last 5 to 30 minutes (Health Canada, 2011, Griffin, Millar, and Khey, 2008). It is common practice to have someone sober, known as a ‘sitter’, to act as protector for the person who is intoxicated so they do not hurt themselves or others (Griffin, Miller, and Khey, 2008). The hallucinations can be very powerful and individuals have reported being terrified and unable to control their bodies during the ‘high’ state. Risk of physical injury as well as the lack of knowledge about how this drug, especially when taken with other drugs, affects a person’s brain, especially youth whose brains are still not yet fully developed.

Traditionally the Mazatec Indians chewed the fresh leaves or drank a tea made from the leaves. The traditional use of Salvia as a medicine is ceremonial where those engaging in ceremony do so for specific purposes and under the guidance of experienced medicine men. This traditional use should not be confused with how it is being misused and abused in North America.

In Canada Salvia divinorum and salvinorin A is usually smoked using a water pipe. The purchased leaves are inoculated with a concentrated extract of salvinorin A to increase potency while decreasing the amount a person has to smoke to achieve the desired effect. Its history of use in Canada and the US reaches back approximately 10 years. It has received increased media attention in recent years when linked to the deaths of youth who have used the drug along with other illegal drugs and it seems youth in this region have begun to experiment with it (Griffin, Miller, Khey, 2008). In addition, it seems that experimentation with Salvia is usually predicated by other drug use such as marijuana (Griffin, Miller, and Khey, 2008).

Health Canada statistics report the following:

“Salvia, an emerging substance of interest, was examined on its own for the first time in 2009. An estimated 1.6% of Canadians, aged 15 years and older, reported that they had used salvia in their lifetime, and 0.2% reported using it in the past-year. Salvia appears to be a substance that is tried largely by youth with a 7.3% prevalence of lifetime use which was statistically significantly higher than that reported by adults (0.5%). Because this is a relatively new substance, Health Canada will be closely monitoring its use over the next years” (Health Canada, 2010).

Health Canada’s Role:

On February 21, 2011 the Conservative Government stated its’ “proposed [the] intention to include Salvia divinorum and salvinorin A, also known as Salvia, as controlled substances. A notice to Interested Parties outlining Health Canada’s proposal was published in Canada Gazette, Part I on February 19, 2011” (Health Canada, 2011).

“The notice to Interested Parties proposes that Salvia divinorum and its main active ingredient salvinorin A be added to Schedule III to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. This means that activities such as possession, trafficking, possession for the purpose of trafficking, importation, exportation, passion for the purpose of exportation, and production (or cultivation) would be illegal unless authorized by regulation… it would also allow law enforcement agencies to take action against suspected illegal activities involving these substances” (Health Canada, 2011).

The decision was based on surveillance data and scientific reports that suggest that the substances could pose a possible health risk. However it seems there is an absence of scientific literature and data that clearly outlines the long-term effects of salvinorin A on the brain and body of regular users (Health Canada, 2011, Griffin, Miller, Khey, 2008, Griffiths and Johnson, date unknown).

It must be noted that researchers and academics are actively researching the pharmaceutical uses of salvinorin A to determine its potential benefits as a possible treatment for Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, dementia, pain, and substance dependence. One case report in medical literature links Salvia divinorum to the alleviation of treatment- resistant depression in a woman who self-experimented with the substance as an alternative to pharmaceutical drugs that did not appear to work be working (Griffiths and Johnson, date unknown).

Countries that have banned Salvia and salvinorin A include Australia, Belgium, Germany, Italy, and Japan. Some US States have banned the substances as well.

Implications and Recommendations

We do not know enough about Salvia divinorum and salvinorin A to suggest that its use by youth in Canada will not have long-term detrimental impacts on their health. There are a number of things that need to be considered before making a decision to criminalize this substance. They include:

  1. By placing Salvia divinorum and salvinorin A on the Schedule III we effectively criminalize its use. We know that illegal drug trade and the criminal activities that go with it cost a tremendous amount of money to try to regulate and control. The cost to human life is immeasurable. We also know that criminalizing substances often increases the crime associated with the use of these substances for example the prohibition of alcohol in the early 20th century, etc.
  2. Current academic research by pharmaceutical companies imply there is preliminary evidence that salvinorin A or its derivatives may have potential positive uses to treat certain mental illnesses, pain, and drug dependence. This is good news for those who experience the debilitating effects of mental illness. At the same time if research proves correct pharmaceutical companies are in the position to profit from these discoveries. Salvia divinorum is grown in one part of the world and used as a traditional ceremonial medicine. The Indigenous people of that region will not benefit from this research and the knowledge and ownership they have will be appropriated and used for financial gain by large pharmaceutical companies.
  3. We do not know enough about Salvia divinorum as a natural health product and medicine to place it on a list with other controlled substances that include amphetamines and some barbiturates.
  4. Many traditional Indigenous medicines or the compounds that are in traditional medicines have been outlawed. Some of these decisions are understood as ways to limit traditional ceremonies and practices of Indigenous peoples around the world. To do so is an entrenched and subtle form of oppression and is discriminatory.

Conclusions

The current use of Salvia divinorum and salvinorin A by Canadian youth is problematic and therefore requires our attention and further exploration and research to determine exactly how and whether Canada should regulate the production, distribution, and use of Salvia divinorum and salvinorin A.

One option is to place an age limit on the use of Salvia divinorum and salvinorin A similar to those for alcohol and tobacco use. While these restrictions, to some extent, criminalize youth who use the substance they do not carry the same level of punishment as possession of a Schedule III controlled substance. Anyone who is convicted under the criminal code for possession, etc can be sentenced for up to 3 years in jail.

Protection and ‘ownership’ of Sacred Medicines

Diviner’s Sage or Salvia Divinorum is a traditional Indigenous medicine and has been used for centuries in sacred healing ceremonies by the Mazatec People. If mainstream benefits are determined pharmaceutical companies will profit from the sale of new drugs containing the medicine (or derivatives of salvinorin A). However, the misuse and abuse of this substance in Canada has become an issue especially with youth populations. What we know about youth brain development and risk taking suggests that this substance can be particularly dangerous for youth as it increases the likelihood of injury due to decreased inhibitions and increased risk taking among this group. The concurrent use with other illegal and legal (alcohol) drugs is also a very real concern and we do not yet know enough about the long term impacts of it on the brain and body of people who use it.

At the same time there are questions to consider. Are the Mazatec people aware that the medicine they have cultivated and used for traditional and sacred ceremonies is being researched? If so, what does this mean for them? If it becomes a controlled substance could this eventually impact the traditional use? What are the implications if this substance were to remain legal here in Canada? And what is the actual effects and impact of the drug on the brain? Food for thought as we move forward to create ways to limit the possible detrimental effects the misuse and abuse of Salvia Divinorum might have on our youth. The issues and considerations are complex. We must think carefully about how we want to move forward while also taking responsibility for safe guarding and asserting Indigenous rights to the protection of sacred medicines, their ceremonial uses, and traditional knowledge.

References

CTV News (2011). Health Canada proposes ban on hallucinogen salvia. Retrieved April 13, 2011 from http://www.ctv.ca/CTVNews/Health/health-canada-weighing-salvia-ban-110219/

Griffin, O., Miller, B., and Khey, D. (2008). Legally High? Legal Considerations of Salvia divinorum [dagger]. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 40(2). 183-191. Retrieved from Proquest Nursing and Allied Health Source April 28, 2011 http://sagewisdom.org/griffinetal.pdf

Johnson, M. and Griffiths, R. (date unknown). Scientific Considerations Concerning Salvia Divinorum and Salvinorin A: Implications for Proposed Legislation. Matthew W. Johnson, Ph.D. testimony on regulation of Salvia divinorum. John Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, MD. Retrieved April 28, 2011 from http://sagewisdom.org/griffinetal.pdf

Health Canada (February 2011). Salvia Divinorum, Fact Sheet. Harper Government Takes Action to Protect Families. Retrieved April 28, 2011 from http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/ahc-asc/media/nr-cp/_2011/2011_29fs-eng.php

Health Canada, (2011). Healthy Living: Salvia Divinorum. It’s your Health. Retrieved April 28, 2011 from http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/hl-vs/iyh-vs/life-vie/salvia-eng.php

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