There are still more questions than answers about salvia divinorum. According to researchers, salvia divinorum acts on the brain in a way that has not been seen before, and for that reason it deserves more study.
Like the peyote cactus, which contains mescaline, and psyllocibin mushrooms, salvia divinorum has long been used by American Indians as a tool for divine visions as part of religious practices. But it is different because the hallucinations it creates are not dependent on the physical environment around the person using the drug.
Whereas a person on an LSD trip or eating peyote might see patterns or ripples appear in the walls around them — their perception is altered — someone who has used salvia divinorum truly hallucinates — he sees and hears things that are not there.
Work done so far has determined that salvia operates on a receptor system in the brain that was previously unknown, and the study of the aspects of consciousness controlled by that area could lead to advances in both medicine and psychology, Russo said, pointing to the gains made through the studies of how opiates and cannabis affect the brain.
Ethnobiologists and anthropologists have been aware of salvia divinorum since at least the early 1960s, when R. Gordon Wasson wrote an article published by Harvard University's Botanical Museum, entitled, A New Mexican Psychotropic Drug from the Mint Family.
Though there are accounts of the use of psychotropic plants by the Indians of Central America dating back to the time of the Spanish conquest in the 16th century, and as early as the 1930s anthropologists recorded that the Mazatecs were using leaves to produce a tea for divination, it was not until Wasson's expeditions in 1950s and early 1960s that salvia was identified.
The article recounted Wasson's exploration of the remote mountainous regions of Oaxaca, where the Mazatec Indians live. He said the Mazatec used salvia divinorum in their religious practices "as a less desirable substitute" when the psychotropic mushrooms they prefer were not available.
According to Wasson, the Mazatec often used the herb, which they called hojas de la Pastora or hojas de Maria Pastora, as a curing or divining tool — to determine what illness a person might be suffering from or to learn the facts of a crime that might have been committed against him. In those ceremonies, though, it was usually the shaman alone who took the herb, not the patient.
An article by Leander J. Valdes III, Jose Luis Diaz and Ara G. Paul published in 1982 in The Journal of Ethnopharmacology, "Ethnopharmacology of ska Maria Pastora" provided more detail, recounting several ceremonies in which the herb was used.
According Halpern, the herb's potential is also being explored by a group of religious people in the United States who are "finding it is useful in their practice." He said he preferred no to identify the group other than to say they are "middle-class, responsible people."
While accounts of experiences on the drug range from blissful, to mystically illuminating to terrifying, the issue that concerns the DEA should be public health issues, not people's experiments with their consciousness, supporters of the drug's legal status say.