Confessions of a salvia eater
This hallucinogenic herb offers an experience as intense as LSD, but
the trip only lasts five minutes. Is it any wonder states are banning it?
By Neal Pollack
June 18, 2008
In 2003, always looking for ways to distract myself from the
terrifying emotional burdens of adulthood, I ordered some herbs from
a Web site that sold "marijuana alternatives." One of those herbs was
a sizable bag of salvia divinorum, which I'd read about in Daniel
Pinchbeck's book "Breaking Open the Head." He touted it as a
visionary plant favored by native Mesoamericans. I like visions, and
I like Mesoamerica, so I tried the salvia almost immediately after I
bought it, smoking a small bowl at an outdoor Flaming Lips show --
you know, because the Flaming Lips are "trippy." No visions emerged,
which, given my pathetic reasoning, is exactly what I deserved. I
didn't even get a headache. The next time, I decided, I'd actually
get some directions on how to use the drug, and then maybe I'd even
I put the salvia in my freezer and didn't touch it for almost two
years. Then I had a free midnight, and it occurred to me to try some.
I took a pinch of salvia from my bag, rolled it into a ball and stuck
it under my tongue; all the Web sites say that sublingual absorption
leads to stronger trips. It tasted bitter but not much worse than,
say, collard greens. I gave it a chew and placed it under my tongue
for another 30 seconds. I repeated this process a few times until I'd
created a slightly acrid green brew in my mouth; I sloshed it around
and kept chewing. By degrees, I felt nauseated, like I'd eaten
vitamins on an empty stomach, but my gut held. After 20 minutes, I
spit the whole megilla into the toilet, put some bhangra on the iPod,
lay down on my guest bed, and closed my eyes.
Almost immediately, I had visions. Great, thick green vines, ancient
beyond measure, stretched out into infinite space. A being that
looked like an Aztec God flew above, spewing fire. I saw my head
splitting open. Red goo poured out and melded into what appeared to
be the cosmos. I had another vision, of me dancing with my son, which
was a bit more pleasant. A large hole opened in the universe. I flew
toward it. A beautiful woman in a white robe took my hand and guided
me through. This, I later learned, was the "salvia spirit," who
appears in most salvia-inspired visions, or at least the ones that
get chronicled on Erowid. She's also repeatedly depicted in online
"salvia art". I opened my eyes, and the trip was over. Ten minutes had passed.
The next night, I repeated the dose. While I had a few small visions,
I mostly felt that my body was stretching out beyond its boundaries,
moving into infinite space. The night after that, I did a third
consecutive salvia chew. Nothing came of it, and around 1 a.m., I fell asleep.
Approximately two hours later, I snapped awake, aware that the room
had shaken with a tremendous thud, as though something very heavy had
landed. A massive stone warrior, looking vaguely like a lost piece of
Mesoamerican art, stood in the middle of the room. "Don't mess with
what you don't understand," he said to me. Terrified, I closed my
eyes, and saw the woman again. I seem to recall begging her to show
me the secrets of the universe. She spoke for the first time as well.
"You take yourself too seriously," she said. The sensation of
traveling through space returned, and then I fell asleep. The next
morning, when I woke up, I was seized with the urge to see how my
fantasy baseball team was doing.
On a scale of drug harshness, salvia falls on the mild end, stronger
than weed but weaker than ecstasy, and it doesn't even register in
the same league as the hard drugs like cocaine and heroin and meth.
It should be classified as a mild hallucinogen. Well, perhaps "mild"
isn't the right word, since the effects are intense, but it's
short-lived. I haven't done psychedelic mushrooms or acid in nearly
20 years, but I remember those trips as being very, very long and
annoyingly open-ended. You never knew exactly what you'd see or
experience, though you were pretty much guaranteed to sweat a lot and
have a nasty backache the next day. Salvia, on the other hand, is
quick, focused and almost uniform in its effects. Salvia is
non-toxic, and too intense to be addictive. Anyone who does it more
than once a month should literally have their head examined.
People who hate drugs have been busy excoriating salvia this year.
Salvia is currently illegal in Delaware, Florida, Kansas, Louisiana,
Maine, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Virginia, and bills are
on the table in many other states. In Ohio, a 12-year-old-boy, who
said he uses salvia, shot and killed another boy, though there's no
clear evidence that the shooter was on salvia at the time. In 2006, a
Delaware teenager, who'd written about salvia in the past, committed
suicide, prompting that state's ban. Tragic as those events may be
for the people involved, salvia does not appear to have torn apart
our precious social fabric. It barely even scratches around the edge.
The "salvia trip video" is a standard bearer on YouTube, but you end
up watching either giggling Jew-froed teenagers or bearded grown-ups
falling back into their couch and saying, "Whoa." There are few
things more boring than grainy footage of someone else's drug trip,
and I don't think the proselytizing is going to get more high-end any
My recommendations, for all that they're worth, are as follows:
Salvia isn't a drug for the young. No one under 21 should ever touch
the stuff, and if anyone else is going to use it, do so wisely.
First-timers might be helped to have a sober "guide," preferably one
experienced with salvia, nearby. It's good to have someone to talk
with when you're done; also, if you forgot water, you're going to
want someone to get you some, because you'll come back really
thirsty. Users know well enough not to make any big plans for a
couple hours after the trip. The intense effects only last a short
time, but you should never, ever drive after using salvia.
I've continued to do salvia a couple times a year. That's all I need,
and all I can really handle. After I moved to Los Angeles, I spent
some time looking around the drug boards for a reliable source. I
found a vintage clothing store on Melrose with a quasi-legal head
shop hidden in back, behind the winter-coat rack, the last place
anyone ever looks in a Southern California vintage shop. There, a
one-armed Lebanese man sold me a couple of discounted packets of 25X
salvia extract, an extremely concentrated form of the drug that
transports you to salvia land very quickly. One small pipeful, and
"You need to be careful with this," he said.
"I know what I'm doing," I replied.
By now, I've gotten over the intensity of the trip, the descent (or
ascent) into another dimension. I know, for the most part, what to
expect; it barely even seems weird to me anymore. Unlike my early
trips, which were just random explorations, now I only go to the
salvia if I have an intractable problem, if my life seems blocked
somehow, or if I have a complicated existential question to ask.
There's always a purpose, however obscure, for my visits.
I have a salvia routine. After the family has gone to sleep, and the
house is very quiet, I go down to my basement office with a glass of
ice water. I turn on some mellow music and sit in my big blue easy
chair. A small pipeful of salvia concentrate waits for me. I smoke
the bowl. My head and chest start to throb. I sink back in my chair
and close my eyes, trying to keep my question of the day at the
forefront of my thoughts. A trip through the vines follows. I pass a
phalanx of guards, who look like the caterpillar in the "Alice in
Wonderland" cartoon. Sometimes, I travel over arid plains or behold
mountain views of indescribable beauty. But eventually, I always get
to that secluded glen where the salvia spirit is waiting, on a
vine-covered throne. She's usually in a damn good mood, and is always
glad to see me. We commune for a while, she shows me unusual things,
and while I don't directly ask my question or express my concern, I
keep it floating around the edges of consciousness. She's always
gently mocking, in a "foolish human!" kind of way, and her response
always leaves me feeling a little bit better.
Gradually, the visions fade, my heart starts beating more normally,
and I open my eyes. For a few minutes, everything seems gauzy and
pixelated, as though I can nearly see the other world just beyond my
field of perception. Then the salvia trip ends without harm to
others, or to myself.
About the writer
Neal Pollack is the author of several books of satirical fiction and
the semi-controversial parenting memoir "Alternadad." He lives in Los
Angeles, with his family.