Curare 18(1995)1: 103-129
and Human Pharmacology of Salvia divinorum
Zusammenfassung: Der Autor gibt einen historischen Überblick zu Gebrauch und Forschungsgeschichte der Wahrsagesalbei (Salvia divinorum). Es werden der traditionelle Gebrauch bei Schamanen der Mazateken in Oaxaca/Mexiko sowie der nichttraditionelle,moderne Gebrauch verschiedener Zubereitungsformen von nordamerikanischen »Keller-Schamanen« vorgestellt und ausftihrlich diskutiert. Der Frage nach der botanische Identitiit des »verlorenen« aztekischen Entheogens pipiltzintzintli wird nachgegangen. Schließlich stellt der Autor seine Selbstversuche mit der sogenannten »Heffter-Technik« vor.
Abstract: After a thorough review of the limited ethnographic data on shamanic use of the entheogenic mint Salvia divinorum by the Mazatec Indians of the Sierra Madre Oriental of the Mexican state of Oaxaca, with special emphasis on pharmacognostical aspects, the author details the phytochemical studies which led to the isolation of the novel diterpene salvinorin A in 1982-1984. Lingering doubts as to the visionary properties of this compound were laid to rest a decade later, when ‘basement shamans’ in the United States isolated and tested the compound in psychonautic bioassays. A tabular summary of 15 reports involving at least 60 trials of the novel drug by human volunteers is presented; documenting activity of infusions of Salvia divinorum leaves in water [the traditional method of ingestion], of the fresh leaves chewed, whether subsequently swallowed or retained in the mouth as a quid; and of the dried leaves smoked. Pharmacological activity of salvinorin A in human volunteers is likewise discussed, both for inhalation of the vaporized compound and sublingual application of 1 % solutions in acetone or dmso; including original research here reported for the first time. Extremely low thresholds for psychoactivity of salvinorin A [100-250 mcg sublingual; 200-500 mcg vaporized and inhaled] show this compound to be the most potent natural product entheogen known; some 10 times the potency of psilocybine from mushrooms likewise used as shamanic inebriants by the Mazatec and other Mexican Indians, and more than 1000 times the potency of the prototypical entheogen mescaline, from the peyotl cactus [Lophophora williamsii] used as a visionary drug by the Huichol, Tarahumara and other indigenous peoples of northern Mexico. Speculations regarding the status of Salvia divinorum as a cultigen are discussed, as is R. Gordon Wasson’s conjecture that this plant represents the lost Aztec entheogen pipiltzintzintli. An exhaustive bibliography of more than 70 references reviews the ethnographic, chemical and pharmacological literature on this intriguing shamanic inebriant.
Keywords: Mazatec Indians, Aztecs, Mesoamerica, entheogens, Pipiltzintzinli, Heffter Technique
The Mexican divinatory mint, Salvia divinorum Epling et Játiva, is one of the most obscure and mysterious of all shamanic inebriants. Unlike its more famous Mexican relatives, the péyotl cactus Lophophora williamsii (Lemaire) Coulter, teonanácatl, the psilocybian mushrooms and ololiuhqui, seeds of the morning glory Turbina corymbosa (L.) Rafinesque, this plant largely or completely escaped the notice of the 16th and 17th century Spanish friars and the opprobrium of the Holy Office of the Inquisition. Indeed, it was not even mentioned in the scientific literature until 1939 (Johnson 1939), was not described botanically until 1962 (Epling & Játiva-M. 1962) and it wasn’t until 1993 that its active principle was finally identified (Siebert 1994). Actually, this active principle, salvinorin A, was first isolated in 1982, in the course of a systematic chemical search for novel terpenoid compounds in the genus Salvia (Ortega et al. 1982). Although the Valdés group, searching for the psychoactive principle of this drug, independently isolated the same compound two years later (giving it the synonym divinorin A), an imprecise animal assay was employed (the so-called ‘Hall’s open-field’ bioassay in mice) (Valdés et al. 1984). Even ‘though members of the Valdés group had ingested Salvia divinorum leaves in a traditional shamanic context in Mexico (Díaz 1975,1979; Valdés et al. 1983), they did not follow their research through to the definitive test of salvinorin A in psychonautic bioassays, the only valid proof this compound represented the visionary active principle of the leaves. Only when non-professional, countercultural ‘basement shamans’ commenced experimentation with the crude drug a decade later, was the conclusive ‘Heffter Technique’ employed, and human self-experiments showed beyond doubt that salvinorin A is the main visionary principle of Salvia divinorum.
The pioneering Swedish anthropologist Jean Bassett Johnson, first scientist to observe divinatory use of Mexican entheogenic mushrooms in the summer of 1938, in the Mazatec village of Huautla de Jiménez, also mentioned in passing that:
“In addition to the mushrooms, some people use a seed called ‘Semilla de la Virgen,’ others use ‘Hierba María.’ ... the Zapotec use a plant called ‘bador, the little children,’ which is administered in the same way as yerba María by the Mazatec. The leaf is beaten well, and a tea is made thereof ...”
referring presciently both to the entheogenic morning glory seeds (known as badoh in Zapotec or semillas de la virgen in Spanish) (Ott 1993) and Salvia divinorum (Johnson 1939). Six years later the Austrian physician Bias Pablo Reko, great pioneer in the field of Mexican ethnopharmacognosy (not to be confused with his cousin Victor Reko, a farceur who gained prominence in the German-speaking world by appropriating the fruits of his cousin’s work in an unscientific popular book, Magische Gifte), mentioned the use, by the Mazatec and neighboring Cuicatec Indians of Oaxaca, of an hoja de la adivinación (divinatory leaf), in all probability S. divinorum (Reko 1945). Yet another clue was provided in 1952 by the great Mexican anthropologist Roberto J. Weitlaner, also an Austrian, when he described the therapeutic and divinatory use of an aqueous potion made by ‘rubbing the leaves (50-100) in water’ of a Yerba de María (Weitlaner 1952):
“otra yerba que en su pueblo se llama Yerba de María ... se utilizan las hojas, poniendolas en agua. Primero se fro tan entre las manos ... EI enfermo bebe el agua en que se han frotado las hojas ... Esperan un cuarto de hora el efecto de la droga y el mismo e_fermo empieza a decir la cIase de enfermedad que padece ... Cuando amanece el curandero bafia al enfermo con agua de la misma que torno, y con esto queda curado el enfermo. (another herb known in his village as Herb of Mary... the leaves are used, putting them in water. First one rubs them between the hands ... The patient drinks the water in which the leaves have been rubbed ... They await the effect of the drug for a quarter of an hour and the patient himself begins to state what type of sickness he suffers ... At dawn the curandero bathes the patient with the same water he drank, and thus the patient is cured.”
However, it was the diligent work of the pioneering ethnomycologist and entheogenic ethnopharmacognosist R. Gordon Wasson which finally led to the collection of botanical voucher specimens of this plant in October 1962. Wasson was also the first scientist on record to have ingested the divinatory leaves, which his botanical collaborators Carl Epling and Carlos D. Játiva-M. subsequently identified as a new species, Salvia divinorum (Epling & Játiva-M. 1962; Wasson 1962). Just as important as the identification of the plant and documentation of its effects was Wasson’s collection of live material, which then began to be cultivated in the United States—it was from this so-called ‘Wasson clone’ that salvinorin A was isolated in Los Angeles in 1993, at last allowing testing of this compound in human beings (Siebert 1994).
Wasson first ingested the divinatory leaves in Ayautla on 12 July 1961, when he was given a potion of the diluted, handsqueezed juice of 34 pairs of leaves, and compared the resulting effect to that of the psilocybian mushrooms:
“The effect of the leaves came sooner than would have been the case with the mushrooms, was less sweeping, and lasted a shorter time. There was not the slightest doubt about the effect, but it did not go beyond the initial effect of the mushrooms—dancing colors in elaborate, three-dimensional designs.”
Wasson also mentioned his ingestion of the juice of merely five pairs of leaves in San José Tenango on 9 October 1962, on which occasion Anita Hofmann, wife of Albert Hofmann, ingested the juice of only three pairs:
“We both felt the effects, which were as I described them in the ceremony in Ayautla the year before.”
Two days later in Huautla de Jiménez, while María Sabina was celebrating a mushroom velada with pills of Indocybin® or synthetic psilocybine, Albert Hofmann likewise ingested the infused juice of five pairs of S. divinorum leaves (Hofmann 1979, 1990), but unlike his wife and Gordon Wasson, he experienced only:
“a state of mental sensitivity and intense experience, which, however, was not accompanied by hallucinations.”
In his pioneering paper on Salvia divinorum (Wasson 1962), and an important sequel the following year, summarizing ethnobotanical data on the major Mexican entheogenic plants (Wasson 1963), Wasson detailed what he had been able to learn about the divinatory leaves. They seemed to be used only by the Mazatecs, who called them ska Pastora or the equivalent in Spanish, hojas de la Pastora or hojas de María Pastora (‘leaves of the Shepherdess’ or ‘leaves of Mary Shepherdess’). This odd name has not received the comment it is due. The interpolation of María into the name suggests the Catholic influence which has corrupted Mexican shamanism, but the Biblical Mary was no shepherdess, nor does any such woman figure in Catholic iconography. More importantly, however, the Mazatecs would not have seen sheep until after the arrival of Europeans to Mexico in the sixteenth century. This name is clearly a modernism, and it is more than surprising that an important shamanic inebriant would lack an indigenous name, for ‘leaves of Mary Shepherdess’ can in no way be considered an indigenous name, for a people whose pre-Columbian ancestors never set eyes on a sheep! It is even conceivable that Salvia divinorum use is a post-Conquest introduction to the Sierra Mazateca. We will return to this point below.
Wasson described two methods of ingestion of Salvia divinorum leaves: either by making a stack of leaves in pairs face-to-face, which are then simply eaten (“It is customary for the Indians to consume the leaves by nibbling at the dose with their incisor teeth.”); or in the form of their juice, or rather a sort of aqueous suspension of the leaves in cold water. This latter was precisely the method documented by Weitlaner. Thus was prepared Wasson’s first dose of the leaves in Ayautla:
“Augustina squeezed the leaves with her hands and collected the juice in a glass. This was certainly an inefficient method. Some water was added. I drank the dark fluid, about half a glass full, the result of squeezing 34 pairs ...”
As for the dose of five pairs of leaves prepared in San José Tenango the following year for Wasson and the three pairs for Anita Hofmann, these were:
“ground ... on her metate, after passing them through the smoke of copal, and she did a thorough job of it. Water is added to the mass that comes off the metate, the whole is put through a strainer, and then we drank the liquor.”
Wasson also mentioned the curious datum that the Mazatecs regarded Salvia divinorum to be the most important member of a ‘family’ (all, botanically speaking, indeed members of the same family, Labiatae), being la hembra, ‘the female,’ whereas el macho or ‘the male’ was Coleus pumilus Blanco, and el nene, ‘the child,’ or el ajihado, ‘the godson,’ was Coleus blumei Bentham. This is more than strange, given the fact that both species of Coleus are post-conquest introductions to Mexico (Schultes 1967), and their juxtaposition with Salvia divinorum in the minds of the Mazatecs might be seen as reinforcing the suspicion that their use of the ‘leaves of Mary Shepherdess’ too is a post-conquest innovation. Unfortunately, we have no firm evidence for the psychoactivity of either species of Coleus. Wasson “tentatively” suggested that Salvia divinorum might represent the unidentified pre-conquest Nahua entheogen pipiltzintzintli, (or pepetichinque) mentioned by 17th century friar Agustin de Vetancurt and in the annals of the Inquisition, as an herb taken in water for divination or applied in water as a poultice (recall Weitlaner’s report that apart from drinking the infusion of Yerba de María, the patient was bathed in it) (Aguirre Beltran 1963; Garza 1990; Vetancurt 1698; Wasson 1963). It has also been suggested that Salvia divinorum is represented in the head dress of a deity depicted in the Mayan Dresden Codex (Emboden 1983). In her 1977 biography, Mazatec shaman María Sabina (one of Wasson’s primary informants) noted that:
“Si tengo a un enfermo en el tiempo en que no se consiguen hongos, recurro alas hojas de la Pastora. Molido y tornado, trabajan como los ninos. Desde luego, la Pastora no tiene la fuerza suficiente. (If I have a patient during the season in which it is impossible to procure mushrooms, I have recourse to the leaves of the Shepherdess. Crushed and ingested. they work like the children (the mushrooms). Of course, the Shepherdess does not possess enough strength.” (Estrada 1977)
Three years earlier, in a monumental transcription, transliteration and translation of an entire mushroomic curing ceremony with Sabina, Wasson had puzzled over María’s repeated mentions of so-called ‘aquatic leaves’ which cured when rubbed on the patients’ body (Wasson et al. 1974). Given Weitlaner’s report of bathing patients in the Salvia divinorum infusion, most decidedly a cutaneous application of ‘aquatic leaves’ (as we will see, a decade later use of the leaf residue of S. divinorum infusions as a poultice was also reported), and Vetancurt’s report of similar use of pipiltzintzintli, it seems probable that here María was speaking figuratively of external use of Salvia divinorum, a plant which is also ‘aquatic’ in it ravine habitat (Epling & Játiva-M. 1962).
This effectively summarizes our primary ethnographic data on Salvia divinorum, and Epling and Játiva’s terse one-and-a-half-page paper, and Wasson’s concise seven-page paper certainly provided little detail. It is thus surprising to note the relatively strong impact the leaves of the Shepherdess began to have on the literature. No fewer than five different color paintings of Salvia divinorum have been published (Emboden 1972; Foster 1984; Schultes 1976; Schultes & Hofmann 1979; Schultes & Smith 1980), along with two different botanical illustrations (Mayer 1977; Schultes 1967; Schultes & Hofmann 1973), two black-and-white photographs of the whole plant (Díaz 1975; Wasson 1963), and color and black-and-white photographs showing the use of a metate to prepare infusions of Salvia leaves (Riedlinger 1990; Wasson 1963)! Three of these paintings (Emboden 1972; Schultes 1976; Schultes & Smith 1980), one by Frances Runyan, two by Harvard botanical artist Elmer W. Smith, unfortunately misrepresented the corollas of Salvia divinorum as being purple, not white (in the botanical description Epling and Játiva had misdescribed the calyx color as “cyaneorum”; in the 1979 revised edition of Emboden 1972; the erroneous painting was replaced with a color photograph of the flowering plant, and Emboden amended the botanical description of the flowers). Fortunately this evident scientific interest led to renewed and more detailed studies of the mysterious entheogen. The Mexican psychiatrist José Luis Díaz began to study Salvia divinorum in the Sierra Mazateca in summer 1973, and in his preliminary paper he described the use of doses of 25 to 50 pairs of leaves, prepared by a manual technique similar to that previously described by Weitlaner (Díaz 1975):
“toma una jicara con agua y sabre ella machaca vigorosamente el manojo de hojas con sus manes hasta que se extrae toda ‘la sangre de la hojita.’ El bagazo se desecha y el bebedizo resulta un liquido verde espumoso y en extrema amargo. (she takes a jar of water and using her hands vigorously mashes the bunch of leaves above it until all of the ‘blood of the little leaf’ is extracted. The bagasse is set aside and the resulting potion is an extremely bitter and frothy green liquid.”
Díaz chronicled six personal experiences with the potion, of a total of 12 by members of his group, mentioning that “my perception of the effects has in general increased with experience.” Nevertheless, Díaz described quite mild visual effects (in some cases none at all) “far from being hallucinations,” with the peak effects lasting only ten minutes and disappearing within a half-hour of ingestion. Díaz also described inconclusive chemical studies, stating there were: “various alkaloids in Salvia divinorum, two of which are apparently psychoactive.” Díaz reported crude pharmacological experiments with “alkaline extracts” of the plant in cats (using the fractions which would correspond to defatted, acidic-water-soluble, basic-water-insoluble, alkaloidal constituents in a standard solvent extraction of alkaloids) commenting that effects were “notably similar to those produced by hallucinogens of the LSD type,” which were, however, of much shorter duration, lasting at most a half-hour. Díaz also mentioned the inconsistent nature of the observed effects, which he ascribed to varying potency of the starting material or instability of the active agents (Díaz 1975,1977).
Albert Hofmann, who together with Gordon Wasson collected the first botanical voucher specimens of Salvia divinorum in October 1962, also made reference to this presumed instability of the active principles of Salvia divinorum, inasmuch as he had returned to Switzerland with juice of Salvia divinorum “preserved with alcohol” which “proved in self-experiments to be no longer active,” thus depriving Hofmann and his coworkers of the Heffter Technique bioassay needed to guide the experimental isolation of the active principles (Hofmann 1979, 1990; Ott 1994, 1995a). It has been incorrectly stated in the literature that Hofmann made unsuccessful chemical attempts to isolate the active principle of Salvia divinorum (Valdés 1994b; Valdés et al. 1987a), when in reality he abandoned plans to study juice of the plant chemically, when it proved in self-experiments to be inactive. It is worth noting that Hofmann had simply expressed the juice of the leaves and diluted this with alcohol, rather than preparing the aqueous infusion of the ‘rubbed’ leaves described by Weitlaner, Díaz and Wasson.
Thus matters stood until 1979 and 1980, when Leander J. Valdés III began to collaborate with Díaz, making the isolation of novel compounds from Salvia divinorum his thesis project at the University of Michigan. Valdés described in great detail two shamanic healing sessions with Mazatec curandero Don Alejandro on 18 August 1979 and 6 March 1980. On both occasions Díaz and Valdés ingested infusions of Salvia divinorum--only in the first session did Don Alejandro likewise ingest the drug. Valdés described the divinatory dose of the leaves as being “from 20 (about 50 g) to 80 (about 200 g) or more pairs of fresh leaves to induce visions” (noting also A. Gomez Pompa’s notations on herbarium sheets, to the effect that 8-12 pairs of leaves went into a dose); while in the 18 August session he received a “beginner’s dose” made from 20 pairs and Díaz and Don Alejandro from 50 pairs; in the second session Díaz received a dose made from 60 pairs, Valdés from 50. Valdés mentioned that “only fresh foliage will serve for divination,” that being a primary use for the leaves, which were also employed in shamanic training, and in lower doses as specific medicines for various diseases (Valdés et al. 1983). Valdés stressed the necessity of using only fresh leaves, noting in a second paper “it purportedly loses psychotropic activity on drying” (Valdés et al. 1987a). He also mentioned the existence of a prescribed dieta or ritual diet of 16 days, then reduced to only 4 days after the initial dose. Such a diet is also associated with the shamanic use of psilocybian mushrooms among the Mazatecs (Wasson & Wasson 1957), and is commonly prescribed with shamanic use of ayahuasca in Amazonia (Ott 1994) and with other shamanic inebriants. As in the reports of Weitlaner, Díaz and Wasson, Don Alejandro apportioned pairs of the leaves which were crushed manually (Valdés et al. 1983):
“into a small enameled bowl partially filled with water. As more foliage was squeezed and added, the liquid turned dark green ... (and) was poured through a sieve into a glass which was topped off with water.”
Supposedly the leaves could be kept fresh for up to a week by wrapping them in leaves of Xanthosoma robustum Schoff, but the infusion would only last for a day. Whereas the leaf residue was usually left in a remote place, it was sometimes applied as a poultice to the head of a patient, again harking back to Vetancurt’s 17th century description of pipiltzintzintli (Garza 1990). Díaz described the commencement of subtle visions 15 minutes after ingesting the infusion of 50 pairs of leaves on 18 August (his seventh experience), which became more intense over the next 15 minutes. Valdés also described visions, and a sensation of flying, 45 minutes after ingesting his infusion of 20 pairs of leaves. Both Díaz and Valdés described visions during the first hour of the session of 6 March, which was cut short at the 50-minute point, owing to distracting noises. Even 2.5 hours after ingestion, having returned to his hotel and extinguished the light, Valdés experienced more visions, and the sensation of the perceived reality of:
“standing in a bizarre, colored landscape talking to a man who was either shaking or holding on to his hand. Next to them was something that resembled the skeleton of a giant (sic) stick-model airplane made from rainbow colored inner tubing. The ‘reality’ of what he was seeing amazed him.” (Valdés et al. 1983)
Valdés later noted “It was an amazing hallucination, as I truly believed I was in the meadow. It was not like a dream.” (Valdés 1994b), and such vivid visions of alien space or geometry are a hallmark of the effects of Salvia divinorum (Blosser 1991-1993). Both Díaz and Valdés experienced physical effects as well as visions, consisting of incoordination, dizziness and slurred speech. In contrast to Wasson’s report that the leaf infusion “did not go beyond the initial effect of the (psilocybian) mushrooms,” Valdés stressed “the Salvia infusion will induce powerful visions under the appropriate conditions” of silence and darkness.
As mentioned above, Valdés went on to isolate two novel trans-neoc1erodane terpenoid compounds from the leaves, which he named divinorins A and B (Valdés et al. 1984), only to discover that he had been ‘scooped’ by the group of Alfredo Ortega in Mexico, which had already isolated the more important of these compounds, giving it the name salvinorin (making salvinorin A and B the appropriate designations for the compounds) (Ortega et al. 1982). The Ortega group was not studying ethnopharmacognosy per se, but rather studying terpenoid chemistry in Salvia species, and they conducted no pharmacological tests of the novel compound. Valdés’ group, on the other hand, was actively seeking the visionary principle of the plant, using as bioassay not the indicated Heffter Technique, but “a modification of Hall’s open field” in mice. This involved administering fractions of the plant to mice, then observing their behavior in a 90 cm circle divided into squares, that is, counting the number of squares entered, time spent immobile, and rearings onto hind legs. They concluded that salvinorin A was the visionary principle of the plant, as it reduced all three measures of activity in the mice, much as Salvia divinorum did in human beings (‘though Valdés had not documented his nor Díaz’s behavior in the open field, nor described either rearing up on his hind legs!). Furthermore, salvinorin A was said to have a sedative effect on the mice (while salvinorin B, its desacetyl congener, was inactive in this assay), and Valdés later published the details that all the following compounds provoked the same effect in the mouse bioassay as salvinorin A: mescaline, secobarbital, an ether extract of Cannabis sativa L. and another labiate terpenoid compound, the hypotensive forskolin or colforsin (Valdés et al. 1987a). Later, in a subsequent paper, Valdés qualified this, stating:
“further testing ... has allowed a different interpretation ... amphetamine stimulated the mice; secobarbital, forskolin and the cannabis extract had strong sedating effects ... Mescaline, salvinorin A, and isosalvinorin A—the 8-epimer of salvinorin A—interrupted (decreased) animal activity without an accompanying true sedation ...”
and noting the activity of salvinorin A was qualitatively and quantitatively similar to that of mescaline (Valdés 1994b)! The fact that pharmacologically-disparate compounds like the potent sedative secobarbital and the powerful stimulant mescaline gave similar results in the bioassay, should have alerted the Valdés group to its lack of specificity, but they inexplicably neglected to employ psychonautic bioassays which would have left no doubts about the activity of the salvinorins. Valdés’ group also mentioned the existence of “at least two more terpenoids” in their extracts, and noted that the terpene-enriched crude fraction of the leaves was “substantially stronger” than its equivalent of pure salvinorin A, and Valdés later reported his isolation from the leaves of the ant-repellent loliolide, of unknown pharmacology and previously found in various plants, including Lolium perenne L. (Valdés 1986). In seeming refutation of the Mazatec belief that the dried leaves are inactive, both the Ortega and Valdés groups isolated salvinorin A from dried leaves, and the latter group reported a yield of 0.18 % salvinorin A in dried leaves; corresponding to 0.022 % on a fresh weight basis. Neither group published a synthesis of salvinorin A (or B), but both derived the same structure from X-ray crystallography (it is unusual for this procedure to be carried out twice for the same compound), and the group of M. Koreeda subsequently worked out the absolute stereochemistry of salvinorins A and B (Koreeda et al. 1990). Valdés’ group was unable to confirm the report of alkaloids in Salvia divinorum by Díaz, noting:
“extensive work in our laboratory has shown that the pharmacologically active extracts from S. divinorum do not contain alkaloids, nor were we able to isolate any alkaloids from the plant itself.” (Valdés et al. 1984)
Díaz’s conclusions are generally regarded to have been premature, and it is an open question how (presumably) alkaloid-enriched extracts of the leaves were pharmacologically active in cats—it is my opinion that Díaz’s bioassay itself was at fault.
Salvia divinorum (Photograph: Jonathan Ott)
Having written his thesis on the isolation of salvinorins from Salvia divinorum to get his PhD., Valdés concluded his research on the plant with some cultivation experiments in Ann Arbor, Michigan; outdoors in summer and in greenhouses the rest of the year. Manual cross-pollination of the ‘Wasson clone’ and a strain collected by Valdés resulted in 4 of 14 setting seed (28%), but the seed was accidentally killed by overheating the growth chamber before viability could be assessed (Valdés et al. 1987a). At this point Valdés’ scientific research with Salvia divinorum was temporarily suspended, leaving the question of the active principle unresolved. Although Valdés’ group suggested salvinorin A was the visionary principle (in their 1987 paper, Valdés et al. expressed reservations: “if salvinorin A and the new compounds we isolated ... prove to display hallucinogenic activity in humans”), the gross lack of discrimination of their bioassay left room for doubt, and the simple expedient of testing the novel compound in a human researcher was inexplicably foregone.
The next chapter in the scientific biography was to be written by ‘basement shamans’ of the United States’ ‘counterculture.’ As early as 1984, Salvia divinorum, baptized as ‘diviner’s sage’ (Heffern 1974) or ‘sage of the seers,’ was profiled in a latter-day herbal (Foster 1984) which was recently reprinted. This book gave a concise summary of ethnographic data on the plant, described its cultivation, and mentioned the important datum that live specimens could be purchased from a California seed company identified in an appendix. Foster described his ingestion of 20 leaves:
“leaving me with an upset stomach, a dry, acid mouth, and a great respect for Mazatecs who can work their way through a hundred! For me the leaves produced hardly noticeable effects. Craig Dremmond (sic) suggests that plants cultivated outside of Oaxaca may not develop the active constituents, and I predict that Salvia divinorum will never become a popular subculture euphoric.”
This comment, and María Sabina’s dismissal of the leaves as feeble compared to her preferred entheogenic ally teonanacatl (María’s biography was translated into English in 1981, noting “Of course the Shepherdess doesn’t have as much strength.”) (Estrada 1977), have seemingly informed modern consciousness of this little-known entheogen, which acquired a reputation as being weak and second-rate (tacitly assumed of any plant our governments have not deigned to prohibit). Reviewing entheogens in a widely-read anthology, botanical expert Richard Evans Schultes commented (Schultes 1972):
“In Oaxaca, Salvia divinorum seems to be utilized only when supplies of the mushrooms and morning-glory seeds are short”
Another more recent source echoed this theme of surrogate or second-rate entheogen (Rätsch 1988):
“Mazatec shamans use its (S. divinorum’s) leaves when they are unable to obtain magic mushrooms (Teonanacatl).”
Nevertheless, as early as 1973 Salvia divinorum was included in a popular booklet on Growing the Hallucinogens (Grubber 1973) and live plants continued to be available commercially, becoming a mainstay of the mail-order plant and seed companies dedicated to shamanic inebriants, which began to appear in the nineties, and whose customers became avid collectors and cultivators of such exotica. There even arose on-line computer bulletin board systems (b.b.s.) dedicated to shamanic inebriants and other psychoactive drugs, such as alt.drugs, aft.drugs.psychedelics, alt.psychoactives and myriad others, where ‘basement shamans’ could compare horticultural and other pharmacognostical notes. In 1992, one such entheogen aficionado, Jim Dekorne, started a newsletter, The Entheogen Review, in which readers could share experiences with novel and largely unknown drugs like Salvia divinorum, and report innovations in their cultivation, preparation and use.
I first encountered Salvia divinorum in 1975, when I moved to Mexico to collaborate with the Díaz group. I observed that young Mexican users of Cannabis and entheogenic mushrooms, who were wont to engage in mushroomic tourism to Huautla de Jiménez to obtain psilocybian mushrooms, which had become articles of the tourist trade there (Ott 1975), would return to Mexico City with dried leaves of Salvia divinorum, which they would smoke in ‘joints,’ like marijuana. I verified that the dried material was, in fact, active and effective when smoked, in contrast to the Mazatec belief that drying the leaves destroyed their potency. This observation was first reported in the literature by Díaz, in his first paper dealing with ska Pastora (Díaz 1975). Smoking dried Salvia divinorum leaves surprisingly became the preferred mode of ingestion among certain users in the United States (Pendell 1995). By the summer of 1993, Salvia aficionados in California had discovered that by far the most potent means of ingesting the fresh leaves was the so-called ‘quid method,’ chewing the leaves well and retaining the leaf mass and juice in the cheek, in the manner in which coca (Erythroxylum coca LAM.) is typically chewed, swallowing neither the leaves nor their juice. Valdés, with whom the ‘basement shamans’ communicated this finding, later mistakenly reported that the Mazatecs so use the leaves:
“Some Mazatecs, as well as nonnative experimenters, chew a cocalike quid of the fresh leaves that induces strong and persistent visions ... Mazatec informants made a quid of four to five pairs ...” (Valdés 1994b)
In fact, this method was discovered by non-professional researchers in California, again besting the Mazatecs, who failed to discover this most effective method of ingestion, just as they failed to discover the activity of dried leaves or their activity when smoked. Finally, in the summer of 1993, these same ‘basement shamans’ succeeded in isolating a salvinorin A-enriched crude precipitate (which I verified shortly after to be roughly 50% pure) from organic solvent extracts of the dried leaves (the procedure was shown to me, and it involved the simplest possible kitchen chemistry, which could be executed in less than an hour), and demonstrated by smoking this precipitate on tinfoil or in glass pipes that it was active at doses of around 1 mg, and did indeed contain the visionary principle of the leaves. After Valdés provided a sample of authentic salvinorin A, it was irrefragably shown that the precipitate was impure salvinorin A, thus proving the conjecture of the Valdés group, that this novel terpenoid was the main visionary principle of the leaves of Mary Shepherdess. One of the ‘basement shamans,’ evidently the first human being to ingest pure salvinorin A, then went public, describing “Salvia divinorum and salvinorin A: New pharmacologic findings” in the pages of the Journal of Ethnopharmacology (Siebert 1994).
In his paper, Siebert briefly described the effects in 6 volunteers of aqueous suspensions of fresh Salvia divinorum leaves along with coca-like quids of masticated leaves held in the mouth; and of pure salvinorin A in 20 volunteers, administered both by buccal spraying of an ethanolic solution of the compound, and by inhalation through a glass tube of the pure compound vaporized on tinfoil with a butane ‘micro torch’ (the high melting point of salvinorin A, around 240 C, makes effective vaporization difficult without such an apparatus). The plant material studied was the famous ‘Wasson clone.’ When subjects were given an aqueous suspension of 10 fresh leaves (about 30 g) homogenized in a blender in 100 ml water, which they then swallowed, followed by rinsing the mouth to minimize contact of the suspension with oral mucosa, “none of the (6) volunteers reported any noticeable effects.” When the same suspension was held in the mouth for 10 minutes absent swallowing, then spit out, “all of the volunteers report(ed) very definite psychoactive effects.” When doses as high as 10 mg of salvinorin A were swallowed in gelatin capsules “there was no detectable activity.” On the other hand, buccal spraying of 1 ml of ethanol in which 2 mg salvinorin A was dissolved “proved to be active” but weakly so: “this method was inefficient and results were inconsistent.” Extraordinarily high activity was found for inhaling the vapors of salvinorin A: “typically threshold effects are noted at about 200 µg (mcg)” and “when 200-500 µg (mcg) of salvinorin A is vaporized and inhaled the subjective effects produced are identical to those typically produced by the fresh herb. Doses up to 2.6 mg were tested in this manner.” (Siebert 1994) The pharmacodynamics varied greatly by method of ingestion. The quid method of chewing the leaves provoked first effects in 5-10 minutes which quickly built up to a peak, maintaining a plateau for 1 hour, with effects subsiding over another hour. Inhalation of the vaporized, pure compound led to full effects within 30 seconds, lasting 5-10 minutes, then subsiding over 20-30 minutes. Like Valdés, Siebert stressed the potent and vivid visionary effects:
“Frequently people report having seen visions of people, objects, and places. With doses above 1 mg, out of body experiences are frequent ... The volunteers who were experienced with other hallucinogens all agreed that despite some similarities, the content of the visions and the overall character of the experience is quite unique.”
Siebert also submitted a sample of salvinorin A for screening on neural and other receptors, using a procedure called the Nova-Screen™. In tests of competitive inhibition of binding of reference target compounds, at concentrations of 10-5M, there was no significant inhibition in receptor affinity of the target compound for 40 receptors, including 15 neurotransmitter receptors. This suggests what one would expect, given the novel structure of the compound and its unique effects—that it binds to some other, possibly new, receptor. Siebert concluded that salvinorin A, when swallowed, “is deactivated before entering the blood stream,” and that absorption must take place in the buccal mucosa for oral activity. He suggested that injection might result in a threshold of activity yet lower than the 200 mcg following inhalation of the vapors (Siebert 1994). Even as such, salvinorin A is at least an order of magnitude more potent than any other known natural entheogen, such as psilocybine from María Sabina’s mushrooms (oral threshold of psilocybine in human beings is about 2 mg (Fisher 1963)), and is within the range of activity of the semi-synthetic ergoline compound lsd. To think María Sabina had characterized ska Pastora as lacking strength compared to her beloved mushroomic children (Estrada 1977), while the crude mouse assay employed by the Valdés group had suggested that salvinorin A was of the same order of activity as mescaline, a compound which is in fact more than 1000 times less active (Ott 1993)!
On the other hand, it appears Siebert went beyond his evidence in alleging absorption in buccal mucosa was a requisite for activity of the drug. It seems logical that crystalline salvinorin A in capsules might not dissolve in gastric juices, thus explaining the inactivity of capsules with high amounts of the pure compound. Although swallowing the homogenate of 10 leaves mechanically blended in water evinced no detectable activity, this observation does not warrant concluding lack of gastric absorption of the drug as prepared in infusions by the Mazatecs. In the first place, this dose is far too low. Although Wasson and Anita Hofmann each felt mild effects from a suspension of merely 6 leaves, Albert Hofmann felt next to nothing with the 10-leaf dose utilized by Siebert. We must recall that Valdés had described the dose range as 20-80 pairs of leaves; Gomez Pompa as 8-12 pairs; Weitlaner and Díaz as 25-50 pairs, while Karl Herbert Mayer mentioned 13 pairs (Mayer 1977)—even Valdés’ ‘beginner’s dose’ of 20 pairs is fully four times the amount tested by Siebert, whose negative results can thus in no way be construed as proving lack of gastrointestinal absorption. Also, it is not certain that mechanical blending of the leaves in water accurately reproduced the curious method of ‘rubbing’ the leaves in water employed by the Mazatecs. Indeed, Valdés later characterized this as “a pharmaceutically elegant way of preparing a microsuspension or emulsion of salvinorin A,” noting the traditional method was “much more effective than the crude emulsion that was made to dose the mice” in his laboratory experiments (prepared by dissolving salvinorin A in corn oil and surfactant Tween-80, then shaking in water; which emulsion would readily ‘break’—this suspension was then injected intraperitoneally into the mice) (Valdés 1994b). Valdés took issue with Siebert’s conclusions regarding gastrointestinal absorption of salvinorin A: “from these animal studies one can conclude that the emulsion of the compound allows regular peritoneal absorption,” speculating that “although not as potent as inhalation of the vaporized compound, the effects might last longer” noting that in Mexico he had experienced much longer-lasting effects than those reported by Siebert. Indeed, all of the ethnographic reports describe making an infusion of the ‘rubbed’ fresh leaves in water, which is simply swallowed, with no emphasis on retaining the material in the mouth as long as possible, and only Wasson described the alternate method of simply chewing the leaves, although American anthropologist Bret Blosser independently documented this ingestion method among contemporary Mazatecs (Blosser 1991-1993), as did Mayer (1977) (Blosser added the detail that the stack of pairs of leaves was rolled into a taco or cigar to facilitate chewing the leaves). On the other hand, it is a noteworthy fact that, as Siebert’s experiments with a marginal dose of 10 leaves blended in water did show conclusively, buccal absorption is the more effective method of ingestion. To be sure, in the course of chewing 20-80 pairs of fresh leaves, the leaf matter would needs be in contact with buccal mucosa for an extended period, allowing buccal absorption ... but why did the Mazatec Indians fail to discover the obvious advantages of the quid method? This question is especially pointed in that, as Pendell noted: “by the eighth swallow of the leaves the gag reflex becomes overwhelming” (Pendell 1995). Valdés offered an explanation at least for the failure of Mazatec shamans to note the activity of dried leaves, suggesting that:
“Drying drastically alters the chemical composition of the leaves, and the microsuspension/emulsion of salvinorin A will not be formed. Since salvinorin A is insoluble in water, the dry leaves will not serve to prepare an effective infusion.” (Valdés 1994b)
On the other hand, Dale Pendell described preparing dried leaves for eating:
“Salvinorin is practically insoluble in water. The best way to ‘ingest’ dried leaves is to soften them with some hot water, then keep these leaves in the cheeks just as with fresh material.” (Pendell 1995)
The quid method and the preparation of smokeable precipitates from extracts of the leaves were rapidly communicated to the entheogenic underground by Internet b.b.s. and publications like The Entheogen Review. In winter 1993 a reader commented that blended juice of 150 fresh-frozen leaves was inactive in three individuals (that is, 50 leaves each), with editor Dekorne noting “without any first hand experience to go on, I can’t comment” (Anon. 1993a). Six months later, another reader described having heard about the quid method (yet another, fresh from a Botanical Preservation Corps seminar in Hawai’i, where Dale Pendell spoke on Salvia divinorum and where Dale, Dennis McKenna, myself and others were experimenting with smoking pure salvinorin A that I’d isolated just prior to the event, detailed this quid method) (Anon. 1993b). A year later, Valdés himself had written to the newsletter (Valdés 1994a), warning readers of the reputed “extreme potency” of salvinorin A, while one intrepid reader reported making ayahuasca analogues (Ott 1994) with Salvia divinorum (chewing 6 g of Peganum harmala L. seeds with 45 half-dried leaves, reporting an eight-hour experience, describing it as “by far the worst tasting entheogen, though it’s my favorite”); and yet another described “spooky ... complete dislocation” from smoking “two or three consecutive bong hits” of dried leaves, giving an effect lasting no more than 20 minutes (Anon. 1994a). Editor Dekorne was prompted to warn his readers:
“A Word to the Wise: Information soon to be made public (a veiled reference, apparently, to Siebert’s paper) will almost certainly result in the dea (U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration) putting Salvia divinorum on the schedule-1 (most restricted drugs) list, so get it while you can. There’s far more to this plant than meets the eye.” (Dekorne 1993).
even though his book Psychedelic (sic) Shamanism, published the following year, characterized the plant as a ‘minor psychedelic’ and contained a distillate of incorrect speculations about the purported inactivity of dried or frozen leaves, the “extreme instability” of the active agent, etc. (Dekorne 1994). Issue No.6 of the hybrid drug/shamanism magazine Psychedelic Illuminations featured a sidebar on “Mazatec Magic,” in which the quid method of chewing Salvia divinorum leaves was described, as was smoking of the dried leaves, “for milder effects” (Anon 1994b).
This sudden burst of pharmacological activity by the ‘basement shamans’ evidently alarmed Valdés who, apart from his abovementioned warning to readers of The Entheogen Review, published a paper in Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, noting:
“Until recently, S. divinorum was considered to be a plant with low abuse potential (sic) ... it is apparent that both S. divinorum and salvinorin A are prime candidates to become drugs of widespread use once knowledge of their effects spreads. A small investment in fertilizer and solvents, with only a minimal need for mastery of laboratory technique, would make cultivation of S. divinorum and isolation of salvinorin A potentially much more attractive than trying to synthesize lsd or phencyclidine derivatives.” (Valdés 1994b)
First we had Dekorne, presumably not in favor of prohibiting entheogens, suggesting prohibition of Salvia divinorum to the authorities; then Valdés, presumably opposed to non-traditional use of entheogens, suggesting the idea of cottage-industry, commercial cultivation of Salvia divinorum and isolation of salvinorin A for sale on the black market! Valdés even offered useful practical advice, if not detailed instructions, to the would-be black-market producer of Salvia divinorum and salvinorin A:
“Having 80 to 100 12-inch pots (5 cuttings/pot) arranged quincuncially in an area of 4x4 m (12x12 ft), indoors (on benches under normal cool-white fluorescent lighting) or outdoors, can yield well over one kilogram per month of dried leaves once the plants are established (about two to three months) ... An underground chemist, however, would not need to be so meticulous. There is no need for using a Soxhlet apparatus, and experimenting could lead to the use of commonly available solvents for the extraction. Yields of even a gram per kilogram of dried leaves would produce some 2,000 human doses.” (Valdés 1994b)
Valdés’ paper was rather a review of the state of knowledge on Salvia divinorum than a report of any new results from his own research. Unfortunately, this was marred by several mistakes. Besides the abovementioned misattribution of the quid method to Mazatec informants of Bret Blosser, who learned of this from Americans in Los Angeles, not from his informants in the Sierra Mazateca (Blosser 1991-1993), Valdés erroneously summarized Siebert’s findings with vaporized salvinorin A. He stated that:
“A dose of 200-500 mcg produces visions that last from 30 minutes to an hour or two, while doses over 2 mg are effective for much longer.” (Valdés 1994b)
On the contrary, Siebert stated the full effects were experienced in 30 seconds, the duration of the strongest effects was only 5-10 minutes, with the effects subsiding over the following 20-30 minutes (with “somewhat increased” duration at doses above 1 mg). Valdés also weighed in with authoritative opinions on alleged “inaccuracies about S. divinorum that are fixed in the literature,” to wit: the question of the identity of Salvia divinorum with the Nahua entheogen pipiltzintzintli, and the purported status of Salvia divinorum as a cultigen, rather than as a wild plant. Valdés dismissed both out-of-hand, as “inaccuracies,” offering, however, only opinions and no evidence whatever to the contrary. Let us examine both these theories in turn.
With regard to the possible pre-Columbian Nahuatl name for Salvia divinorum , Valdés stated authoritatively that:
“It has been demonstrated that either marijuana or one of various species of morning glories are better candidates (than S. divinorum) for being the unknown Aztec plant pipiltzintzintli).”
citing his own 1987 paper and Díaz’s 1979 review article. Valdés and Díaz, far from demonstrating anything of the kind, merely cited Aguirre Beltran’s argument, based on his interpretations of the archives of the Inquisition, that pipiltzintzintli was another name for ololiuhqui (‘round things,’ the ergoline-alkaloid-containing seeds of the ‘snake plant,’ coaxihuitl, Turbina corymbosa) (Aguirre Beltran 1963). Since the archives made reference to the use of parts of pipiltzintzintli other than simply the leaves, Valdés hastened to note that leaves and stems, as well as seeds, of T. corymbosa likewise contained alkaloids. Yet only ground ololiuhqui seeds are reportedly used to prepare visionary infusions in Mexican shamanism, and we can readily discard ololiuhqui as a possible identity for pipiltzintzintli by quoting our primary source on the identity of the mysterious entheogen, 17th century friar Agustin de Vetancurt, who described the leaves of pipiltzintzintli thus:
“Tómanla bebida para no sentir cansancio, y aplicadas por modo de emplasto cura las partes desconcertadas, en el agua ordinaria ... y aunque los Naturales las estiman, los Españoles las aborrecen por supersticiosas, porque aquéllos las suellen tomar para adivinar, y saber lo oculto en sueños, mézclase con zacazili, y ololiuhqui para las fracturas. (They take it as a drink so as not to feel weariness, and applied as a poultice they cure injured parts, in ordinary water ... and although the Natural Ones (Indians) esteem them, the Spaniards abhor them as superstitious because those people are wont to take them for divination, and to learn hidden things in dreams, mixing them with zacazili and ololiuhqui for fractures.”
So pipiltzintzintli was mixed with ololiuhqui—it is thus obvious that we are dealing with two different drugs (zacazili may correspond to sacasil, a species of Anredera, or to sacasile, Boussingaultia sp. (Díaz 1976))! Since pipiltzintzintli had both male and female varieties, and was also used dried, both Díaz and Valdés suggested marijuana, Cannabis spp. as a “likely candidate.” This suggestion is frivolous—rather like speculating that soma or Homer’s nepenthes was peyotl! While there exists taxonomic debate over the question of speciation in Cannabis (Ott 1993), there is no question of the Eurasian origin of Cannabis, botanists universally regard it to be a post-contact introduction to the New World, and noted experts Richard Evans Schultes and Albert Hofmann diplomatically dismissed Díaz’s and Valdés’ proposal as being “more than highly unlikely” (Schultes & Hofmann 1980).
Pendell cited the lack of sexes in Salvia divinorum as militating against its identity with pipiltzintzintli, but as he himself allowed, “it is also possible that the reference to gender is metaphorical” (Pendell 1995), as is certainly the case with male/female pairing of entheogenic mushrooms used shamanically in various parts of Mexico (Ott 1993; Rubel & Gettelfinger-Krejci 1976; Wasson & Wasson 1957); likewise with male and female elements of plant combinations in Amazonian ayahuasca potions (Ott 1994). Furthermore, Wasson’s pioneering paper noted exactly this with respect to the leaves of the Shepherdess, said by his Mazatec informants to be ‘the female’ in a ‘family’ including ‘the male,’ Coleus pumilus, and a ‘child,’ C. blumei (Wasson 1962). The lack of botanical sexes in Salvia divinorum constitutes specious grounds to reject the identity of this drug with pipiltzintzintli, given the common use of sex-pairing as a metaphor for entheogenic plant ingestion or dosing; and the fact that Vetancurt described both the drinking of a potion of pipiltzintzintli for divination, and application of the leaves used to make the potion as a poultice—precisely what Valdés himself reported for Mazatec use of Salvia divinorum (while Weitlaner reported similar cutaneous application of the potion itself)—argues eloquently for Wasson’s proposal that pipiltzintzintli was Salvia divinorum. Can Valdés point to any other Mesoamerican entheogen whose leaves are used to prepare a divinatory potion, and also applied cutaneously as a remedy? In the case of ololiuhqui, Sahagun and Hernandez described divinatory use of potions, and the therapeutic, cutaneous application of same, but prepared from the seeds, and not from the leaves of the plant (indeed, ololiuhqui is the Nahuatl name of the seeds only, the plant is called coaxihuitl or coatlxoxouhqui—‘snake plant’ or ‘green snake’ (Ott 1993)).
Garza mentioned the use in Tepoztlán, Morelos of a plant called piltzintzintli, a vine with pods full of red-and-black seeds, which seeds were taken daily, one at a time, up to a total dosage of 12, to treat ‘airs’ (Garza 1990). While she was unable to identify this plant botanically, it surely corresponds to the well-known Rhynchosia spp.—Díaz noted that Rhynchosia species, with brilliant red-and-black seeds borne in pods, are known as pipiltzintli in northern Mexico (Díaz 1979). The Wassons described divinatory use of six pairs of seeds of Rhynchosia pyramidalis (Lam.) Urban, combined with 6 pairs of the psilocybian mushroom Psilocybe aztecorum Heim, known as apipiltzin (‘little children of the waters’) by a Nahua curandera in San Pedro Nexapa, high on Popocatepetl (Wasson & Wasson 1957). This sounds like a promising lead, but the Rhynchosia seeds were known descriptively in San Pedro Nexapa as ‘bird’s eyes,’ not as pipiltzintzintli, and of this mysterious Aztec entheogen, it is the seeds which were not mentioned as being used, as Valdés admitted (Valdés et al. 1987a). Of course, this further militates against the misidentification of ololiuhqui as the lost Aztec drug, but is consistent with the relatively seedless (as we will see below) Salvia divinorum being pipiltzintzintli.
We have thus seen that, far from ‘demonstrating’ better candidates than Salvia divinorum for pipiltzintzintli, Valdés has offered one that is impossible, not having been present in pre-Columbian Mexico, and another which our primary source clearly identified as a plant distinct from pipiltzintzintli, and that was in fact mixed with it to treat fractures! After this inauspicious start, Valdés fared no better in his ‘demonstration’ of the second alleged ‘inaccuracy’ in the literature, the status of Salvia divinorum as cultigen. Wasson had stated that (Wasson 1962):
“We were on the watch for Salvia divinorum as we criss-crossed the Sierra Mazateca on horseback in September and October of 1962, but never once did we see it. The Indians choose some remote ravine for the planting of it and they are loath to reveal the spots ... Salvia divinorum seems to be a cultigen; whether it occurs in a wild state (except for plants that have been abandoned or have escaped) we do not know.”
I noted in my 1993 book Pharmacotheon, also singled out by Valdés, that (Ott 1993):
“The Mazatec Indians believe the plant is foreign to their region of the Sierra Madre Oriental and we do not know whence it came, as no wild populations have been discovered ...”
In arguing against this, Valdés only offered the unverified statement of his informant Don Alejandro, that “the plant grows wild in the fairly inaccessible highlands of the Sierra Mazateca,” and described seeing large stands along a creek in a small ravine and in a coffee plantation (Díaz (1975) gave the altitude range of Salvia divinorum as 750-1500 m; but Wasson (1962) described it as growing in Huautla de Jiménez at 1800 m, and Don Alejandro’s claim might be construed as suggesting it grows near the 2100 m summit of Cerro Rabon) (Valdés 1994b; Valdés et a1. 1987a). What Valdés actually observed is not inconsistent with either Wasson’s statements or my own (he admitted the stands he saw were “apparently originally started by humans”), and absent documentation of the purportedly wild stands described by Don Alejandro, he has given us no evidence that the plant exists in truly wild conditions. He further cited Siebert’s recent collection of viable seed from cultivated Salvia divinorum in Hawai’i as evidence of its wild nature (Siebert 1993-1994), but a recent botanical and horticultural study not cited by Valdés supports Wasson’s contention that the plant is a cultigen (Reisfield 1993). Following up Valdés successful production of seed from cross-pollination of two strains of Salvia divinorum, Reisfield was also able to obtain viable seed from self-pollinated strains of the plant, but both manual cross- or self-pollination had extremely low success rates (only a few percent). Reisfield suggested the plant was a hybrid, possibly of largely incompatible parents which remain unknown. He could cite no prospective parents, and Epling and Játiva merely compared Salvia divinorum to the central Mexican S. cyanea Lamb. ex Benth., a species recently collected by Siebert and analyzed for salvinorin A, with negative results (Siebert 1993-1994). Since 1991, I have been growing 3 different strains of Salvia divinorum (91-11, the ‘Wasson clone’ from San José Tenango at 1200 m altitude, and 91-41 and 91-42, two so-called ‘palatable clones’ collected by Bret Blosser in Llano de Arnica, Municipio de Tenango, Oaxaca) side-by-side in a natural setting near Xalapa, Veracruz (at 1350 m altitude, about 150 km north of Huautla de Jiménez). All have prospered, flowered abundantly and repeatedly, but no seed has set, despite repeated attempts at manual self- and cross-pollination. Unless Valdés can document Don Alejandro’s contention that Salvia divinorum in fact grows wild in inaccessible areas of the Sierra Mazateca, the best conclusion we can draw from the available evidence is that, as Wasson stated from the outset, the plant is a cultigen.
I would also like to point out another inaccurate statement Valdés made with regard to Salvia divinorum—in his paper describing his isolation of salvinorin A, he claimed it was “the first clearly documented psychotropic terpenoid” (Valdés et a1. 1984). In fact, the psychotropic terpenoid thujone (Merck Index 11: 9326; synonyms: absinthol, salvanol, tanacetone), active principle of wormwood, Artemisia absinthium L. and the famous absinthe liqueurs distilled from it, has been known for nearly a century; and the psychotropic terpenoid cannabinols (Merck Index 11: 9142) from Cannabis spp. for more than three decades. Thujone even occurs in high concentrations in some strains of culinary sage, Salvia officinalis L. (Tucker et al. 1980), and smelling that plant can have psychoactive sequelae, as thujone is volatile (Duke 1987). Steam distillation of fresh leaves of Salvia divinorum showed they contained no thujone (Ott 1993). One of the well-known pre-Columbian entheogens is itzauhyatl, Artemisia mexicana Willdenow, a probable thujone-containing species, and psychoactive Artemisia species were widely used by Native Americans (Ott 1993). The Oraon tribals of West Bengal, India, were recently reported to smoke leaves of the thujone-containing (Uniyal et al. 1985) Artemisia nilagirica (Clarke) Pamp. as an entheogen (Pal & Jain 1989). In Amazonia, the mint Ocimum micranthum Willdenow is considered to be entheogenic (Duke & Vasquez 1994), and is known to be added to ayahuasca potions (Ott 1994). As for the Coleus species said to belong to the same ‘family’ as Salvia divinorum, Coleus blumei is known to contain terpenoids (García et al. 1973), flavonoids and coumarins (Lamprecht et al. 1975) of unknown psychopharmacology. Terpenoids known as coleones are found in other species of the genus (Arihara et al. 1975), and Coleus blumei was shown not to contain the hypotensive terpenoid colforsin or forskolin (Shah et al. 1980), found in the Ayurvedic medicine gurmal or Coleus barbatus (Andrews) Bentham (Valdés et al. 1987b). Along with Coleus blumei and C. pumilus, the well-known Ayurvedic medicine pashnabhedi, Coleus amboinicus Lourteig (Nadkarni 1976) might be a good candidate for screening for salvinorin A or allied compounds—in the classic text, Indian Medicinal Plants, it is stated (Kirtikar et al. 1918):
“In spite of its intoxicating properties the people of Bengal employ it in colic and dyspepsia.” (italics mine)
Before summarizing the human pharmacology of Salvia divinorum and salvinorin A, I would like to list my reasons for regarding the shamanic use of this drug to be a post-Conquest innovation in the Sierra Mazateca. I had previously mentioned the lack of a truly indigenous name for Salvia divinorum among the Mazatecs. It is suspicious that the Mazatecs associate the plant with the Biblical Mary, and with sheep, both post-Conquest introductions to the Sierra Mazateca, and Valdés documented remedial use of infusions of 4-5 pairs of Salvia divinorum leaves to treat a disease called panzón de barrego (sic), ‘big lamb’s belly’ (Valdés et al. 1983). We also have the precedent of the mushroom Psilocybe cubensis (Earle) Singer, introduced to Mexico by Europeans along with the cattle in whose dung it grows. Some Mazatec curanderos have come to ultilize this mushroom as a shamanic inebriant, others eschew it (and, tellingly, those who do use it hold it to be the ‘least esteemed’ species). This is exactly what we find with Salvia divinorum—we have seen that María Sabina held it in low esteem. Like the leaves of Mary Shepherdess, P. cubensis lacks a truly indigenous name, being known prosaically in Mazatec as the ‘sacred mushroom of the bull’s dung’; or in Spanish as honguillo de San Isidro Labrador, the ‘mushroom of St. Isidore the Plowman,’ patron saint of Madrid! (Wasson & Wasson 1957). The fact that the Mazatecs put Salvia divinorum in the same ‘family’ as two species of Coleus known to be post-Conquest introductions to Mexico is further evidence for this hypothesis. What clinches the argument for me, however, is how little the Mazatecs seem to know about using the drug. They believe the leaves to be inactive when dried, but this is not true—the dried leaves preserve their activity indefinitely and salvinorin A is highly stable. Valdés suggested the dried leaves were unsuitable for preparing the aqueous infusion, but Pendell has shown they can be successfully rehydrated for oral ingestion, one way the Mazatecs have been documented using the fresh leaves. Valdés saw in the strange method of preparing an infusion of the fresh leaves: “a pharmaceutically elegant way of preparing a microsuspension or emulsion of salvinorin A,” while Wasson dismissed this as “certainly an inefficient method.” Siebert’s studies showed it to be indeed an inefficient method—a marginal, low dose which provoked no effects in an imitation of the Mazatec technique (and the same dose which was all but inactive for Albert Hofmann, even when prepared under the supervision of María Sabina) was “consistently effective” at evoking “definite psychoactive effects” utilizing the simple quid method, readily discovered by American ‘basement shamans,’ but not divined by the Mazatecs. Far from being an ‘elegant way’ of ingesting the leaves of Salvia divinorum, this seems rather a crude adaptation of the standard Mazatec (and other Mesoamerican Indian) technique for preparing the psilocybian mushrooms and the entheogenic morning glory seeds, which are traditionally crushed on a metate and infused in water (Wasson 1963). It is as ‘though the Mazatecs had adapted this standard technique for processing entheogenic plants for ingestion, which is indicated in the case of the mushrooms and seeds, but barely effective in the case of the leaves ... as ‘though they had learned comparatively lately of this drug, which was given a name inspired by the religion and economy of their conquerors, and to process which they simply adapted their existing technique for processing entheogens, despite the fact that it hardly works in this novel case. So ineffective is this adapted processing, that the leaves of Mary Shepherdess have the reputation among the Mazatecs of being much less powerful than the psilocybian mushrooms. Even Valdés’ informants regarded Salvia divinorum to be weaker than the morning glory seeds or the mushrooms (Valdés et al. 1983). Hofmann found 0.2% psilocybine (dry weight) in cultivated Psilocybe caerulescens Murrill from a strain collected in July 1956 in Huautla de Jiménez (Heim & Hofmann 1958), while Valdés isolated 0.18 % salvinorin A from dried leaves of Salvia divinorum—making the leaves, gram per gram, nearly 10 times as potent as the mushrooms (since salvinorin A is roughly 10 times the potency of psilocybine)! If the Mazatecs have a long familiarity with the leaves, if in reality they have developed a ‘pharmaceutically elegant’ way of processing them for ingestion, then why do they fail to perceive them as being far and away the most potent entheogen available to them?
Salvia divinorum (Photograph: Jonathan Ott)
Conclusions and Commentary
As can be seen from the above tabular summary, Salvia divinorum leaf is active when swallowed in aqueous suspension, when chewed and swallowed, when chewed as a quid, or when dried and smoked; and salvinorin A is active when vaporized and inhaled or when ingested sublingually in solution. The probable descending order of potency is as follows:
sublingual salvinorin A ≥ vaporized salvinorin A ≥ chewed leaf, quid ≥chewed leaf, swallowed ≥ infusions of leaf
I have not attempted to include the smoked leaves in this scheme—even ‘though as few as 1-2 leaves may be active, since for most people the effect is much milder than by oral ingestion (albeit of greater quantities). In a test with 20 people, each of whom was given a ‘joint’ of dried Salvia divinorum leaves to smoke (containing 1-2 leaves), roughly half felt nothing at all. Of the half who did feel the effects, all reported quite mild effects, except for 2 individuals, who had potent visionary effects.
It is obvious Siebert was too hasty in concluding Salvia divinorum infusions were inactive unless absorbed in the mouth—an infusion of as few as 6 leaves provoked visionary effects. On the other hand, infusions of as many as 120 leaves gave weak visionary effects, and repeated doses in the range of 50-100 leaves provoked effects “far from being hallucinations.” This is clearly an inefficient method of ingestion; and we have seen that an infusion of 10 leaves was definitely psychoactive in 6 volunteers by the quid method, while the same strength of an identical preparation was inactive when swallowed by the same volunteers ‘several days’ later. As few as 6 leaves chewed by the quid method have been reported to provoke psychoactive effects.
As for pure salvinorin A, Siebert reported a threshold of activity at 200 mcg for vaporizing and inhaling the compound, and definite psychoactivity in the 200-500 mcg range; with 1.0-2.6 mg provoking out-of-body experiences. In my own tests, I found a higher threshold of activity, 500 mcg; with 500-800 mcg being the range for definite psychoactivity. Siebert had heated the material on tinfoil and inhaled the vapors through a glass tube; whereas I had placed the compound inside a glass tube for heating and subsequent inhalation of the resulting vapor. While my method, in contrast to Siebert’s, virtually guaranteed no loss of ‘side-stream’ vapor, Siebert’s method probably was conducive to more complete vaporization of the compound which, as mentioned above, has a high melting point, around 240 C.
As for oral ingestion of the pure compound, Siebert found 10 mg inactive when swallowed as crystals in a capsule—which makes perfect sense, given the improbability of dissolution of the crystals in gastric juices. Siebert further reported doses as high as 2 mg in 1 ml ethanol solution were indifferently active; whereas I found a threshold of activity for sublingually-applied 1 % solutions of salvinorin A in acetone at 100 mcg, with 250 mcg-1.0 mg provoking definite visionary psychoactivity. It is easy to explain this discrepancy. Ethanol is not a suitable vehicle, as salvinorin A is not sufficiently soluble therein—Siebert’s weak solution (0.2%) probably provoked local irritation and subsequent salivation, further diluting (and perhaps even provoking precipitation of) the salvinorin A, thus preventing efficient absorption. At 1 % strength in acetone, however, 100 mcg of salvinorin A can be delivered in 10 mcl (10 λ) of acetone, which provokes only slight irritation and is readily absorbed before salivation can interfere—the first effects are typically felt within 90 seconds, and reach a maximum within 10-15 minutes. How might we explain my observation of a lower threshold for sublingual, as opposed to vaporized and inhaled, salvinorin A (about half the threshold Siebert found, as little as one-fifth the threshold I found)? When vaporizing and inhaling the pure compound, considerable condensation was evident in the glass tube used to inspire the vapor—once again, the high melting point is the culprit. As the salvinorin A vapor cools on its way through the tube, some condenses inside the tube. Of course, one could control for this by putting the crystals inside the tube, then precisely weighing the tube before and after vaporization, which would give a more accurate picture of the amount of vapor inhaled, and the amount retained in the tube. I suspect that, even if no vapor is lost to the ‘side-stream,’ only about half makes it through the tube, the remaining half recondensing inside. I speculate that with proper controls, it would be found that salvinorin A is equipotent whether sublingually applied, or vaporized and inhaled—perhaps even more potent in the latter case, although sublingual application of concentrated solutions is a simpler and more healthful method of ingestion. Although I made 1 % test solutions in acetone (10 mg/1.0 ml), concentrations as high as 10% might be possible (100 mg/1.0 ml), further minimizing the amount of solvent involved (in the latter case, 1.0 mg of salvinorin A could be delivered in 10 mcl of solution). Salvinorin A is sufficiently soluble in the aprotic solvent dimethyl-sulfoxide or DMSO, to prepare 1 % solutions, and this solvent was also found to be an effective means of sublingual delivery of salvinorin A.
Of extreme interest in these studies is the finding that salvinorin A is an order of magnitude more potent orally than any other known natural entheogen. Psilocybine has been said to be active in doses as low as 2.0 mg (Eisher 1963), while a tenth that dose of salvinorin A was found to be active in both the present study and that of Siebert. Indeed, only the artificial ergoline alkaloid LSD exceeds salvinorin A in entheogenic potency—doses of only 25 mcg of LSD free-base provoke a definite and longlasting stimulation, and 200 mcg of the free-base provokes potent entheogenic effects. I would estimate salvinorin A to be about one-fifth to one-tenth the potency of LSD free-base. In light of this fact, it is most interesting to note that even Mazatec shamans who seem to specialize in the use of Salvia divinorum, and who are also familiar with the effects of the psilocybian mushrooms and of the ergoline-alkaloid-containing morning glory seeds, regard the leaves of the Shepherdess to be the least potent of the three! This fact, combined with the lack of a truly indigenous name for the leaves in Mazatec, and Mazatec use of crude and inefficient methods for preparing the leaves for ingestion (not to mention their association of this plant with a ‘family’ including two Asiatic Coleus species clearly introduced to Mexico after the conquest), leads me to conclude that the shamanic use of the leaves in the Sierra Mazateca is a recent, post-conquest innovation. This, of course, begs the question—whence derived this practice?
I doubt Salvia divinorum was (inadvertently) introduced to Mesoamerica by Europeans, although it is ineluctably associated by the Mazatecs with sheep, which of course were. It seems more likely that the plant was used since pre-Columbian times by another group of Mesoamerican Indians. We have seen that Emboden suggested the ancient Maya knew of Salvia divinorum, and Wasson proposed that the Nahua peoples of central Mexico were familiar with the plant, and used it for its entheogenic properties, under the name pipiltzintzintli. Although of course we cannot prove Wasson’s assertion beyond any doubt, we have seen that Salvia divinorum fits the available, albeit scanty, evidence, and that none of this evidence would preclude the identity of Salvia divinorum and pipiltzintzintli. Valdés weakly argued against Wasson’s proposed identification, but could only offer ololiuhqui (seeds of the ‘snake plant,’ coaxihuitl) or marijuana (Cannabis spp.) as alternatives! The latter can immediately be eliminated from consideration, given the established fact that it is an Asiatic plant, and was clearly introduced to Mesoamerica in colonial times. As for ololiuhqui, this is the name exclusively of the seeds of the ‘snake plant,’ which seeds alone are used to prepare entheogenic infusions in Mesoamerica, and the seeds of pipiltzintzintli are the one part of the plant not mentioned as having been used for entheogenic effects in the annals of the Inquisition and the accounts of Agustin de Vetancurt. Since Friar de Vetancurt informs us that pilpiltzintzintli was sometimes taken together with ololiuhqui, it is obvious we are dealing with two distinct plants, and pipiltzintzintli cannot be ololiuhqui. The telling piece of evidence, that pipiltzintzintli leaves were used to make visionary infusions and also applied cutaneously as a poultice—precisely what has been observed in the contemporary Sierra Mazateca for Salvia divinorum—is an eloquent argument in favor of Wasson’s proposed identification. Salvia divinorum is the only Mexican entheogenic plant which fits the criteria for pipiltzintzintli, and unless Valdés or anyone else can come up with a candidate which better meets these criteria, it remains our best guess for the identity of the lost Aztec entheogen.
I cannot conclude this review without lamenting the failure of Valdés’ group to use the Heffter Technique to resolve the psychopharmacology of Salvia divinorum. It must be counted as a stroke of luck that their crude mouse bioassay led to the isolation of the visionary principle of the leaves of the Shepherdess. All previous attempts at using animal bioassays for this sort of work failed. In the case of peyotl, Lewin was unable to isolate the visionary constituent, despite a lead of several years over his competitor Arthur Heffter, who quickly determined that mescaline was the main visionary principle, on the basis of self-experiments. In the case of the psilocybian mushrooms, the group of James Moore, working secretly for the U.S. CIA (Central Intelligence Agency), despite a lead of two years and access to ton quantites of cultivated mushrooms, again failed with animal bioassays, to be scooped by Albert Hofmann who, with only 100 grams of dried mushrooms and using himself and colleagues as guinea pigs, quickly isolated psilocybine and psilocine. Similarly, with the ololiuhqui seeds, chemists working for the CIA again failed to isolate the active alkaloids using animal assays, although again they enjoyed a lead of many years over Albert Hofmann who, guided by psychonautic bioassays, later showed the presence of psychoactive ergoline alkaloids in the seeds (Ott 1993). It is surprising that the mouse bioassay used by Valdés et al. gave useful results, but not surprising that it led to a failure to perceive the extreme potency of salvinorin A—estimating it was equipotent with mescaline, which is in fact at least 1000 times less potent! Due to the inexplicable failure of the Valdés group to complete their research with human testing of salvinorin A, a decade passed in limbo, before non-professional ‘basement shamans’ completed the missing experiments. We are still left in the dark as to the psychoactivity of salvinorin B or the unidentified “at least two more terpenoids” also isolated from the leaves more than a decade ago! While I am not so extreme as to argue that all use of animals as experimental subjects is immoral and unjustifiable, there is no question that the use of mice by the Valdés group was immoral. Although the mice were evidently not killed by the high doses of Salvia divinorum and extracts given them, up to 1.0 g/kg salvinorin A (equivalent to 70 grams or 700,000 times the threshold dose in a 70 kg human being!), generally speaking any animals used in pharmacological tests are later ‘sacrificed’ as being no longer ‘naive,’ and in any case these animals were clearly bred in capitivity and then used and disposed of at the whim of their human captors. Given the fact that the most effective, and the only ultimately valid bioassay to guide isolation of entheogenic compounds is the human, psychonautic bioassay, the Heffter Technique, there is no technical or moral reason to justify abusing captive animals in this manner—Valdés cavalierly noted “all animals survived and appeared unharmed, but they were not autopsied” (Valdés 1994b)! I must also stress that, as both the Shulgins and I have argued, the only ethical way to conduct this sort of research is for the principal investigator first to test any preparation for activity or toxicity, and subsequently to use only free, fully-informed volunteers for further testing (Ott 1993; Shulgin & Shulgin 1991). Had this ethical procedure been followed, not only would animal suffering have been averted, but the technical problem of the visionary principle of Salvia divinorum would have been solved an entire decade sooner than it in fact was! Perhaps Valdés can redeem himself now, by testing salvinorin B and the other pair of terpenoids he isolated from Salvia divinorum in self-experiments, later publishing the results …
I am beholden to the following individuals for assistance with psychonautic bioassays: Iratxe Arrieta, Wolfgang Bauer, Javier Bengoechea, Herman de Vries, Antonio Escohotado, Josép María Fericgla, Olvido Gara, Jochen Gartz, Luis Eduardo Luna, Dennis McKenna, Rob Montgomery, Dale Pendell, Sasha Shulgin, Rick Strassman, Donna Torres, C. Manuel Torres, Djahel Vinaver, Rick Warren and Andy Weil. I thank Bret Blosser and Daniel Siebert for discussions of their research with Salvia divinorum and salvinorin A, Leander J. Valdés III for kindly supplying a reference sample of salvinorin A, and Wm. Scott Chilton for the mass spectral analysis. Like everyone else, I am indebted to R. Gordon Wasson and Albert Hofmann for blazing yet another trail!
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