Salvia divinorum — the purple-flowered plant native to the Mazatec region of Mexico — has emerged as a globally traded commodity, Paja Faudree, assistant professor of anthropology, said Thursday at the final science and technology studies lunchtime lecture of the year.
While salvia is known by some as an ornamental garden-dweller, “most people under the age of 30 will not tell you about the salvia you can grow but the salvia you can smoke,” Faudree said to an audience of about 10 faculty members, post-doctoral and graduate students in the Science Center. She received a two-year grant to study the plant.
When smoked, the plant triggers “an incredibly intense but short-lived high,” she said.
Faudree proceeded to delve into the plant’s past and present uses in its native land as well as its burgeoning presence in the global market.
Salvia entered U.S. popular culture in the 1950s when New York banker Gordon Wasson traveled to the Mazatec region and participated in ritualistic mushroom ceremonies involving salvia, Faudree said. A sensationalist LIFE magazine article popularized Wasson’s exploits, putting the “backwater” region of Mazatec “on the map” and spurring a wave of tourists, she said.
Salvia had traditionally been used by shamans in Mazatec as part of ritualistic healing ceremonies. The sudden surge of tourists eager to try the newly discovered hallucinogen catapulted salvia into the mainstream market. Though the shamans traditionally ground the plant to make tea, Americans wanted to smoke the substance, Faudree said.
The Internet market — for both smoke-able salvia leaves and salvia seedlings — boomed as the substance became popularized through a series of YouTube videos depicting ecstatic or catatonic salvia users near the turn of the century. “Virtual tourists” began to buy salvia through a number of online vendors, a practice that continues today, she added.
“In the last decade it has become widely available,” Faudree said.
The salvia market currently engages a diverse set of players. Foragers, farmers and middlemen in the Mazatec region provide salvia to users ranging from the clients of traditional shamans to Brown and Rhode Island School of Design students, Faudree said.
The pharmaceutical industry has also jumped on board because “research on hallucinogens is now kosher,” Faudree said. Researchers recently discovered that the plant binds to a different neuroreceptor than other hallucinogenic drugs, she added, pulling up a recent scientific journal article on the plant.
The United States has not placed a national ban on salvia, but many states have banned or instituted laws to control distribution of the plant, Faudree said.
“There’s an ongoing process by which salvia is being declared illegal,” she said. Salvia abolitionists label it a “gateway drug” and condemn the “abhorrent behavior” it evokes, she said.
But identifying salvia as a gateway drug may be misleading, Faudree said, noting that many Brown students with whom she spoke while conducting her preliminary research had used marijuana prior to using salvia.
“Many users say the high is so intense it’s uncomfortable” and doesn’t allow the user to “inhabit an alternate reality” like they may experience when using marijuana, Faudree said.
In addition, there are very few “salvia purists,” she said. In Mazatec the plant is sometimes coupled with other hallucinogenic substances such as morning glory seeds and mushrooms.
Faudree plans to return to the Mazadec region this summer to conduct interviews and write a book about salvia. She said she will also observe shamans using salvia for its traditional medicinal purposes.
As a linguistic anthropologist, Faudree said she is most interested in examining the semiotic and linguistic exchange that accompanies the material exchange of salvia. Differences in use of language — such as whether a person refers to salvia as a drug or a medicine — can reveal how people understand their own relationship to the plant, she said.