A recent TIME article, “A Mexican Hallucinogen Piques Scientists' and Regulators' Interest”, examines the initial studies on Salvia divinorum, a hallucinogenic plant from Mexico. After noting that its properties have been known (anecdotally) to improve depression. Also, a small study done at John Hopkins University found a unique compound where “there is good reason to think a derivative of the drug could one day provide a breakthrough medication for chronic pain, Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia”. The first question the writer poses about the drug is: “Is it safe?”
This is an absurd question. The lowest doses of Tylenol are not safe if you use too much. This simplistic, binary question immediately puts readers on the defensive, asking them to choose whether or not the Salvia is good or bad, yes or no. Is this how we should chose which drugs we use? Is alcohol safe? Is cold medicine safe? When used improperly or in inappropriate circumstances, the answer is no.
By answering this question, where does it get us in learning about this new drug? Does it mean it will become legal? Or people will be able to use it in the 14 states where it has been banned?
The reporter goes on to say that, according to an initial study, Salvia did prove to be safe to use with highs lasting between 2 and 20 minutes. The article did not note any damaging side effects. It concludes by saying that the studies preliminary findings “bode well for the feasibility of future research on the drug, the authors write.” The question of whether or not it is safe is important for the scientists, regulators and drug companies.
Also see reports on Salvia on NPR.