What exactly is Salvia divinorum, and is it legal?

Since December 10, 2010, when TMZ (a celebrity news show) released a video showing singer Miley Cyrus smoking what she claims was Salvia divinorum, curiosity about this herb has run high among teenagers, their parents, and legislators. What exactly is Salvia divinorum? Where does it come from? And is it legal?

Salvia divinorum, a member of the sage family, comes from the Sierra Mazateca in Oaxaca, Mexico. It's known by many names: Sally-D, Ska (Maria) Pastora, Shepherdess's Herb, Yerba de Maria, Mexican Mint, Diviner's Mint, Magic Mint, Diviner's Sage, and Seer's Sage, to name a few. The references to seers and diviners (and the divinorum part of the herb's scientific name) stem from the fact that when modern scientists first found the herb, it was being used by Aztec shamans in religious rituals to induce visions.

Salvia's consciousness-altering chemical, Salvinorin A, is still largely a mystery to researchers. It appears to target a specific receptor in the brain, one that is linked to a number of psychiatric disorders. Because they believe the drug targets this receptor, some scientists believe that research into Salvinorin A might yield new treatments for schizophrenia, drug addiction, and even diarrhea.

Parents and legislators, though, are more concerned with its growing use as a recreational drug. Australia made S. divinorum illegal in 2002. That same year, California Representative Joe Baca presented an amendment to the Controlled Substances Act to place Salvinorin A on the DEA's list of Schedule 1 controlled substances, giving salvia the same legal status as marijuana and LSD. The amendment failed.

The states didn't wait for the federal government, though. As of this writing,

  • S. divinorum is illegal in Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, North and South Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Virginia.
  • In Louisiana, North Carolina, and West Virginia, salvia is legal only when it is not intended for human consumption.
  • California, Maine, and Maryland place the same limitations on possession and consumption of salvia that they place on tobacco. (Which means that Miley Cyrus wasn't breaking California law by smoking salvia in that video; she was 18 at the time.)
  • In Wisconsin, it's legal to possess salvia, but it's illegal to manufacture, deliver, or sell Salvinorin A.

Outside the United States, salvia has been banned in Australia, Belgium, Croatia, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, South Korea, and Sweden and has been limited in Chile, Spain, Russia, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, and Norway.