Daniel Siebert Speaks…

Interviewed by Will Beifuss
The Entheogen Review. 1999 V. 8, No. 3.

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Will: When did you first become interested in Salvia divinorum?

Daniel: It might be more fitting to ask, "When did Salvia divinorum first become interested in me?" I first came across a description of Salvia divinorum in 1973 in a little booklet entitled Legal Highs, which described the effects of Salvia divinorum as being similar to psilocybin, but shorter-acting. This caught my attention immediately, since I was a young, "hip" teenager at the time, with a lot of curiosity about psychedelics, and the comparison to psilocybin was seductive. I probably would have tried it immediately if I could have gotten my hands on it, but back then Salvia divinorum was quite rare and very hard to obtain. The Church of the Tree of Life owned a large plant and was offering rooted cuttings as a premium for donating $100.00 or more to their Church, but that was more money than I could possibly afford at the time. Nevertheless, I was interested enough that I wrote to the Church for more information, but that was as far as it went. It was not until the early '80s that I came across the plant again. I was browsing through The Redwood City Seed Company's catalog and noticed that they were offering Salvia divinorum plants. I think they were charging around $25.00 at the time, and I ordered one. Unfortunately the plant died within a few days after I received it. About a year later, I attended a Terence McKenna lecture near Los Angeles. I noticed a man in the audience who was carrying a potted Salvia divinorum plant. I went over and introduced myself. He was surprised that I recognized his obscure little plant and he explained that he was having good success growing it. The plant he was carrying was a spare plant that he brought so that he could share it with others. He broke off a branch and gave it to me. By the time I got home the cutting was completely limp and looked hopeless, but I managed to revive it by putting it in a glass of water and misting it frequently. Eventually the plant rooted and I potted it up and put it in the small, eight-foot-tall greenhouse I owned at the time.

While the plant was growing I did some research. After asking around a bit, I found several people who had tried Salvia divinorum. They all seemed rather unimpressed by the effects (or lack of them) and seemed to feel that it was basically not worth the trouble. Many people were actually of the opinion that Salvia divinorum was inactive and attributed the reports of its alleged activity to the placebo effect. However, one person I spoke with was Kat Harrison. Although her own experiences with the plant had been underwhelming, she mentioned that her friend, the anthropologist Bret Blosser, had taken Salvia divinorum under the guidance of a Mazatec shaman and had a powerful visionary experience. Apparently he had been instructed to eat 13 pairs of leaves that had first been rolled into a cigar-shaped cylinder.

Within about a year the plant I had obtained was hitting the ceiling of my crowded little greenhouse and was suffering a serious infestation of scale insects. I decided to move the plant outside, hoping that I could deal with the scale problem more easily once the plant was outdoors. Almost immediately when I moved the pot, the plant leaned over and the main stem snapped off, right at the base of the plant-just a few inches above the soil. Trying to rescue the situation, I saved some cuttings from the fallen plant and I collected all the leaves that were free of insects. I wrapped the leaves in moist paper towels, then put them in a plastic bag in the refrigerator, hoping that they would stay fresh until I could find an opportunity to try them. At that time it was commonly believed that Salvia divinorum was only active when the leaves were consumed fresh. The dried leaves were thought to be completely inactive.

Finally, about a week later, I arranged to try the leaves with two friends. We had decided to try the leaves together outdoors on the patio at dusk, ingesting them in the same manner as Blosser. We each counted out our 26 leaves, rolled them into a nice cigar-shaped bundle and began to take bites. The more I ate the worse it tasted. It became increasingly difficult to swallow because of the strong bitterness, but somehow we all managed to finish our leaves. In about ten or fifteen minutes I seemed to notice a slight change in my vision. I could vaguely perceive a colored halo surrounding objects. I said, "I think I feel something." Then I stood up and walked a short distance. Moving felt a little odd. I was suddenly more aware of space and perspective. I was now certain that things were looking different. I remember saying, "I definitely feel something now."

One of my friends looked a little disappointed and said, "I don't feel anything." Then almost before he finished saying the word, "anything," he fell out of his chair. He was laughing hysterically. I don't think I have ever seen anyone laugh so hard, his body was convulsing with laughter. He seemed to be trying to say something, but it was incomprehensible because he couldn't stop laughing. His laughter was contagious and we all started laughing uncontrollably. After several minutes, he was finally able to speak. He asked, "Are you in it?" At the time, I was not sure what he meant by this question; later he explained that he was in an underground cavern. He was asking us if we were there too.

By this time, all three of us were experiencing the profound effects of the herb. There was something very natural and nurturing about it. I felt a deep sense of assurance and comfort, a feeling that everything was at peace and as it should be. I saw the cozy little homes of fairy-like nature spirits nestled in the hills all around me. I saw long-eyelashed elf-like entities that were strangely cartoonish in character. Interestingly, although we did not talk about it during the experience, all three of us later described seeing these long-eyelashed entities. After about an hour, the effects gradually began to subside, leaving us feeling relaxed, comfortable, and amazed. It was a truly wonderful experience. Ever since then, I have been passionately interested in this plant.

Will: Salvia divinorum has a reputation for producing very bizarre effects. Do you feel this plant can be used for spiritual/personal growth outside of its traditional use by Mazatec shaman?

Daniel: Absolutely. I think this is the main reason people are drawn to Salvia divinorum. It is like a trans-dimensional doorway that allows one to step outside of consensual reality, providing a unique opportunity to explore the nature of consciousness and the fundamental mysteries of existence. It can take one through death and birth. It can transport one to another place and time. It can show you the creation and end of the entire universe. Experiences like these leave a lasting impression and are tremendously enriching. I believe that Salvia divinorum will also prove extremely valuable as a tool in psychotherapy, because it allows access to the deep inner reaches of the psyche. I have heard from many people whose lives have been positively transformed as a result the insights gained from their experiences with this herb.

There is an interesting double-blind experiment currently underway in Canada that is studying the effectiveness of Salvia divinorum as an aid to meditation. The study is headed by Ian Soutar and is being funded by MAPS. Ian has been involved with a group of Quakers who practice silent meditation. They have found that low, non-visionary doses of Salvia divinorum taken sublingually have the effect of freeing the mind of distracting thoughts and promoting a clearer, more focused state of mind that is ideal for their meditation practice. This study is interesting to me because it is exploring a whole new approach to working with Salvia divinorum.

Will: Tell me about the book you are currently writing.

Daniel: Yes, of course. I am very excited about the project. The book has grown much larger than I had originally conceived, and consequently is taking me much longer to complete than I had originally planned, but I feel that it will prove well worth the wait. The book is quite comprehensive and covers virtually all aspects of the subject: history, botany, horticulture, ethnobotany, chemistry, biochemistry, the phenomenology of its effects, preparation and safety, methods of use, the importance of ritual, etc. I am toying with the idea of publishing two or three sections of the book separately and prior to completing the entire work. One of these would be a book on the botany and horticulture of Salvia divinorum and another would be on the phenomenology of its effects.

Will: In researching the book, have you traveled to México?

Daniel: Yes, I spent some time in the Sierra Mazateca in the spring of 1999 conducting interviews, taking photographs, exploring Salvia divinorum's native habitat, and participating in traditional ceremonies with two well-respected shamans. The trip was quite magical, and fruitful. It greatly deepened my respect for this herb and my appreciation for the indigenous healers who work with it. I learned a great deal about Salvia divinorum from the Mazatec perspective and I will be sharing some of what I learned in my forthcoming books. It is an extraordinary region and I anticipate returning regularly to conduct further research and to visit my new friends there.

Will: Do the shamans you met in México know of Salvia divinorum's growing popularity worldwide? Did you mention this to them? If so, what do they think of this?

Daniel: The curanderos I spoke to seemed unaware that ska María Pastora was growing in popularity abroad. Most of the foreigners that come to their region are interested in the hongitos and, to a lesser extent, the morning glories. They do occasionally get people who are interested in Salvia divinorum, but they are very few and far between. They seemed genuinely surprised that I was so interested in learning about Salvia divinorum. Although it is becoming increasingly well-known in the world, it is still quite obscure compared to magic mushrooms. I think it will take awhile before the Mazatecs start seeing much Salvia divinorum tourism. I had an interesting conversation with a Doña Julieta. I explained to her that most people experimenting with Salvia divinorum these days smoke the leaves. She was quite opposed to this practice and said that it was extremely disrespectful to use the plant in this way. She said that this was equivalent to burning your own children. Obviously she feels quite strongly about this. She made it very clear that when dealing with sacred plants, honor and respect are of paramount importance, and that las hojas should not be taken without observing the appropriate ritual diet and using them in a proper ceremonial context under the guidance of an experienced and reputable shaman such as herself.

I should mention here that there are now non-Mazatec entrepreneurs who are going into the region and purchasing Salvia divinorum leaves from less scrupulous Mazatecs for export. These export operations are removing hundreds of kilos of dried leaves from the region annually. Obviously the Mazatecs who are selling to these buyers are beginning to realize how popular their sacred herb is becoming abroad.

Will: What other research do you plan on conducting in México?

Daniel: Primarily, I am interested in spending more time with some of the Mazatec shamans who use Salvia divinorum so that I can develop a greater understanding of their use of this plant, and their particular perspective with regard to it. I think that it is very important that people who are experimenting with this herb have some knowledge about its traditional use. These shamans know a great deal about how to work with this plant in a meaningful way. They understand what can be accomplished with it and how to use it to achieve specific goals. As is true in many indigenous cultures around the world, shamanic sacred traditions are quickly disappearing. Few young Mazatecs are interested in learning these traditions. Much of this knowledge will be lost in the next 20-30 years as the current generation of elderly shamans die out. Very little information has been recorded regarding the Mazatec traditions surrounding Salvia divinorum. If this knowledge is to be preserved, the time to do it is now, before it disappears.

I am interested in determining whether or not some of the Mazatec's immediately contiguous neighbors, the Cuicatecs and Chinantecs, also utilize Salvia divinorum. I would also very much like to determine the identity of a plant called "Yerba de la Virgen," which according to a 1952 paper by Weitlaner was used by the Otomí people in the somewhat distant region of Tulancingo, Hidalgo in the same manner as Salvia divinorum. It would be fascinating if this turned out to in fact be Salvia divinorum; but even if it is not, it would be quite interesting to discover its identity.

I am also planning to look into the genetic diversity of Salvia divinorum. This plant very rarely produces seed, and even on the infrequent occasions when seed has been obtained, their viability has been quite low. Because of this, the plant is virtually always propagated asexually from cuttings. Truly wild, genetically diverse, seed-producing populations of Salvia divinorum have never been observed by botanists. At first glance, many populations of Salvia divinorum appear wild, but one must realize that the Mazatecs deliberately choose to plant it in out-of-the-way locations. They believe that it should not be grown where it will be seen by passers-by, lest it lose its power. In a humid environment, such as the wooded ravines in the Mazatec Sierras, stem sections quickly root when they make contact with moist soil. Once planted in such a location, the plant spreads asexually on its own within the immediate environment, propagating itself from branches that break off or fall over. After many years the plants becomes completely naturalized in that location, appearing quite wild. It is certainly possible that truly wild populations of Salvia divinorum exist somewhere. However, as I said, such populations have never been observed by botanists, and the Mazatecs I spoke with assured me that it does not grow wild, but is always introduced to a location through human effort. Therefore, it appears that this plant is a cultigen with very limited genetic diversity. It may be that there are relatively few genetically different clones of Salvia divinorum growing in the entire region, and it is entirely possible that this species is predominately monoclonal. I would like to collect more live specimens from a wide variety of locations throughout the region so that we can see if they appear to be genetically identical or not. This could be done using isozyme analysis or DNA fingerprinting techniques.

Will: You recently conducted an experiment to test the putative psychoactivity of another Salvia-Salvia splendens. How was the experiment set up and what were the results?

Daniel: The first published description of what we now refer to as salvinorin A appeared in a 1982 paper by the Mexican phytochemist, Alfredo Ortega. At that time it was simply called salvinorin. In his paper, Ortega points out that salvinorin is structurally similar to compounds that had previously been isolated from the common ornamental bedding plant, Salvia splendens. This caught my eye early on in the days of my work with Salvia divinorum, and I was curious to see if Salvia splendens might produce any interesting effects similar to that of Salvia divinorum. So I purchased several Salvia splendens plants from a local nursery and tried smoking the dried leaves. After smoking a huge amount, I did not notice any effects other than a slight headache. I then made an extract of the leaves using the same procedure that I had been using to extract salvinorin A from Salvia divinorum. I experimented with this extract several times, using ever-increasing amounts, but was still unable to detect any effects. At this point I was convinced that Salvia splendens was inactive. Then a year or two latter, I received e-mail from someone who claimed that he and a friend of his had tried Salvia splendens and found it to be active in very low doses. He sounded quite excited about his discovery and started posting messages on the Internet about it. He claimed that the leaves produced a sort of relaxing, anxiolytic, emotional-blunting effect. Obviously, these effects are not at all like Salvia divinorum. The effects he associated with Salvia splendens are rather like those of Valium®; it was not said to be a visionary herb by any stretch of the imagination. While I realize that such effects have their place, I personally do not find them very interesting. Nevertheless, this report intrigued me enough that I decided to try Salvia splendens again. Interestingly enough, when I did, I experienced exactly the kind of effects that he had described. However, for some reason, I was unable to experience these effects again on subsequent attempts, even though I tried using larger amounts of leaf. As this information was being posted in various places on the Internet, quite a few other people started experimenting with it. People's reports were mixed. Many people were reporting that they were experiencing sedative or anxiolytic effect, but others didn't seem to feel anything.

Because the reports were so inconsistent, I began to wonder if the "placebo effect" might be responsible for many of the effects people were experiencing, including my own. To investigate this, I decided to conduct an informal double-blind experiment using volunteers from the Salvia divinorum E-mailing List. This is an e-mail discussion forum I founded a couple of years ago, which is dedicated to Salvia divinorum and other psychoactive Labiatae. I located a source for a large amount of Salvia splendens leaf. In order to determine if this material would be suitable for use in the experiment, I sent samples of the doses I intended to use for the study to three people who had already tried Salvia splendens several times and claimed to be able to distinguish its effects. Unanimously they concluded that this material was indeed active and thus should be quite suitable for the experiment. I then selected a placebo herb. I chose Viola odorata leaf, because it was the most similar herb in appearance and texture that I could come up with that did not have effects that were likely to be confused with those that were being associated with Salvia splendens. I then sent out coded packets containing pre-measured doses of Salvia splendens and the placebo herb to 61 volunteers. They were instructed to ingest the samples and then to report any effects experienced on a questionnaire that had been provided to them. People were allowed to choose between smoking the herb samples or ingesting them sublingually. Some people chose to do both. So I collected two sets of data based on method of ingestion.

The purpose of the experiment was to determine if people would be able to distinguish Salvia splendens from the inactive placebo herb. If Salvia splendens does produce a significant effect, this should show up in the data obtained from the questionnaires. Unfortunately, only 31 of the volunteers completed the experiment and returned the questionnaires, so the amount of information I had available to work with was relatively small. Nevertheless, I think that the results are meaningful. The results of the experiment showed that most people reported no effects from either herb. Of those that did report "Salvia splendens-type effects" (about 35%), the numbers were essentially equal for Salvia splendens and the placebo. This suggests that Salvia splendens is no more effective than the placebo in producing "Salvia splendens-type effects." This is definitely the case for the specific materials and doses used in this particular study.

After sharing the results of this study publicly, I received quite a few surprisingly emotional reactions from people who insisted that Salvia splendens was indeed quite active and that my study must be flawed. I got the feeling that people felt I was attacking their integrity by suggesting that they were victims of the placebo effect. It is clear that this herb produces effects in many people when they know that they are taking it. The fact that many people are convinced of its effects is compelling. The problem is that the activity seems to disappear when people don't know what it is they are taking. The information available suggests that the effects people have been reporting are probably due to psychosomatic factors rather than a true pharmacological action of the herb; however, I don't mean to suggest that this small study in any way closes the book on the pharmacology of Salvia splendens. Further research may very well identify some sort of activity that was not observed in this particular experiment.

Will: Do you think Salvia divinorum will avoid being scheduled?

Daniel: I'd certainly like to think so. The nature of its effects are just too profoundly bizarre and ontologically challenging for it to ever become very popular. It is clearly not habit-forming, nor does it produce any form of dependence. If anything, it has the reverse effect. The majority of people who try Salvia divinorum, do so out of curiosity, but after one or two full-blown experiences decide that there are better things to do for fun. It will never become widely used or cause the kind of social problems that have resulted in other plants becoming illegal. But then again, the scheduling of drug plants is sometimes unpredictable and illogical. For example, it doesn't make sense that obscure and relatively benign plants like Tabernanthe iboga and Catha edulis are illegal, while other far more available, powerful, and clearly dangerous plants like the Daturas and other hallucinogenic nightshades remain quite legal.

It is very important that people who experiment with Salvia divinorum are properly educated about its effects so that they can use it intelligently, safely, and hopefully in a way that is personally valuable and meaningful.

People who provide this herb to others must accept the responsibility of educating prospective users. I am concerned about the fact that there are unscrupulous entrepreneurs who see this plant as nothing more than a way to make a fast buck and seem to care nothing about what happens to the people who use it. If these people begin exploitatively mass-marketing it as some sort of "great new high" to uneducated, unprepared consumers, problems could arise that would bring the plant some serious negative attention. Salvia divinorum is a precious and sacred plant. It would be very sad to see it criminalized.

Will: At the 1997 Mind States conference, Terence McKenna had this to say about Salvia divinorum: "I don't believe the establishment is interested in demonizing and criminalizing a new, easily grown, widely available psychoactive plant. I don't think the establishment needs a new Cannabis." Do you agree with this statement?

Daniel: Well, I think it is rather difficult to anticipate the interests of the establishment, but Terence is correct in the sense that it would be impossible to enforce a law that made Salvia divinorum illegal. It would be a tremendous waste of resources and would not accomplish anything positive. Unlike Cannabis, Salvia divinorum is both shade-loving and very inconspicuous looking. By planting it amongst other plants or beneath trees it can be grown almost invisibly. There are several ornamental Salvia species that look almost identical to Salvia divinorum, so identifying an illegal Salvia plant would be a major problem. It is a rapidly growing, easily propagated plant that can be harvested at any stage in its life cycle. It is very easy to grow indoors, since there is no need for expensive high-wattage lighting. If Salvia divinorum were made illegal, most people would just move their plants indoors. Unlike Cannabis, there would be no tell-tale odor or high electric bills to worry about.

Will: What is your preferred method of ingesting Salvia divinorum? Do you have a ritualized context that you take it in?

Daniel: Actually, I have several preferred methods of ingestion. I am fascinated by the extremely intense and often bizarre, but brief experiences that can be achieved by smoking, and I also enjoy the longer lasting, slowly unfolding type of experiences produced when the leaves are chewed using the quid method or when using a sublingually absorbed extract. When smoked, the full dose is delivered rapidly into the bloodstream. This method produces effects that begin very rapidly, producing almost no "alert." Peak effects are experienced in less than a minute. The peak state lasts for some 5-10 minutes, then subsides over another 20-30 minutes. When Salvia divinorum is ingested orally, salvinorin A is absorbed gradually into the blood stream. The effects build over 15-30 minutes, peak for 1-2 hours, then gradually diminish over an additional hour or two. Both kinds of experiences can be tremendously rewarding. Oral ingestion provides a more gradual entry into the experience, which makes it easier to get one's bearings and to adjust to the changes of consciousness that are occurring. The greater duration of the effects provides more opportunity to explore and learn from the experience. However, sometimes the shorter duration of effects achieved by smoking is more desirable, because it requires less of a time commitment, and since the effects are so brief, one can risk diving in further, with the assurance that one will quickly return to the surface.

For smoking purposes, I definitely prefer to use a highly concentrated form of salvinorin A, rather than plain leaves. I see no virtue in inhaling the massive quantities of smoke that are necessary to reach a high level of effects when smoking the leaves in their natural state. In the past I worked with pure salvinorin A; however, I no longer use it in this form, because a single dose is so minute that the mechanics of handling it are problematic. What I usually use for smoking these days is a salvinorin A-fortified leaf-preparation that contains 1 mg salvinorin A that has been deposited on 25 mg Salvia divinorum leaf. This can be smoked easily in an ordinary pipe, and because it is so highly concentrated, one only needs to inhale a tiny wisp of smoke. When using the quid method, I prefer to use fresh leaves rather than dried ones. There is something very satisfying about consuming the leaves fresh off the plant, while they are still crisp, juicy, and full of vitality. I also enjoy using a sublingual extract. This produces the same type of experience as the quid method, but eliminates the cumbersome bulk and bitterness of the leaves.

I do incorporate various elements of ritual in my Salvia divinorum sessions. Rituals utilize external actions that function through symbolism and metaphor to influence inner experience. I use ritual to prepare the inner environment. Essentially, to help create the sort of mental "set" that is conducive for a positive and productive experience. I won't go into every type of ritual I use, but I will describe the one I use most often: defining sacred space. The way that I like to do this is to burn white sage or copal and then to use the fragrant smoke to describe a circle that encloses the area where the session will take place. This is a simple, but extraordinarily powerful act. It creates a container for the session and promotes a sense of inner preparedness and respect for what one is about to do. It formally acknowledges the beginning of the session and signals the time for increased commitment and focus.

Will: Thanks for taking the time to share some of your thoughts and experiences with us.