In what is believed to be the first controlled human study of the effects of salvinorin A, the active ingredient in Salvia divinorum, a controversial new hallucinogen featured widely on You Tube and other internet sites, Johns Hopkins researchers report that the effects are surprisingly strong, brief, and intensely disorienting, but without apparent short-term adverse effects in healthy people.

Since the NIH-funded research was done with four mentally and physically healthy hallucinogen-experienced volunteers in a safe medical environment, researchers say they are limited in their conclusions about the compound’s safety, according to Matthew W. Johnson, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the study’s lead author.

Johnson and the Hopkins team say they undertook the research to try and put some rigorous scientific information into current concerns over the growing recreational use of Salvia divinorum, which is an herb in mint family. The plant, which has been used for centuries by shamans in Mexico for spiritual healing, is the target of increased nationwide legal efforts to restrict its availability and use. Though little is known about the compound’s effects in humans, some legislators have been spurred to action after watching one of thousands of online videos chronicling the uncontrolled behavior that sometimes follows its use. However, because animal studies show that salvinorin A has unique effects in the brain, some scientists believe that the drug or a modified version of it may lead to medical advances in the treatment of diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, chronic pain and drug addiction.

Salvia leaves are typically smoked. Often the quantity of salvinorin A in the leaves has been boosted by the addition of a concentrated extract of the compound. The drug is available online or in “head shops” and is legal in most states. More than a dozen states have outright bans on the product and eight others have restrictions such as prohibitions for minors. About a dozen nations have also outlawed it. The U.S. Department of Justice’s Drug Enforcement Administration has included it in their list of “drugs and chemicals of concern,” but to date there is no federal prohibition against it.

The findings of the Hopkins study are published online in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence.

“Everything we knew up to this point about the effects of this drug in humans, other than a few surveys or anecdotal case reports, comes from accounts on websites or YouTube videos,” Johnson says. “Those are hardly scientific sources enabling a rigorous understanding of the effects of the drug. Even though the sample size in this study is small, we used an extremely well-controlled methodology, which provided a clear picture of the drug’s basic effects.”

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