Salvia: The Mind-Blowing Legal High That Sends You Loopy

Just when you thought the nanny state had finally gotten the better of us, someone started selling a mind-blowing plant extract called Salvia on the high street.
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Just when it seemed like the nanny state had ruined all our fun, someone is selling a mind-blowing plant extract on the high street. It sends you to hell and brings you back feeling like a war-torn hero, all in the time it takes most people to drink a cup of coffee.

My moment of going over the top was a calm autumn Saturday, a pale golden afternoon in Brighton when no one has any right to be bored, but I was bored and feeling perverse. Leaving my flat I should have turned down for a stroll along the surfy sea front, but the front has lost its appeal since some idiot put a Ferris wheel at the end of my street, like a giant executive toy that sits on your desk doing its stupid mathematical thing all day; you don't want to see it but you can't look away.

Marco, the hotel manager was hanging out in the sunshine on his front step. 'Good morning professor,' he called. I don't know why he calls me professor. Maybe he thinks I perform strange experiments with psychedelic drugs alone in my room. I walked away from the sea, thinking I should join the other stout-shoed types shaking out the cobwebs with a brisk march across The South Downs. Really I was on my way to a remote part of town where no one I knew would see me entering the dark door of a head-shop, one of those places that sells a hundred different sorts of ciggie papers and little pipes in the shape of squatting monkeys or a reclining nude woman with a hole in her head where you stuff your herbs then suck out the smoke through a hole in her foot.

You can't actually buy the best-loved herb in a head-shop, not even the good molecular copy that was marketed for a while under the brand-name, Spice - last time I asked, Spice had been classified Class B. And needless to say, the days when such places kept fridges full of magic mushrooms behind the counter are long long gone. I waited while a middle-aged man paid a fortune for some fine strain seeds for growing his own herbs, then I asked the assistant if they had any salvia.

'Yeah,' he said. 'You interested in that?'

'Well, I heard it was the last legal high that actually works.'

A stoppered plastic tube of dark leafy stuff was placed on the counter.

'It's not like cannabis,' the assistant said as if forestalling a misapprehension that had caused negative feedback in the past. His dreadlocked mate, standing on my side of the counter, consulted a book of psychotropic plants. 'The salvia experience is not like any other,' he read out. 'A sensation of sliding or bending is common. Some people have hallucinations.'

I laughed 'I don't believe anything I buy in a British shop can give me hallucinations.' The assistant nodded and smiled. 'Have you taken it?' I asked.


'What happened?'

'The world split apart like a watermelon,' he said slowly.

Caveat fucking emptor, man! Visiting a head-shop these days brings a whole new meaning to the old first rule of business: LET THE BUYER BEWARE. There is no way I can claim the guy didn't tell me his product does exactly what it says on the tin.

But I must have switched off before he even answered my question. Who cares about other people's trips anyway? It's like when they tell you their dreams. Who ever listens to that stuff?

'I tried salvia once,' the dreadlocks said. 'It didn't do much. Just made me feel a bit distant. Now I stick to illegal drugs.'

I thanked him for his honesty and the assistant tried to sell me a bong to smoke the salvia in and a lighter with an extra-hot flame. In the end I used some Rizlas I had lying around to roll up a few flakes of leaf – the plastic tube was so densely packed, even now it looks as though I haven't smoked any of the contents at all. Then I sat on my living room sofa and lit up with an ordinary lighter. The salvia burned just fine.


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What it says on the tin is that the Mazatec Indians of Oaxaca use salvia in spiritual ceremonies and soul-searching. No wonder those shamans always look a thousand years old. After ten minutes on the stuff, having recovered the use of my legs and got past the period of stumbling around the room holding my head and saying 'Fuck! Fuck!' I went to the mirror to see if my hair had turned white. Then I went on a website that invites people to describe their experiences of smoking the Holy Sage.

For twenty lines or so I babbled on about being summoned to some other place by voices that affectionately mocked my stubborn attachment to reality. Even now my heart is beating faster when I remember the absolute certainty that a long delusion was over and, wherever I went next, I was saying goodbye forever to the bright sunny world of my living room. I tried to describe the way that the visual scene concertinaed and collapsed and how I prised it open and expanded it again only by a super-human effort of my will, hanging on to a patch of orange colour that turned out later to be a cushion..., must be the ultimate refuge for bloggers nobody reads. Along with my effusions you can find Sean from Western Australia's 'terrifying dissociative experience'; Ryan's 'brief moment of amnesia... a lot scarier than it sounds.'; the soldier from Washington State who got into salvia after a tour of Iraq; Matthew from San Bernardino who takes it because he just doesn't have the time to 'trip on acid for seven or eight hours.'

Everyone heard voices, everyone had several minutes of being convinced that reality was false. No one who has had it describes the salvia experience as a legal high because it is not a high; it's a divine revelation you can have in your lunch break and it only costs a few pence. Prising the world back open by means of an orange cushion... on a quiet Brighton Saturday it certainly cured my boredom.

I'm not so sure about the longer term effects. Forty eight hours later I still couldn't shake off the feeling of having re-entered an illusion that for my own selfish reasons, I wanted to go on living in. At least I'll have something to say at parties where people discuss the words to George Harrison songs.