Hamilton's Pharmacopeia (2011) s01e03 Episode Script

Shepherdess: The Story of Salvia Divinorium

Allow me to introduce you
to the most unusual
trans-neoclerodane diterpene
found in nature.
Its origins are obscure.
Its natural distribution
I've been fascinated
by psychoactive drugs
my whole life.
I love to study their chemistry
and impact on society.
And my work has allowed me
to investigate extraordinary
substances around the world.
Yet there are still mysteries
that remain.
For years, I've hoped to see
this ovate leaf
in its natural habitat.
It's new to our culture,
but familiar to the shamans
who've cultivated the plant
for generations.
This is the story
of salvia divinorum.
[ Siren wails ]
There's a plant that holds
a special place in my heart.
It's a rare perennial sage
called salvia divinorum,
that's only been found growing
in a 200-square-mile decagon
of mountain wilderness
in Oaxaca, Mexico.
The plant is consumed
by the indigenous
Mazatec people,
who refer to it as Shka Pastora,
or The Shepherdess.
Glandular trichomes lining
the underside of its leaves
secrete a resin containing
salvinorin A,
the world's most potent
naturally occurring psychedelic.
For generations, Mazatec shamans
were the only ones
with intimate knowledge of
salvia's psychoactivity.
But in the 1990s, it entered
the commercial market
as a smokeable extract
that often frightened users
who were unprepared for
its extraordinary potency.
[ Grunts ]
I first became interested
in salvia as a teenager
when I extracted and purified
salvinorin A,
leading to a lifelong interest
in psychedelics and chemistry.
I'm even working on a new
extraction procedure
with my friend, Dr. Monroe.
But my investigation into salvia
is far from complete.
I want to meet those who are
most devoted to understanding
the plant, and finally,
to search for it
in its natural habitat.
Scientists have been studying
salvia divinorum
since the 1950s.
However, the most important
didn't come from
a university lab,
but from the kitchen
of an amateur botanist
named Daniel Siebert.
Though Siebert wasn't the first
to use salvia or isolate
he was the first person to have
what is now considered
a typical smoked salvia
When you totally lose every
connection to your body
and the physical world,
it's pretty hard to be
comfortable with that.
I can see why the Mazatecs
used it as a ceremonial
because it does this.
It gets you into
this internal space
where you can kind of see things
more clearly.
At least it can if you use it
with that intention.
It was a really obscure plant.
I just kind of grew it as
an interesting curiosity
in my collection.
People thought that the plant
only worked if you chewed
fresh leaves.
I thought one thing
I haven't tried
is making an extract according
to a published procedure
that I had come across
for extracting salvinorin A.
So, I did that in my kitchen.
[ Chuckles ]
And I experiment with lots of
plant extracts before.
Never seen an extract that
looked like that.
It just had this iridescent
sparkliness about it.
And then I thought,
"Wait a minute.
That's probably crystals
in suspension.
Sure enough, you can see
little crystals
floating around in there,
and I just thought,
"Wait a minute, maybe I should
test a little bit of it."
I waited a little while,
and didn't seem like anything
was happening.
And then all of a sudden,
I was just gone to this reality.
I was just in some
disembodied state,
completely disorientating,
and I didn't know where I was.
Suddenly, I noticed that
it wasn't my house.
That it was
my grandparents' house
the way it was
when I was a child.
Not only was I
in the wrong place,
It seemed like I was in
the wrong place in history.
It was scary.
I thought I had died.
I didn't know what happened.
I was just gone.
[ Child laughing ]
And then eventually, somehow,
I did come back to my house,
and looked around.
I just, like, was like, "Wow,
that was amazing and weird.
I'm so glad to be alive."
[ Laughs ]
And then it hit me,
like, "This is it.
This is the chemical
that's responsible
for the mind-altering effects
of salvinorin A.
No question about it.
Morris: Siebert's kitchen
opened the door to the
commercialization of salvia,
first as a curiosity
for the psychedelic elite,
and soon after, as a fixture in
head shops across the country.
So now people knew
that the plant
contained a powerful
and how to go about getting
effects from it.
Morris: Entrepreneurs
recognized the opportunity
to profit from the new drug
that was both potent and legal,
and supplied salvia
to a public
with no understanding of
the plant or its origins.
The effects of smoked salvia
extracts are dramatic.
Immediate onset, short duration,
and a complete loss of
connection to consensus reality.
And starting in 2005,
a video-hosting service
called YouTube
made it possible to share
these once private experiences
with the entire world.
The videos were like nothing
I'd ever seen.
They were riveting
and hilarious.
But few users seemed to enjoy
the experience,
and most tried it only once.
However, one person
built an empire
Hello, and welcome to
"Gardening on Salvia."
I'm Erik, your host.
Morris: with nothing more
than a video camera,
a bong, and a bag
of 20x salvia extract.
I couldn't think of any
person who loved salvia
just because of the weirdness
of doing it.
Hello, and welcome to
"Driving on Salvia."
I'm Erik, your host.
You're gonna hold it in
for about 20 seconds,
or until your vision
begins to vibrate.
Morris: How'd you first find out
about salvia?
My friends went out
and bought some and tried it.
Came over and they were like,
"Erik, this stuff is hilarious,"
and we watched a couple
YouTube videos.
I was like, "This is what
it does to people?"
They were like, "Yeah, try it."
I'm like, "All right."
And so I smoked it in
the living room over there
and, like, just kind of
faded out.
It's like trapped-inside-
feeling a little bit.
You can lose any sense of
reality while you're on it.
The joke is that you can't get
anything done on this shit ever,
and it's just, like,
a how-to video,
and you just take a hit
of salvia beforehand every time.
First, step one is we're gonna
smoke our salvia.
Would you say that you were
having a spiritual experience
during those videos?
Oh, yeah, definitely.
It's definitely a spiritual
But it was like a battle
every time I smoked it.
I don't like
losing control,
and that's exactly
what salvia is.
It just takes over, and
it's, like, uncomfortable.
But also very funny,
so it's completely worth
making videos of.
Morris: What began as a simple
household gag went viral,
and for Erik, there was
no turning back.
Big money salvia is here
Smoking salvia everywhere
For some reason, it connects
with a shitload of people.
News coverage such as this
segment on ABC's "Nightline"
type in the word "salvia."
sensationalized a drug
that most users
found unpleasant,
and few had tried
more than once.
Out of their minds!
Morris: Their scare stories
served to incite a moral panic
about salvia's perceived
-[ Screams ]
Woman: Miley Cyrus
allegedly tried it.
Everything changed in 2010
when Miley Cyrus was recorded
smoking a salvia extract
and mistook "Friday Night
Lights" actor Grey Damon
for her at-the-time ex-boyfriend
but future fiancé,
Liam Hemsworth.
Officials were quick
to condemn it
and cited videos such as those
by Salvia Erik
as evidence of the drug's abuse.
Excuse me.
I have to go to space now.
Morris: As of 2016,
salvia has been prohibited
in 26 states
and controlled in most others.
Man: The easy access that folks
have to this drug
is very disconcerting.
I was blown away when I saw
my comedy drug video
with a cat in it getting played
in front of a room full
of legislators.
Man: A little cat jumps up
on the front of the car.
He doesn't know how
to handle it.
He sees monsters there.
They passed this bill
in 2011,
despite the fact that it has
probably some medical use.
Do you feel any personal
I just --
I want to say no,
'cause I'd like to think
that anyone should be able
to make fun of anything.
Now I'm not quite so sure,
'cause it seemed to have
just gotten it
into a whole hell
of a lot of trouble.
Although the videos
helped contribute
to the drug's prohibition,
they also provided
an unprecedented data set.
Hi, I'm Hamilton.
-I'm Jim.
James Lange is a sociologist
who wanted to study
how salvia is used
in a naturalistic environment.
YouTube was an amazing archive
of experiences of this drug,
and they result within
the timeframe
of a typical YouTube video.
So, you could actually document
an entire trip.
Things like
coordination loss
[ Laughing ] Whoo-hoo-hoo!
the hand to the face.
That kept happening, as well.
Sort of
hysterical laughter.
These are all clues to say
what parts of the brain
is being affected
by this drug.
It's really common to see folks
try to leave the environment.
It has something to do with
kind of a fight or flight,
coordination loss.
Some have criticized these sort
of videos
as tarnishing
the entheogenic approach
to salvia where people
are using it
for some sort of
spiritual purpose.
These are documents of
people's use of drugs,
and we can learn
from them.
-Oh, God.
-Oh, God.
[ Chuckles ]
Morris: The American
salvia revolution
would've never occurred
without the work
of a small group of
Mexican researchers
who identified the plant,
studied its chemistry,
and documented its use by the
indigenous Mazatecs of Oaxaca.
and documented its use by the
indigenous Mazatecs of Oaxaca.
Morris: In 1973, Mexican
psychiatrist José-Luis Diaz
participated in a traditional
salvia ceremony
and published his findings
in a seminal report,
"Ethnopharmacology and Taxonomy
of Mexican Psychodysleptic
The salvia plant extract,
is that used frequently
in Mexico?
The extract?
I understand it is, but I have
never seen it used.
Shamanic history is something
that people in the United States
are not entirely
familiar with.
And you did important early work
on that subject.
Well, it was
quite an adventure.
It was my first field trip,
so it was quite important in
my academic and personal life.
It was the first time
that somebody reported
shamanic ceremony
and participant ceremony
with salvia.
For the Mazatecs, all of these
plants are sacred.
incarnations of deities.
When we went in 1973,
there was no previous
about what salvia,
you know, did.
We were lucky to find
a Mazatec Indian.
He was quite careful
at the beginning.
He sent me to a shaman lady
called Julia Ordelia Palacios.
she had a nephew --
an apprentice who was known
as bilingual,
so we were able
to communicate.
It was the first time,
that that shaman
had been in contact
with a non-Mazatec person.
What she did was to question
me carefully
about what
my intentions were,
and finally she understood
that I was interested
in witnessing
a divination ceremony.
The ceremonies are
very interesting
from a psychopharmacologist's
point of view
because they are expression
of knowledge of the plant
and its effects
that has been gathered
from generation to generation
for many years.
No one has ever recorded a video
of those ceremonies,
and there's very little
written about it.
As far as I know,
there's no
well done recording
of a salvia ceremony.
Morris: 40 years have passed
since Diaz did his field work
in the Sierra Mazateca,
and I hope to learn if
the traditions he observed
have remained the same.
You recorded the ceremony
that you had.
What happened to
those recordings?
In one of those trips,
it disappeared.
It was quite a loss.
[ Chuckles ]
Wow, so this is gonna be
very interesting
if we're able
to find someone.
I know.
The chant is magnificent.
When one as a Western scientist
goes to an Indian community,
we are two worlds colliding,
in a certain sense.
Huautla de Jimenez
was first made famous
in psychedelic circles
not for salvia,
but for psilocybin
containing mushrooms.
But that another story.
The road to Huautla from
Mexico City is 200 miles,
the final 40 of which are bent
into 378 hairpin turns
lined with crosses marking
the location of fatal accidents.
Been traveling for 12 hours
and still haven't arrived,
but I'm very excited to reach
this secluded mountain town.
It's the place where
salvia divinorum
was introduced
to the Western world,
and without this small town,
the plant would be unknown.
We are arriving in Huautla.
There's mushrooms painted
on every store.
As soon as you enter,
you know that this is a place
that prides itself
for its mushroom history.
I don't think salvia
is even really sold here.
When Spanish colonists
arrived in Mexico,
they persecuted or killed
those who refused
to abandon their traditional
Many indigenous groups preserved
their spiritual practices
within a Christian framework,
resulting in a syncratic
that worships plants, fungi,
and Catholic saints
[ Singing in native language ]
After I followed a procession
through the street,
I met a locally renowned shaman
named Julietta
who invited me back
to her house
and offered to perform
a salvia ceremony.
When I asked if I could film
the ceremony,
she accused me of being a druggy
and referred me to another
shaman named Inez.
-[ Speaks Spanish ]
-Inez offered me a fine cigar.
[ Speaks Spanish ]
And a cigarette chaser,
but she told me she never
used salvia
and suggested I speak with
a shaman named Filigonio.
Filigonio had used salvia,
but only when the mushrooms
weren't in season.
He invited me to partake
in a mushroom ceremony,
which I said I'd consider later.
[ Dog barks ]
Outside Filigonio's house,
I met an alcohol enthusiast
who knew about UFOs,
but not much else.
[ Imitates UFO whooshing ]
So I headed back
to my hotel in defeat.
I'm worried that I can't
convince people
that my intentions
in this research are pure.
And salvia's a drug
that means a lot to me.
It was the first psychedelic
drug I ever used.
It was what got me interested
in psychedelic drugs
and psychoactive drugs
in general,
and to be able to see firsthand
the way they do it
and how they choose
the appropriate dose
and how they care for the plants
and how they prepare the leaves,
all that would be amazing.
How they sing
during the rituals.
I would love to see
all of those things.
On my second day in Huautla,
I contacted a trilingual local
named Luis.
He spoke English,
Spanish, and Mazatec.
Hey. ¿Qué tal?
He offered to take me to an area
where he heard wild salvia
could be found.
On the way, he told me
of the nearby caves,
which are some of the deepest
in the western hemisphere
and feature prominently in the
superstitions of the Mazatec.
[ People shouting in distance,
birds chirping ]
[ Whistling ]
Is that whistling a big part
of the Mazatec language?
Yeah, whistling. Yeah.
It's because we can't use
tonal language.
We can have a conversation
by whistle.
Tonal language?
Tonal language, yeah.
Like Chinese.
Morris: Luis mentioned
the local legend
of a goat man apparition
called El Chato,
who's known to stalk the caves
and offer passersby
enormous sums of money
in exchange for their penises.
Should we go in?
I don't know.
Is it dangerous?
Wait, it's like an altar?
What is it?
There's a mysterious plank
laid across these two stones.
What it means and why it's here,
I can't say.
I've heard conflicting reports
about whether or not these caves
have any role in the traditional
healing ceremonies.
But they're certainly amazing
to look at.
It's amazing inside.
He told me
that we need to go.
[ Whistles sharply ]
Morris: While I was exploring
the cave,
Luis had spoken to the son
of a shaman
who agreed to meet us
up the road.
[ Man whistles ]
Nacho was his name,
and he seemed to know exactly
where he was going.
I want to see how people
are able
to get the full benefits
of the plant,
how people are able to use
the plant responsibly.
Is the salvia that we're looking
for growing in the wild,
or is someone
cultivating it?
Has a very distinctive
square stem.
The plant can then fall over
and sprout new roots.
How many leaves would you
recommend I take?
The leaves are traditionally
collected in pairs.
I'm trying to do the same thing.
28, 29.
One more leaf.
I've selected 30 salvia
divinorum leaves
from different plants.
They vary in size and color
and freshness.
It's an amazing opportunity
to try this plant.
With 30 leaves as my ticket,
I was taken to meet Nacho's
mother, the salvia shaman.
[ Speaks Spanish ]
[ Speaks Spanish ]
[ Speaks Spanish ]
[ Speaks Spanish ]
[ Speaks Spanish ]
[ Speaks Spanish ]
Where I live
in the United States,
salvia is
considered a problem
because many people make videos
of themselves
using the plant that make
the plant look ridiculous.
That sounds good.
Morris: The Mazatecs administer
salvia in two ways --
as a strained juice
and rolled leaves,
which are chewed and swallowed.
[ Gags ]
I barely feel
the salvia effect at all,
but the liquid
is incredibly bitter.
There's quite a bit left.
[ Lows ]
After consuming all 30 leaves,
there's no visual distortion,
no auditory distortion.
I am resistant to the effect
or I'm not experiencing much.
Is that a bad thing?
Should I be looking
for a higher effect
or appreciating a low effect?
That was a beautiful ceremony,
but the drug effect
is very mild.
Do you want me to carry
anything for you?
Carry your bag?
No, no.
Tomorrow I'm going to
meet with the shaman again.
I'm going to try a higher dose.
I may chew the leaves
instead of drinking
the aqueous extract
as I did today.
the aqueous extract
as I did today.
It took researchers decades
to understand
salvia divinorum's activity,
and my experience drinking
its juice explains why.
Salvinorin A is unlike any other
naturally occurring psychedelic.
It's an unusually large molecule
that lacks a basic nitrogen.
It's insoluble in water
and rapidly hydrolyzed by
enzymes in the intestine.
As a result, the leaves lose
all activity when swallowed
and must be absorbed
through prolonged contact
with mucous membranes.
When I return
to Francisca's house,
she told me my clothing
had scared away
the spirit of the plant,
and it would be
necessary for me to wear
the traditional clothes
of a Huauteco man.
We're about to go out and hunt
for salvia divinorum
in the moonlight.
And they told me that I had to
keep my hand inside this shell.
[ Dogs barking ]
Okay, there's so much here.
Probably 50 or 60 of the biggest
salvia plants I've ever seen.
30 leaves.
Many of them have been
extensively eaten by insects.
[ Speaks Spanish ]
I can feel it now.
It's a very good,
beautiful feeling.
It's a beautiful sensation.
My visual field was dominated by
a singular, intense light source
that gradually enveloped me.
The light and this
seashell that I was given
and these leaves,
every sensation is as if it's
pulling me back into my chair.
And the sound of the music
is turning into waves,
lips that are then
pouring over me.
And everything is very hot,
and it's truly amazing.
As the salvinorin A coursed
through my blood,
I reached a state of bliss
I never knew possible.
Oh, it's coming over me.
[ Speaks native language ]
It's almost indescribable
in its sensation.
It's such a strange, flowing
full-body shape weight
that's pouring over me.
[ Moaning ]
Oh, my God.
[ Breathing heavily ]
[ Laughing ]
[ Speaking native language ]
Can we lay down?
Is that possible?
[ Singing softly
in native language ]
[ Singing softly
in native language ]
Morris: Shaman Francisca
initiated a series of rites
to summon the spirit
of the plant
and used different techniques
to physically distribute
the medicine through my body.
It had taken hold of me,
and I became vulnerable
to every gesture,
every incantation offered
by the shaman.
I reached a transformed
state of being
when the shaman
asked me to dance.
As I danced with the shaman
under the moonlight,
I felt the rhythm of the salvia
from my machete to my conch.
That is amazing.
It's not over at all.
I don't even know how long
it's been.
I have no idea how long
it's been.
So, it has been hours.
Shka Pastora.
Amazing plant.
The greatest plant.
Diaz: From a person interested
in consciousness like I am,
I just have to respect
the degree of sophistication,
enough subtlety that
these people have
consciousness states.
This is what it's all about.
The central thing
is consciousness.
And these people are
sophisticated consciousness
Wow, it's just
amazing, amazing.
Thank you so much.
Thank you, thank you, thank you,
thank you, thank you.
Oh, sorry,
I should say gracias,
gracias, gracias,
gracias, gracias.
Thank you so much.
Thank you so much.
The -- the songs
were very beautiful.
Last night, I had my first
traditional salvia ceremony
in Huautla de Jimenez,
and it was an amazing
and I'm going to leave Huautla
loving it even more
than I did before.
Last night was one of the best
experiences of my life.
What did your mother think of
the ceremony last night?
Did she not like that I laughed
or that I lay on the ground,
or is that typical
for these ceremonies?
I kind of feel like I'm not
allowed back there anymore.
Because you've hurt
the salvia gods?
I never really did it
with the best of intentions.
You should write a letter.
Here we go.
And rolling.
Hey, everybody.
Welcome to "Apologizing to
the Salvia Gods on Salvia."
I'm Erik, your host,
and this is Hamilton,
and man, I'll tell you, I really
got salvia in a lot of trouble,
so I'm here to apologize
to the salvia gods on salvia,
and it reads, "Dear salvia gods,
I am sorry I got
you guys in trouble
with my inappropriate videos."
Now I'm gonna go bring
them this letter.
Let's take a hit of our salvia.
[ Strained voice ] Okay, now
you want to hold that in
until your vision begins
to vibrate,
because it's gonna hit you
real quick,
so I better get
this thing ready to go.
Let me just pack that up.
Right there.
Hey, Hamilton.
You think I got a hit?
I think you did.
[ Laughs ]
Oh, man, am I just
doing the thing?
[ Laughs ]
[ Chuckles ]
[ Woman singing softly
in native language ]
Oh, what a strange
It's not for everyone.
If salvia could talk,
it would go, "Stop smoking me.
Leave me alone.
Let the shamans do it."
[ Singing continues ]
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