Nightmare drug Salvia could help end the hellish opioid crisis

Nightmare drug Salvia could help end the hellish opioid crisis

VicesSeptember 11, 2018 By Reilly Capps

Some people smoke Salvia because it's legal and crazy powerful. However it's one of the least addictive drugs because, mostly, it sucks as a drug.

If drinking is like being wrapped up in a dark fuzzy blanket, and weed is like floating on a bright cloud, smoking Salvia divinorum is like dying in a car crash, going to hell and rising from the dead. 

Though some are looking to use it for help weaning the nation off our most addictive drugs, opioids, which feel too much like heaven.

Ryan Shenvi, a chemist at Scripps, thinks modifying a Salvia molecule could create a painkiller that doesn't get its hooks in you. "Tens of thousands are dying of drug overdose in the U.S. every year, mostly because they get addicted to opioids that are prescribed to treat pain," Shenvi said. "Salvinorin A has many problems, but it also has a lot going for it."

Unlike a lot of recreational drugs, which affect the serotonin or dopamine systems, Salvia tickles a part of the body called the kappa opioid receptor — which is associated with pain, but not with addiction.

The chemist created a synthetic version of Salvia from scratch, and modified the molecule slightly to make it more stable. This was a novel move, a bit like building an oak tree out of lumber from Home Depot.

When given to mice, the new kind of Salvia relieved itching, and some scientists suspect itching and pain use the same molecules to communicate with the brain.

"We’re on the right track," Shenvi said. "So, game-changing drug? Well, we’ll try."

A Salvia-based drug will only be commercially viable if Shenvi and his team can engineer the hallucinations out. So … did the mice trip balls? Shenvi isn't sure. 

"It’s pretty hard to tell if a mouse is hallucinating," Shenvi added. "It can’t fill out a questionnaire or dance to a Pink Floyd record that nobody hears."

And … why not try it out on the available humans?

"I don’t want myself or my students jumping out a window," Shenvi said, mostly joking.

Kind of like this?

Shenvi has a long road of testing and modifying in front of him. But if it works, a drug that right now scares the daylights out of people could bring hope to an epidemic that's even scarier.

"I had to sit (my kids) down at the breakfast table and tell them about carfentanil, which is sometimes laced into heroin," Shenvi said. "Because there are no second chances with this drug. It’s easy to OD and if you do, you’re probably not coming back."

You cannot overdose and die on Salvia. And you will come back. You'll just feel like you're dead. And it's gonna be sooooo weird.

[originally published January 23, 2018]