There’s a new breed of “designated driver” out there. Known as “salvia spotters,” or “salvia sitters,” they offer guidance and support for those who want to fire up a bong and experience the hallucinatory qualities of the psychoactive plant salvia. “I have been a ‘spotter’ for salvia trips at least 30 times,” says Louis Marc Vautour, 36, of Toronto, who describes himself as a musician, barista and politician. A spotter “sits in front of the voyager, the one taking it, and usually holds the combustion apparatus.” The most basic function, he explains, “is to ensure the voyager is safe and doesn’t harm themselves or others—you would not want to drop burning embers onto a carpet, for example.” An experienced spotter, he adds, is also “the guide or guru for the trip.”
Salvia is a potent hallucinogenic plant sold openly online and in head shops across the country. Its popularity has increased because of all the YouTube videos people have posted of their salvia trips, including one that went viral late last year of Miley Cyrus taking salvia. Technically, because salvia is considered a natural health product, it has to be authorized by Health Canada before it can be sold; Christelle Legault, a spokesperson for Health Canada, told the Canadian Press last year that, “to date, Health Canada has not licensed for sale any drug that contains salvia as an ingredient.” Still, head shops openly sell vials of salvia extract, for $20 to $80 a gram, depending on the potency.
“When people take salvia,” says Vautour, “they experience ‘ego death,’ or what the Buddhists call the ‘Clear Light of Illumination.’ It is a powerful experience and can be extremely awe inspiring but also can be accompanied by fear.” People react in different ways, he explains, from “babbling incoherently for a few minutes,” to “having the desire to get up and move.” Some “thrash around.” Others “fall down immediately.” He’s also seen people throwing the bong and smashing it. “Some people lose consciousness. There are a number of physical risks the salvia spotter should be prepared to handle.”
Beyond the safety issues, according to Vautour, there are also “spiritual concerns.” The spotter “should try not to impose his own ego games upon the voyager.” Apparently, even a slight facial expression, such as worry or even laughter, can “influence” the voyageur, turning an enjoyable trip into a nightmare.
One twentysomething woman who has never tried salvia and doesn’t want her name used, has been a “spotter” twice, once for a friend and once for her husband’s first trip. She was taught how to do it by another spotter. “I was told to sit there and be calm, letting my husband know that everything would be okay and to ask him to sit and relax if he tried to get up, which he did. I had to wrestle him a little to sit back down.”
Being a spotter scared her. “As much as I was taught to be prepared for what was about to happen, I totally started to feel my heart race when I saw how out of it my husband was. He was slurring. He wanted to get up and walk around, but I was afraid he’d get a knife or something.” She says his eyes turned red and devil-like. “I think he could feel my fear and I’m guessing that made him scared as well.” She was a “terrible” spotter,” she admits. “It’s a heavy responsibility I’d rather not have.”
Vautour disagrees. He says it’s an “enormous privilege” to be a spotter, especially for a first-timer. “You are their connection to this reality. You are usually the last thing they see before they leave and the first thing when they return.” A trip, he says, is like “seeing the entire universe all at once, every thought, every whisper, everything. It’s kind of like standing between two mirrors. You see infinite echoes of yourself and all other things in the universe reflected back. You truly see the unity of things.”
Less poetically, another twentysomething who also doesn’t want to be named finds the responsibility more “funny” than anything else. “The person is very giggly and hilarious because their perception is altered. Plus, [the peak] only lasts like five minutes, so it’s not a major commitment or anything.”