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Southeast Asia: DEA Bringing Drug War Tactics to Vietnam

DEA agents are in Vietnam this month to train Vietnamese anti-drug officers how to conduct drug raids American-style, but local UN officials say you can't police your way out of a drug problem. Still, that's not stopping the American drug warriors from teaching door-kicking-in and other skills they consider necessary for their paramilitarized approach to drug law enforcement.

According to a report from Voice of America radio, DEA agents like Joe Boix, the agency's head firearms and tactical instructor in the state of Arizona, are showing the Vietnamese how it's done back home. As Boix watched, a column of masked Vietnamese police practiced raiding a drug den.

"Someone needs to be on that side of the door," said Agent Boix. The agents kicked in the door and enter the room. "Protect your back. Turn around now," continued Boix.

"The drug problem is an international problem, and it's killing children, and it's killing families, and it's all the same no matter where you go," Boix told VOA.

Although Vietnam is not a drug producer, it has seen rising levels of heroin addiction since it opened itself to foreign trade two decades ago. Amphetamines and ecstasy are also popular. But the DEA isn't particularly concerned about drug use in Vietnam; rather, it wants to crack down on the use of the country as a transshipment point in the global drug trade.

"Our main thrust is to go after the international organizations. We'll help them out. That's what this training is for, to help them deal with their internal problem. But we want to go after the bigger organizations, the large ones, international in scope," said Jeff Wanner, the DEA officer at the US Embassy in Hanoi.

While training exercises like the one now on-going may help increase cooperation between US and Vietnamese law enforcement, it is unlikely to reduce drug use rates in Vietnam, and may even exacerbate problems related to drug abuse, said Jason Eligh, a harm reduction specialist at the UN Office on Drugs and Crime Hanoi office.

"If police enforcement is extremely strong, extremely rigid, concerned about stopping all things related to drugs, imprisoning people, imposing strict fines, that's going to cause heroin users to flee from authority, Eligh told VOA. "In Vietnam, drug use is classified as a social evil and as a crime. Where there's strong enforcement, you're seeing drug users not want to engage in services," he said.

When tough law enforcement drives drug users underground, the result can be higher rates of HIV infection, Eligh said. Nor was he particularly enamored of the current Vietnamese approach to drug users, which is to intern them in mandatory rehabilitation camps, generally for two years, but sometimes for as long as five years, but then offers few services once drug users go back home.

"There are a number of better ways of dealing with drug dependence, and this is not one of them. Certainly methadone is by far the best approach to heroin dependence that we have in the world today," said Eligh.

Vietnam recently began implementing its first methadone maintenance programs. That's a more progressive and humane approach than either the rehab camps or American-style drug raids.

Feature: Feds Score Another Conviction Against a California Medical Marijuana Dispensary Operator

In a trial that garnered national attention because of the conflict between state and federal marijuana laws, a federal jury in Los Angeles Tuesday convicted the owner of a Morro Bay medical marijuana dispensary on five counts of violating federal drug laws. As was the case in previous federal prosecutions, the defense was not allowed to mount a medical marijuana defense or even mention the words "medical marijuana" during the course of the trial.
Charlie Lynch (from
Charles Lynch, 46, operator of Central Coast Compassionate Caregivers in San Luis Obispo County, faces a minimum of five years in prison and as many as 85 years after being found guilty of distributing more than 100 kilograms of marijuana, some of to people considered minors under federal law.

Federal prosecutors portrayed Lynch as a mercenary drug dealer, toting around backpacks full of cash and selling dope to minors. One minor, Owen Beck, actually took the stand in Lynch's defense. Beck suffers from bone cancer, and accompanied by his parents, he would visit the dispensary to purchase medical marijuana recommended to him by his Stanford University oncologist. But as soon as Beck mentioned that he was ill, Federal District Court Judge George Wu blocked his testimony.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times after reaching a verdict, jury forewoman Kitty Meese said jurors understood Lynch was no run-of-the-mill drug dealer, but that federal law made no provision for dispensary operators. "We all felt Mr. Lynch intended well," Meese said. "But under the parameters we were given for the federal law, we didn't have a choice." She added, "it was a tough decision for all of us because the state law and the federal law are at odds."

Lynch had run the dispensary in compliance with state law and with the blessing of local officials in Morro Bay, but after a fruitless, year-long investigation by San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Pat Hedges failed to find any violations of state law, the sheriff invited the DEA to come and raid the dispensary. The DEA did just that last year, and a few months later a federal grand jury indicted him.

Lynch is only the latest of at least six dispensary operators convicted under the federal drug laws, and his dispensary is but one of the dozens raided by the DEA in the last couple of years. With federal juries blocked from hearing about or considering the state's medical marijuana laws by federal judges in those cases, convictions are all but a foregone conclusion.

"This just goes to show the difficulty of getting a fair trial on this in federal court," said Dale Gieringer, head of California NORML. "The feds are batting a thousand when it comes to getting convictions in these cases. You cannot get a fair hearing."

"Charley got steamrolled by the federal government," said San Luis Obispo attorney Lou Koory, who represented Lynch in his dealings with local officials. "It's just not a fair fight when you can't tell the whole story," he said.

"The jury selection process revealed that potential jurors in Los Angeles had major questions about why the feds would be prosecuting someone like Charley when there are several dispensaries operating within walking distance of the courthouse there," Koory pointed out. "Those jurors were dismissed for cause, so we were left with citizens who were apparently not concerned about the federal government's actions in this case and who felt compelled to follow the judge's instructions."

"When you have things like Owen Beck being prevented from testifying, that only escalates the tragedy of this case," said Kris Hermes, spokesman for the medical marijuana defense group Americans for Safe Access. "The jury was not allowed to hear the whole truth in the larger context of the state law," he said.

Hermes was quick to point out that Lynch was not the only victim of the DEA and its local law enforcement collaborators. "When Charles was raided, his was one of the only facilities in the whole region," said Hermes. "Now patients have to go much longer distances, sometimes hundreds of miles, to get their medicine. Not only has this destroyed Charlie's life, it has worsened the lives of hundreds of patients."

With the deck stacked against dispensary operators in these federal prosecutions, activists and advocates are looking for ways to change the status quo. Some involve fighting back against recalcitrant law enforcement officials like Sheriff Hedges, others looks to greater help from state officials, while still others are turning a jaundiced eye on the federal marijuana laws.

At least one of Lynch's patients has filed suit against Hedges, alleging that he violated patients' privacy protections by seizing patient records and violated both her state and federal constitutional rights by doing an end run around state law.

"The sheriff couldn't get a state search warrant, so he calls in the DEA and participates in the raid," said Koory. "In return for serving up Charley on a silver platter, the sheriff got access to all the evidence, including patient records," he explained. "The dispensary was a rock in the sheriff's shoe, so after a year's worth of failed investigation, Sheriff Hedges invited the DEA to come up to Morro Bay and raid the dispensary. That's the real story here."

While the idea of suing sheriffs sounds appealing, it's a long-shot, said Hermes. "They are certainly subject to litigation if someone wants to file a lawsuit against a local official for cooperating with the federal government, but it's a difficult legal challenge," he said. "There is no law that prohibits local law enforcement from cooperating with the feds. What officials like the sheriff are doing is wrongheaded, harmful, and unnecessary, but it will be difficult to win, I think."

In the meantime, said Hermes, there are other avenues to pursue in reining in renegade local officials. "One thing would be to get a pronouncement from Attorney General Jerry Brown directing law enforcement on appropriate conduct around these issues. We're expecting that to happen soon," he said. "Absence of direction from the attorney general has made it easier not only for federal law enforcement to come in and undermine the implementation of state law, but also to make it easier for local law enforcement to help in that effort."

Hermes said that recent state court decisions, including last week's slap-down of San Diego County's challenge to the law (see related story this issue) are also helping define the playing field. "We've had multiple appellate court rulings declaring the state's medical marijuana law is not preempted by federal law, that the two can coexist, and that local law enforcement should be upholding state law and not federal law," he said. "Between these rulings and the pending guidelines from the attorney general, there will be less and less wiggle room for local law enforcement to skirt the law."

There is also the ballot box. Sheriffs are elected officials, and they could be challenged at the voting booth over their medical marijuana misbehavior, but ASA's Hermes couldn't recall a case where someone was either defeated or elected over the issue. "It is certainly an issue to bring up in sheriffs' races," he said. "If there are renegade law enforcement officials trying to skirt state law, we can try to make them feel the political heat."

Still, Hermes predicted that given the state court rulings, the pending guidelines from the attorney general, and new set of faces in Washington next year, the renegade law enforcement problem will probably recede. "If it continues to happen," he said, "there will be a political battle I think public officials will be sorry they got into. I think we will see less and less cooperation between local law enforcement and the feds on this."

A new administration in Washington could make a huge difference, Hermes said. "If we elect Obama, and he follows through on his promise to end federal raids on dispensaries, then we will hopefully see less federal activity here in California."

But the ultimate solution is changing the federal law around marijuana. Legalization, decriminalization, rescheduling marijuana out of Schedule 1, or even passage of the Hinchey-Rohrabacher amendment, which would cut off funds for federal raids in medical marijuana states, are some of the steps that could be taken.

"We need to see either marijuana rescheduled as something other than Schedule 1, or the US Supreme Court's Raich decision needs to be revisited and overruled. The logic behind that decision -- that medical marijuana grown, distributed, and consumed within California affects interstate commerce -- is a stretch at best," said Koory.

"What we need is a comprehensive federal policy in the US," said Hermes. "Rescheduling or passing Hinchey would be easier than passing either decriminalization or legalization, but we would welcome any of those. We'll be working for a sweeping federal policy that includes rescheduling, further research, and allows for safe access to medical marijuana for patients all across the country."

Until the federal marijuana laws are reformed or eliminated, medical marijuana patients are not safe. Instead, they will be subject to the whims and political proclivities of whoever has hold of the levers of power in Washington.

Click here to watch Drew Carey's video about Charlie Lynch, on Reason TV.

Medical Marijuana: DEA Seizes Medical Marijuana Seized By Seattle Police

Washington state has a medical marijuana law, and the city of Seattle has an ordinance making marijuana offenses the lowest law enforcement priority, but that didn't stop Seattle police from raiding the Lifevine medical marijuana co-op two weeks ago, seizing hundreds of patient files, as well as 12 ounces of dried buds and several pounds of leaf.
California medical marijuana bags (courtesy Daniel Argo via Wikimedia)
In the wake of pointed criticism, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg declined to press charges against co-op operator Martin Martinez and ordered the return of the patient files. But police did not return the co-op's stolen property -- the medical marijuana.

Now, it has become clear the medical marijuana will never be returned. The Seattle Police announced Wednesday that the DEA, acting at the request of US Attorney Jeff Sullivan, took the medicine last Friday.

The DEA tersely confirmed it had seized the medicine. "Accordingly, the DEA has seized and processed the marijuana for destruction; that concludes this matter," agency spokesperson Jodie Underwood said in a statement reported by the Associated Press.

Medical Marijuana: Whole Plant Better Than Isolated Components in Pain Relief, Italian Study Finds

Scientists at the University of Milan have published a study finding that whole-plant marijuana extracts provide better relief for neuropathic pain than isolated components of the plant, like THC alone. The research is an intervention in the ongoing debate between medical marijuana supporters and herbal and alternative medicine advocates on one side and the US government, some politicians, and the pharmaceuticalized medicine industry on the other.
Marinol advertisement on Google
"The use of a standardized extract of Cannabis sativa... evoked a total relief of thermal hyperalgesia, in an experimental model of neuropathic pain,... ameliorating the effect of single cannabinoids," the investigators reported. "Collectively, these findings strongly support the idea that the combination of cannabinoid and non-cannabinoid compounds, as present in extracts, provide significant advantages... compared with pure cannabinoids alone."

Congressional drug warriors like Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN) have long argued that marijuana is not a medicine and that any medicinal compounds in the plant should be isolated or synthesized, as is the case with Marinol, which contains one of the hundreds of cannabinoids found in the plant. The DEA takes a similar approach.

But this latest research only adds to the evidence that that position is mistaken.

A Revealing Remark From the Deputy Drug Czar

Deputy Drug Czar Scott Burns visited Arcata, CA last week to see "America’s grow house capitol" firsthand. After meeting with local authorities and accompanying police on a few marijuana raids, he said this:

…regarding enforcement, Burns seemed to offer a mixed message. While unyielding in asserting that federal law holds marijuana illegal under all circumstances and trumps all state and local medical cannabis laws, Burns nonetheless advised Arcatans to “defer 100 percent good judgment of the people who have been elected and appointed” while motioning to those present in the APD conference room. But most of them are working on guidelines under which medical marijuana may be safely cultivated and dispensed. [Arcata Eye]

I just cannot possibly point out often enough that the conflict between state and federal drug laws doesn't marginalize the value of state-level reforms. The deputy drug czar doesn’t arrive in California with a convoy of DEA super-narcs to slash and burn everything in sight. He can't do that and he knows it, as his remark clearly illustrates.

The federal war on medical marijuana is a political strategy designed to create the appearance of chaos in order to deter other states from implementing medical marijuana laws. Medical marijuana is more available than ever before, notwithstanding sporadic DEA activity in California. Yet we still hear folks suggesting that "the DEA will just swoop in and ruin everything" if we pass new marijuana reforms at the state-level. To be clear, the DEA has ruined many lives, but it has not ruined California's medical marijuana law. That should be obvious to all of us.

The DEA cannot overcome the will of voters and I'm tired of seeing the press and even some reformers helping them pretend they can.

Bill to Protect Prop. 215 Passes Assembly Appropriations Committee

MAY 22, 2008

Bill to Protect Prop. 215 Passes Assembly Appropriations Committee
AB 2743 Would End the Use of California Resources in Federal Medical Marijuana Raids, Now Heads to Assembly Floor

CONTACT: Bruce Mirken, MPP director of communications ............... 415-668-6403 or 202-215-4205

SACRAMENTO -- In what advocates hailed as an important step toward protecting California law, the Assembly Appropriations Committee passed AB 2743 by a vote of 9-7 today. The measure, authored by Assemblywoman Lori Saldaña (D-San Diego), would protect the integrity of California's medical marijuana law by making it the policy of state and local law enforcement agencies not to cooperate with the Drug Enforcement Administration or other federal agencies in raids on state-legal medical marijuana patients and caregivers.

DEA raids on medical marijuana patients and providers who are allowed to cultivate and possess marijuana under California law have been assisted - and in some cases requested - by local law enforcement agencies in communities around the state, including Los Angeles, Bakersfield, San Mateo, San Diego and many others.

Jon Palmer, who uses medical marijuana to ease the agony caused by a rare blood disorder, lost his safe source of medicine when Kern County sheriff's deputies assisted the DEA in arresting the operators of Nature's Medicinal in Bakersfield. "Faced with the prospect of having to immediately double my morphine dosage and take to the streets to find my medicine, I was devastated," Palmer said. "The most outrageous part of the ordeal is that local officials used state and local tax dollars to arrest these individuals who were in full compliance with state and local laws."

"This bill is about maintaining the integrity of California law," said Aaron Smith, California state organizer for the Marijuana Policy Project. "Our medical marijuana law enjoys the support of three out of four Californians, yet in too many cases federal officials have intruded into our state affairs and raided patients and caregivers. Due to these federal prosecutions, sick, elderly and disabled Californians who almost certainly would have been found innocent in a state court are in federal prison right now. At a time when state and local governments are in fiscal crisis, California tax dollars shouldn't be used to undermine our own laws."

With more than 23,000 members and 180,000 e-mail subscribers nationwide, the Marijuana Policy Project is the largest marijuana policy reform organization in the United States. MPP believes that the best way to minimize the harm associated with marijuana is to regulate marijuana in a manner similar to alcohol. For more information, please visit

Sacramento, CA
United States

Medical Marijuana: GOP Attacks Obama for Suggesting He Would End Raids

With Sen. Barack Obama now the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate, the Republican Party is looking for potential weaknesses and thinks it has found one in his relatively progressive stance on medical marijuana. On Wednesday, the Republican National Committee issued a press release saying Obama's position on medical marijuana and the DEA raids on patients and providers "raises serious doubts" about an Obama candidacy.

The attack came after the San Francisco Chronicle published an article Monday detailing Obama's position on medical marijuana, from comments he made in November to a response he more recently provided to the paper's candidate questionnaire. In responding to the Chronicle's medical marijuana question, the Obama campaign said he endorsed a hands-off federal policy:

"Voters and legislators in the states -- from California to Nevada to Maine -- have decided to provide their residents suffering from chronic diseases and serious illnesses like AIDS and cancer with medical marijuana to relieve their pain and suffering," said campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt. "Obama supports the rights of states and local governments to make this choice -- though he believes medical marijuana should be subject to (US Food and Drug Administration) regulation like other drugs," LaBolt said. He added that Obama would end DEA raids on medical marijuana providers.

Sen. Hillary Clinton has also suggested she would end the raids, according to Granite Staters for Medical Marijuana, a New Hampshire-based activist group that specializes in trying to get candidates on the record on medical marijuana. Republican nominee Sen. John McCain has waffled on the issue, according to Granite Staters, which has him saying he would end the raids at one point, but saying he would not end them a few weeks later.

But in was Obama who was in the GOP bull's-eye over medical marijuana this week. "Barack Obama's pledge to stop Executive agencies from implementing laws passed by Congress raises serious doubts about his understanding of what the job of the President of the United States actually is," said RNC communications director Danny Diaz in the press release. "His refusal to enforce the law reveals that Barack Obama doesn't have the experience necessary to do the job of president, or that he fundamentally lacks the judgment to carry out the most basic functions of the executive Branch. What other laws would Barack Obama direct federal agents not to enforce?" Diaz asked.

Obama's refusal to countenance continued DEA raids would mean he would violate his oath of office by not protecting and defending the Constitution, the RNC charged. The Supreme Court has upheld the authority of Congress to regulate the use of marijuana, it noted.

Whether the Republican Party can gain advantage by attacking Obama on the medical marijuana issue remains to be seen. In poll after poll, American voters have said they support access to medical marijuana for sick people. It is currently legal in 12 states and under serious consideration in several more this year.

Stop Saying Medical Marijuana is Politically Risky and Just Look at the Polls

Karen Brooks at the Dallas Morning News blog badly misses the point in regards to Barack Obama's support for medical marijuana:

Just got a notice from the happy folks over at the Marijuana Policy Project that Sen. Barack Obama "stands with us" on access to medical marijuana.

I'm not sure this helps his campaign, although the growing number of states (a dozen, at least) that have approved the use and prescription of medical marijuana may mean that he'll get support on the issue. Here in Texas, the decriminalization legislation - way stronger stuff than what the Medical Pot People are pushing - comes from both sides of the aisle.

So I guess what I'm saying here is, uhm, who knows if this will help or hurt him.

Well, allow me to relieve you of your uncertainty. Polling consistently shows overwhelming public support for medical marijuana. Do you know what medical marijuana's record is with voters? It's 10-1 at the state level, losing only in South Dakota, which ain't really Obama territory anyway. Supporting medical marijuana is among the safest policy positions one can take in 2008, and there's not a shred of evidence to the contrary. I look forward to a point when it's no longer necessary to illustrate this.

Secondly, Brooks buy into the myth that federal interference somehow makes medical marijuana laws ineffective:

Anyway, these laws and ordinances quickly go up in smoke when the feds - who just can't stand the idea of anyone smoking pot and getting away with it - decide to bust down doors and haul away the cancer patients and their docs anyway.

While I appreciate the implied sympathy for patients and doctors, this hyperbolic assessment of the force of federal law vastly overstates the impact of the DEA's campaign against medical marijuana. Despite federal interference, medical marijuana is more available to patients than ever before. The number of dispensaries that have been raided is dwarfed by the number that are open right now, at this exact moment. The idea that medical marijuana laws have been crippled by federal law enforcement is just as fictitious as can be.

My point here is not to excuse the ongoing raids and other atrocities that do still occur. Rather, it must be understood that the Drug Czar badly wants the public to believe that these laws don’t work because he knows we're going to keep passing them in new states and we're 10-1 so far. The only reason DEA even bothers to keep conducting these ugly and unpopular medical marijuana raids is so that the media will falsely report that these laws just "go up in smoke" as Brooks now suggests. That argument is then used against new medical marijuana initiatives to imply that there's no point in passing them, even though existing laws protecting patients have generally been very effective at preventing sick people from getting arrested.

Both of the above points are common misconceptions, and I don’t fault Brooks for indulging them. Still, it is vital that the discussion of medical marijuana continue on a sound factual basis as we proceed towards a showdown between Obama and McCain on this issue.

So, to recap, I submit the following two propositions:

1. Medical marijuana is overwhelmingly supported by the American public.

2. Federal efforts to shut down medical marijuana distribution in states were it is legal have failed utterly.

(This blog post was published by's lobbying arm, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also shares the cost of maintaining this web site. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)

Medical Marijuana: House Judiciary Chair Calls Out DEA on California Raids

Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), the powerful chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, has sent a letter to the DEA questioning its priorities and asking for an accounting of costs incurred in the dozens of raids it has launched against California medical marijuana patients and providers in the last two years. The letter could be the prelude to hearings on the topic, if medical marijuana defenders, including a number of elected officials, have their way.
John Conyers, at DRCNet event in 2005
In the April 29 letter to DEA Acting Administrator Michele Leonhart, Conyers wrote that he received numerous complaints from Californians, including elected officials, about "DEA enforcement tactics" regarding raids on medical marijuana dispensaries. The Californians were urging him to hold hearings, the chairman told Leonhart, but first, "I want to give you the opportunity to respond to these complaints."

Noting an increase in "paramilitary-style enforcement raids against individuals qualified to use medical marijuana under state law, their caregivers, and the dispensing collectives established to provide a safe place to access medical cannabis," as well as the sending of letters threatening property confiscation or even arrest to hundreds of landlords who rent to dispensaries, Conyers had a handful of pointed questions:

  • Is the use of asset forfeiture, which has typically been reserved for organized crime, appropriate in these cases? Has the DEA considered the economic impact of forfeiture in a stalled economy?
  • "Given the increasing levels of trafficking and violence associated with international drug cartels across Mexico, South America, and elsewhere," is this really where the DEA wants to spend its resources?
  • Has the DEA considered the impact of its tactics on the ability of California state and local entities to collect lawful taxes on an economic activity legal under state law?
  • Given increasing support for medical marijuana from medical associations and in the scientific literature, and the acting director's discretion in prioritizing DEA activities, "Please explain what role, if any, scientific data plays in your decision-making process to conduct raids on individuals authorized to use or supply cannabis under state law?"

Conyers also appears to call for an inter-governmental commission composed of lawmakers, law enforcers, and people affected by medical marijuana policy "to review policy and provide recommendations that aim to bring harmony to federal and state laws." Such a commission could be part of a process that eventually brings a relaxation of federal medical marijuana policy.

"Finally," Conyers concluded, "attached with this letter is a list of approximately 60 raids the DEA conducted between June 2005 and November 2007. Please provide an accounting of the costs, in dollars and resources, used to conduct law enforcement raids on the attached list of individuals. Please include information about: whether any arrests were made in the course of these raids, and, if so, how many people were arrested; under what circumstances was a warrant issued and for what content; whether any criminal or other charges have been brought by the DOJ; what, if any, content was seized or destroyed; and finally, the current status of these cases."

Also attached to the letter were statements condemning the DEA raids from the Los Angeles City Council, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums, and a resolution from the California legislature.

Ordinarily, one would not expect the DEA to be quick to reply to such inquiries, even from someone like Chairman Conyers. But with the threat of possible hearings hanging over its head, perhaps the agency will find the courtesy of a reply the lesser of two evils.

No Evidence Needed? War on Salvia Divinorum Heating Up -- YouTube Videos Play Role

Nearly a year ago, we reported on mounting efforts to ban salvia divinorum in states and localities around the country. Since then, the war on the hallucinogenic plant has only intensified, despite the lack of any evidence that its use is widespread or that it has any harmful physical effects on its users.
salvia leaves (courtesy
Salvia is a member of the mint family from Mexico, where it has been used by Mazatec curanderos (medicine men) for centuries. Within the past decade, awareness of its powerful hallucinogenic properties has begun to seep into the popular consciousness. Now, it is widely available at head shops and via the Internet, where it can be purchased in a smokeable form that produces almost instantaneous intoxication and a freight train of a trip lasting a handful of minutes.

Fueled largely by the appearance of salvia-intoxicated youths on YouTube (there were some 3,500 such videos at last count), law enforcement's reflexive desire to prohibit any mind-altering substances, and legislators' wishes to "do something" about youth drug use, efforts to ban the plant are spreading. While some states have stopped at limiting salvia's use to adults, most recently Maine, more have banned it outright. Legislative measures affecting salvia have been filed in 16 more states too, as well as a number of towns and cities.

In 2005, Louisiana became the first state to ban salvia, making it a proscribed Schedule I controlled substance. Since then, Delaware, Michigan, Missouri, North Dakota, and Tennessee have joined the list. (Tennessee bans ingestion -- it's a Class A misdemeanor -- but not possession. All the others excepting North Dakota have placed it in Schedule I.) In Oklahoma, only concentrated salvia is banned. Salvia is also a controlled substance in Australia, Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Italy, Spain and Sweden.

The press has also played a role in stoking fears of salvia and misstating its popularity. "Salvia: The Next Marijuana?," asked the Associated Press in a widely-reprinted story earlier this month.

Chris Bennett, proprietor of Urban Shaman Ethnobotanicals in downtown Vancouver, just laughed at the "salvia is the next marijuana" meme. "Anyone who says that is demonstrating their complete lack of knowledge of either salvia or marijuana," he said. "There is just no comparison. Cannabis is a mild relaxant and euphoric, while salvia is a very fast-acting visionary substance where some people report out of body experiences."

Researchers say that while salvia's effects on consciousness may be disquieting, the plant has not been shown to be toxic to humans, its effects are so potent is unlikely to be used repeatedly, and its active property, salvinorin A, could assist in the development of medicines for mood disorders. While action at the state level would unlikely affect research, a move by the DEA to put it on the controlled substances list could.

There are hazards to messing with hallucinogens, one expert was quick to point out. "It's an hallucinogen, and while its hallucinogenic actions are different from those induced by LSD and other hallucinogens, it has the liabilities that hallucinogens do," said Bryan Roth, a professor of pharmacology at University of North Carolina's School of Medicine, the man who isolated salvinorin A. "When people take it, they are disoriented. If you don't know where you are and you're driving a car, that would be a bad experience."

Still, said Roth, while it may make you freak out, it isn't going to kill you. "There is no evidence of any overt toxicity, there are no reports in the medical literature that anyone has died from it. The caveat is that there have been no formal studies done on humans, but the animal data suggests that it doesn't kill animals given massive doses, and that's usually -- but not always -- predictive for human pharmacology."

The DEA has been evaluating salvia for several years now, but there is no sign that it is ready to take action. "Salvia is a drug we are currently looking at to see if it should or should not be scheduled," said Rogene Waite, a spokesperson for the DEA, which is tasked with evaluating potential drug "threats." The agency has initiated the process of evaluating the eight factors listed in the Controlled Substances Act in determining whether or not to schedule a drug, she said. "There is no time frame or limit on this process," she said, providing no further hint on when or if ever the DEA would move to add salvia onto the federal list of controlled substances.

But legislators across the land are not waiting for the DEA. In California, Assemblyman Anthony Adams (R-Hesperia) introduced a bill that would ban salvia for minors at the urging of the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department, he told the Riverside Press-Enquirer. "If you have the opportunity to get in front of an emerging drug, I think, geez, you should do that," said Adams, whose district includes San Bernardino and Redlands.

On the other side of the country, Massachusetts state Rep. Vinny deMacedo (R-Plymouth) is cosponsoring legislation that would criminalize salvia possession. "I believe by not making this drug illegal we are sending a message to our youth that it is okay, and there is no way that a drug that causes such mind altering effects on an individual should be considered legal," deMacedo told the Plymouth News.

Again, legislators took action after being alerted by law enforcement. DeMacedo said he agreed to sponsor the bill after hearing from Plymouth County Sheriff Joseph MacDonald. "I'd never heard of it before," deMacedo said. "It creates this psychedelic-type, mind-altering high, similar to LSD. I thought, 'You've got to be kidding. Something like this is legal?'"

In Florida, Rep. Mary Brandenburg wants to save the kids by sending anyone possessing salvia to prison for up to five years. "As soon as we make one drug illegal, kids start looking around for other drugs they can buy legally. This is just the next one," she explained.

While legislators attempt to stay ahead of the curve by banning any new, potentially mind-altering substances at the drop of hat, their efforts are misdirected, said Urban Shaman's Bennett. The YouTube kids may be the public face of salvia, but they are only a minority of users, he said. "It's all ages," he said, adding that his store does not sell to people under 18. "Every time there is some media attention, I get a bunch of middle-aged people coming in and asking for it."

Salvia is not a party drug, said Bennett. "The most serious users are people seeking a classic shamanic experience, seeking a visionary experience as part of their spiritual path. They feel they're accessing a higher level of consciousness," he explained. "And even they don't seem to use it more than once a month or so."

For all the commotion surrounding salvia, there is very little evidence of actual harm to anyone, said Bennett. "You'll notice you don't hear anybody talking about organic damage to the human organism," he said. "This is all purely fear and loathing of people having a visionary experience."

What little data there is on salvia use and its effects tends to bear him out. There are no reported deaths from salvia use, with the exception of a Delaware teenager who committed suicide in 2006 at some point after using it. (That unfortunate young man is widely cited by the proponents of banning salvia, even though there is no concomitant wave of salvia-linked suicides. Also, he was reportedly taking an acne medication linked to depression and had been using alcohol.) Users are not showing up with any frequency in mental hospitals or hospital emergency rooms.

While the YouTube kids may present a problematic public face of salvia use, there's not much to be done about that, said Bennett. "You can't control that," he shrugged. "And so what? Some kids are having a powerful visionary experience for five minutes on YouTube. Why is that somehow more threatening than watching someone in the jungle take ayahuasca or something on National Geographic?"

Bennett, for one, has no use for a ban on salvia -- or any other plant, for that matter. "We have a fundamental natural right to have access to all plants, and I don't care if it's salvia or marijuana or poppy or coca. That's just as clear-cut as our right to air and water," he said.

But Bennett's perspective is not one widely shared by legislators in the US. Instead, they reflexively reach to prohibit that which they do not understand. And the very "kids" they claim to be saving will be the ones going to prison.

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