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Feature: The War on Salvia Divinorum Heats Up

Middlebury, Vermont, this week declared a public health emergency to prevent a local business from selling it. It's already illegal in five states -- Louisiana, Missouri, Tennessee, Oklahoma and Delaware -- and a number of towns and cities across the country, and now politicians in at least seven other states have filed bills to make it illegal there. For the DEA, it is a "drug of concern."

http://www.stopthedrugwar.org/files/salvialeaves.jpg
salvia leaves (photo courtesy Erowid)
It is salvia divinorum, a member of the mint family from Mexico, where it has been used by Masatec 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.

As law enforcement and politicians stumble across it and the phenomenon of its recreational use, they are reacting in the classic fashion with moves to outlaw it. In Delaware, grieving parents of a teenager who committed suicide after using salvia managed to push a bill through the legislature. In Ohio, police who stumbled across it while investigating counterfeit goods raised the alarm, even though they had never had any problem with it. The cops responded predictably. "It's something we feel should be outlawed," Lorain County Drug Task Force Capt. Dennis Cavanaugh told the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

But researchers say the while salvia's effects on consciousness may be disquieting, the plant has not been shown to be toxic to humans, that 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.

Salvia is a popular item at the Urban Shaman Ethnobotanicals in downtown Vancouver, and media attention only spurs sales, according to proprietor Chris Bennett. "We're selling about 50 grams of the 10x every couple of weeks," he told Drug War Chronicle. "It's mainly young people -- although we don't sell to anyone under 18 -- but it's not limited to them. Whenever I get quoted in the media about salvia, I get a slew of new middle-aged customers who want to try it."

Once or twice is usually enough, said Bennett. "It's very powerful -- you can forget you even smoked it -- very intense, and the onset is very rapid," he explained. "There is also a lot of variation from person to person. Four people can be sitting in a room taking it, and one would be laughing, one would be afraid the world was ending, one would feel like he was two-dimensional, and one would say that everything seems to be made out of Legos. I hear a lot of people say that one."

Like many other purveyors of salvia, Urban Shaman provides an information sheet with each purchase. "We tell people they should have a sitter. If you're on salvia and end up on the balcony, you might think you can get downstairs by jumping," said Bennett. "You want to have someone there with you; it's irresponsible to use it by yourself," he said. "We also recommend a quiet environment. The experience can be influenced by background noise, which can be distorted or misinterpreted. Setting is important."

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."

"I'm unaware of any studies suggesting that salvia is toxic," said Thomas Prisinzano, assistant professor of medicinal and natural products chemistry at the University of Iowa. "Unlike other hallucinogens, it acts by stimulating opioid receptors, and basically produces an hallucinogenic experience that peaks in less than 15 minutes. It produces a subpopulation that finds it very unpleasant and never wants to do it again."

Nor, because of its intense effects, are you likely to get strung out on it. "There doesn't appear to be much potential for dependence or addiction, although no one has investigated this in any detail," Roth said. "The typical person I talked to didn't like the experience; it is too intense for someone looking for a mini-LSD-like experience. It's very rapid in onset and very intense, so it's not normally considered a party drug."

Even Bennett, whose clientele could be expected to contain some serious psychedelic adventurers, confirmed that it is not a drug that most people come back to again and again. "Even those who are interested in it don't use it very often, maybe once a week to explore head space, but those salvianauts are few and far between," he reported. "Most people try it once or twice and have no desire to try it again. It is the ones who use it with a purpose or for a spiritual quest or vision that seem to find it most useful," he said.

"There is a subpopulation using it for spiritual rather than recreational purposes," agreed Roth. "That seems to be the cohort that is using it more than once or twice."

While the DEA did not return Chronicle calls for comment on the current status of salvia, it has moved slowly. It has classified the plant as a "drug of concern" for several years now, but has yet to act to place it under the Controlled Substances Act. The plant's limited potential dependence could be one reason. Another could be that it is still relatively rare and unlikely to ever develop into a drug with a mass following.

That's fine with the scientists, who could see regulating salvia, but not prohibiting it. "The distribution of salvia should be regulated," Roth said. "We regulate nicotine and alcohol, and the effects of those compounds on human consciousness and perception is quite modest compared with salvia. That this is available over the Internet to young children is a bit irresponsible. They could engage in some dangerous behavior while taking it. We don't sell alcohol over the Internet."

But while Roth called for salvia to be regulated, he didn't want to see it added to the list of drugs proscribed by the Controlled Substances Act. "I'm against making it a Schedule I compound," he said. "Once you schedule something, it makes scientific research more difficult, and there is considerable potential for derivatives of the active ingredient to have great medical utility. Scheduling it makes it more difficult for those of us trying to relieve human suffering."

If salvia were prohibited, his work would suffer, said Prisinzano. "This would hurt clinical researchers more than me, and there is an effort underway to do clinical trials on humans before a review board now," he said. "But it would make it more difficult for me to get leaves. Right now we get them from head shops on the Internet."

Perhaps legislators in states like Iowa, Illinois, New Jersey, Oregon, and Texas, where prohibition bills are on the table, should calmly reassess the scope of the salvia menace and place such legislation on the back burner where it belongs. Or replace them with reasonable regulatory measures. But that's probably asking too much.

Why the war on drugs isn't working

Location: 
Canada
Publication/Source: 
The Vancouver Sun (Canada)
URL: 
http://www.canada.com/vancouversun/news/westcoastlife/story.html?id=7b1dc5a7-d867-4d5e-a646-55f93615cde3

Drug prohibition — lost liberty, money

Location: 
United States
Publication/Source: 
The Observer (NY)
URL: 
http://www.observertoday.com/articles.asp?articleID=11332

Legalizing drugs is better way to fight problem

Location: 
WV
United States
Publication/Source: 
The Herald-Dispatch (WV)
URL: 
http://www.herald-dispatch.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20070410/NEWS01/704100319/1001/NEWS10

Group claims prohibition, war on drugs is a failure

Location: 
IL
United States
Publication/Source: 
The Daily Vidette (IL)
URL: 
http://media.www.dailyvidette.com/media/storage/paper420/news/2007/04/02/News/Group.Claims.Prohibition.War.On.Drugs.Is.A.Failure-2816125.shtml

Opinion: Time to declare war on drugs over

Location: 
Nashua, NH
United States
Publication/Source: 
Nashua Telegraph (NH)
URL: 
http://www.nashuatelegraph.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20070401/OPINION02/204010360

Will a New Study Force Changes in Drug Law?

Location: 
United Kingdom
Publication/Source: 
AlterNet (CA)
URL: 
http://www.alternet.org/drugreporter/49159/

Opinion: Peter Schrag: Can we end Harry Anslinger's costly legacy?

Location: 
CA
United States
Publication/Source: 
The Sacramento Bee
URL: 
http://www.sacbee.com/110/story/137320.html

Opinion: Failed US drug policy

Location: 
United States
Publication/Source: 
am New York
URL: 
http://www.amny.com/news/opinion/am-lettersb0314,0,5778689.story?coll=am-letters-headlines

ENCOD Statement to Commission on Narcotic Drugs

ONE YEAR LEFT Dear delegates, On behalf of the European Coalition for Just and Effective Drug Policies, a platform of more than 150 citizens’ association from around Europe, we wish to ask your attention for the following. Next year, a crucial deadline expires. During the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Drugs in June 1998, in New York, a political declaration was adopted mentioning two important objectives and a target date. In this declaration, the UN General Assembly committed itself to “achieving significant and measurable results in the field of demand reduction” as well as to “eliminating or reducing significantly the illicit cultivation of the coca bush, the cannabis plant and the opium poppy” by the year 2008. The failure of policies based on this assumption is proved every day by citizens, by the farmers living in coca and opium producing areas in South America and Asia, by people in jails, on dancefloors, in coffeeshops, in user rooms, but also in institutional corridors. According to figures published by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, the annual prevalence of drug use (as percentage of population aged 15 and above) is showing a slight increase with regards to ecstasy, opiates and cocaine (for instance, in the USA, the annual prevalence of cocaine use raised from 2.6% in 2000 to 2.8 % in 2004), and a larger increase in the use of cannabis (USA: from 8,3% in 2000 to 12,6 % in 2004) and amphetamine (USA: from 0,9% in 2000 to 1,5% in 2004). Considering the cultivation of illicit plants, the amount of produced opium has increased from 4.346 tons in 1998 to 4.620 tons in 2005, cocaine has increased from 825 tons in 1998 to 910 tons in 2005 and cannabis from an estimated 30.000 tons in 1998 to 42.000 tons in 2005 (a third of which is produced in from North America). It is obvious that the global efforts to “eliminate or significantly reduce drugs demand and supply” before the 2008 deadline have not been successful. These efforts have caused considerable damage to human rights, public health, environment, sound economy, sustainable development, the state of law and the relation between citizens and authorities across the world, yet they have not been effective. In a year from now, you will have to take an important decision. When you meet here in this room in March 2008, you need to have a story. Your government or organisation needs to present its conclusions of the past 10 years, as well as its recommendations for the future. Essentially you have two possibilities. You can either choose to ignore the evidence, and continue on this costly, ineffective and counterproductive affair called the War on Drugs. Future generations will hold you responsible for the failure of drug policies in the years to come. You will have missed an excellent opportunity to repair a historical mistake. Or you can decide to make a genuine and sincere review of the impact of current drug policies and start to consider a change in international drug legislation in order to allow countries to start with policies that may be more effective in reducing harms and increasing benefits. Hundreds of millions of people are challenging current drug policies. They feel they have no other choice than to break the law on drugs in order to survive, exercise their human rights or reduce harm related to drugs consumption . Today, harm reduction is embraced by many local and regional authorities in Europe as an effective approach to the most urgent health problems related to drug use. Still many options to apply harm reduction measures are being jeopardized by national legislation and blocked by the international legislatory framework (i.e., the UN conventions on drugs and their narrow interpretation and inappropriate application). As a consequence of the pragmatic attitude of most European citizens towards the use of cannabis, the possession of small quantities of cannabis is no longer considered an offence in most countries. In countries where the cultivation of cannabis for personal use is depenalised, consumers are taking initiatives to organise a transparant, controllable, and closed circuit of cannabis cultivation, distribution and consumption by adults. These initiatives should be embraced by governments as a way to reduce the size of the illegal market . The international depenalisation of the coca leaf could allow the export of tea and other benefitial coca derivates and thus contribute to the worldwide recognition of the great nutritional, medicinal and cultural value of coca. This could help to reduce the dependence of coca farmers of the illegal economy and establish a sustainable economy based on renewable agricultural resources. And finally, depenalising the cultivation of opium and allowing the use of this substance for benefitial purposes, among others as a pain killer, could become an important option to increase the life standards of opium farmers in Afghanistan, Burma and other countries. Vienna 2008 should mark the start of a different era in drug policy. A minimum standard of tolerance could be established within the international legislatory framework , which can facilitate the legal and political space for local, regional and national authorities to apply policies that are not based on prohibition. We are convinced that very soon, drug prohibition will be considered as an ill-conceived strategy that has only produced harm to producers and consumers and benefits to organised crime. We hope to see you next year in Vienna. Best wishes, On behalf of ENCOD Steering Committee FOR A BETTER SYSTEM: http://www.cannabis-clubs.eu EUROPEAN COALITION FOR JUST AND EFFECTIVE DRUG POLICIES (ENCOD) Lange Lozanastraat 14 2018 Antwerpen Belgium Tel. 00 32 (0)3 237 7436 Mob. 00 32 (0)495 122 644 Fax. 00 32 (0)3 237 0225 E-mail:encod@glo.be Website: www.encod.org
Location: 
VAN
Belgium

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