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Feature: Prosecutors Want Five Years for North Dakota Man Who Bought $32 Worth of Salvia Divinorum on eBay

Kenneth Rau, the Bismarck, North Dakota, man who suffers the dubious distinction of being the first person in the United States prosecuted under laws criminalizing the possession of salvia divinorum, has been offered a plea deal under which he would serve five years in state prison, he told the Chronicle this week.

(Update: Charges have been downgraded to possession -- Rau still faces up to five years, but as a charge he can fight, not a plea bargain -- DB via Phil, 8/19.)

http://www.stopthedrugwar.org/files/kennethrau.jpg
Kenneth Rau
Salvia is not illegal under federal law. The DEA considers salvia a drug of interest, but despite several years of observation has yet to move to place it under the Controlled Substances Act. A DEA spokesman told the Chronicle recently that the plant is being reviewed to see if it meets the criteria for inclusion on the list of controlled substances.

But driven by little more than the now infamous YouTube videos of young people under the influence acting strangely and the story of one Delaware youth whose parents blamed his suicide on salvia, state legislators have not waited for the DEA's measured considerations to act. Since Delaware became the first state to ban salvia, at least eight others, including North Dakota, followed suit. Moves are currently afoot in a number of other states to join the club, with Florida and Virginia being the latest states to pass laws criminalizing the plant.

Salvia became illegal in North Dakota on last August 1, after a bill sponsored by three Republican lawmakers, state Sens. Dave Oelke and Randel Christmann and state Rep. Brenda Heller, sailed through the legislature earlier that year. None of the three legislators responded to Chronicle requests for comment this week.

Rau has said he did not know the drug was now illegal when he bid on an eight-ounce bunch of salvia leaves and was pleasantly surprised when his $32 bid came in highest. The local TV station's web site has inadvertently supported Rau's contention. When the Chronicle first wrote about Rau's case in April, that site's online version of the news report about Rau's arrest was still pulling up salvia ads by Google. (From the east coast at least it is still doing so as of this writing.) Rau emailed the link to Drug War Chronicle, proving that the salvia ads are showing up on computers in North Dakota.

Burleigh County States Attorney Cynthia Feland did not respond to Chronicle calls seeking confirmation or denial of the plea deal. Rau said the deal was offered through his attorney, Benjamin Pulkrabek, from just across the Missouri River in Mandan.

"My lawyer told me she offered me five years if I pleaded guilty," said Rau. "He said he didn't think I would take it, but he had to ask. He was right -- I am not going to accept that. I just don't think depriving someone of his freedom for some dried plant leaves is right."

Rau, a bottling plant worker with an interest in herbalism, altered states, and religion and spirituality, was arrested by Bismarck police on April 9 when they searched his home looking for his adult son, who was on probation for drug charges. Police found a marijuana pipe, eight ounces of salvia leaf, a quantity of amanita muscaria mushrooms, and a number of other herbal products.

Although Rau bought the salvia leaf on eBay for $32, he faces a possible 20-year sentence after being charged with possession of the now controlled substance with the intent to distribute, based on prosecutors' assertions that the leaf contained hundreds of possible doses. He also faces a marijuana possession charge for the pipe. Although prosecutors originally charged him with possession of psilocybin because of his amanita muscaria mushrooms, they have since figured out that amanita does not contain psilocybin and have dropped that charge.

Salvia divinorum, a member of the Mexican mint family, has been used by Mazatec shamans for hundreds of years. Smoking or chewing the leaves, or more commonly, concentrated extracts, can produce intense, albeit short-lived hallucinogenic experiences. While the plant has become notorious through YouTube videos of young people smoking it and behaving strangely, it is also of interest to "psychonauts," or people attempting to explore consciousness through herbal means.

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 it is unlikely to be used repeatedly, and its active property, salvinorin A, could assist in the development of medicines for mood disorders.

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salvia leaves (courtesy erowid.org)
Daniel Siebert is a salvia researcher and host of the salvia information web site Sage Wisdom. In Siebert's view, while salvia should be subject to some sort of regulation, sending someone like Rau to prison for years for possessing it is almost obscene.

I think salvia should be regulated in the same way we regulate alcohol," he said. "Its effects are quite different, but there are some parallels in terms of the possible dangers from its use. Like alcohol, people can exhibit dangerous behavior if they take excessively high doses. That's why we prohibit driving while intoxicated or allowing minors to drink. But it's obvious that many, many people can enjoy alcohol without getting into trouble with it, and they should not be subjected to harsh penalties. Neither should adults who want to use salvia."

Not that the drug will ever be a popular recreational drug, he said. "Salvia can be very strange and interesting, but it's not something most people consider fun, it's not a recreational kind of experience," he said. "Most people find it bewildering; it's not something most people are motivated to repeat. It won't ever become a popular drug. The main reason people seem interested in it is because the media keeps putting out these sensational stories comparing it to LSD or marijuana. That creates a misleading impression, and people who try salvia expecting something like that are usually disappointed."

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salvia (and criminal defense) ads on web version of ND news station report on Rau's bust
"Siebert was sympathetic to Rau's predicament. "I'm shocked and appalled that they can put people in prison for using salvia for personal use," he said. "The drug had just been made illegal there, and he says he didn't know it was illegal. I think that's believable -- most people wouldn't know about an obscure law being passed."

Kenneth Rau now faces a lonely struggle. North Dakota is not noted for its abundance of attorneys skilled in defending cases involving arcane plants, and national organizations have yet to respond to his entreaties for help, Rau said.

Still, Rau is trying to get a defense together. "I'm hoping to take depositions from people like Dr. Andrew Weil or Daniel Siebert or other experts," he said. "I'm looking for attorneys in their vicinities who might be willing to take a deposition."

And he hinted that he may also attempt a jury nullification strategy. "My defense will be to fall back on the fact that the jury is the ultimate judge of the law," he said. "They don't have to listen to the judge; they have the power. Let the jury decide what kind of state they want to live in," he said.

No trial date has been set yet. In the meantime, Rau continues working full-time for a soft drink bottler and subjecting himself to court-ordered humiliations. "I'm trying to live my life," he said. "I've got a full-time time job and another one on the weekends. I also have to take pee tests twice a week and pay them $26 a week for that privilege, on top of trying to pay for lawyers."

Salvia Watch: Magic Mint Now Illegal in Kansas, But Alabama Bill Dies

Efforts in state legislatures to ban or otherwise restrict the sale and possession of salvia divinorum, a fast-acting, short-lived psychedelic member of the mint family, continue apace. So far, ten states -- Louisiana, Missouri, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Delaware, Maine, North Dakota, Illinois, Virginia, and Kansas -- have passed laws criminalizing or restricting the sale and possession of salvia. More than a dozen other state legislatures are considering criminalizing the drug.

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salvia leaves (courtesy erowid.org)
One state where that won't be happening this year is Alabama, where bills sponsored by Sens. Hank Erwin (R-Montevallo) and Roger Bedford (D-Russellville) that would have scheduled salvia like marijuana failed to move in the legislature. They died Tuesday night, the last day for bills to be passed in the chamber where they were introduced.

This marks the second year Alabama solons failed to act on a salvia measure. But Erwin and Bedford are undeterred and say they will be back again next year. They cited concerns for young people in seeking to criminalize the substance.

That was enough for the Kansas legislature and Gov. Kathleen Sibelius (D), who late last month signed into law a bill criminalizing salvia possession and sale in the Jayhawk State. That law went into effect last week.

The DEA, which is in charge of scheduling drugs at the federal level, has been reviewing salvia's status for several years, but has yet to determine that it qualifies as a dangerous drug needing scheduling under the federal Controlled Substances Act. But clearly, that isn't stopping legislators from going off half-cocked. A simple-minded and sensationalist press has been part of the problem, too, as Slate's Jack Shafer noted in Salvia Divinorum Hysteria, which is well worth the read.

Video: CBC Sunday: Albert Hofmann - Psychedelic Pioneer

From the CBC News website: The Swiss chemist who discovered LSD, Albert Hofmann, died this week at 102. We examine the legacy of the man who became a hero to a rebellious generation, and look back at the history of this controversial drug - now in the midst of a research revival. http://www.cbc.ca/sunday/2008/05/050408_3.html

Europe: Dutch Ban on Magic Mushrooms Moves Closer

The conservative Dutch cabinet last Friday formally proposed a ban on the sale of psychedelic mushrooms. The proposal now goes before the Dutch parliament, where it is expected to pass.

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psilocybe cubensis (courtesy erowid.org)
Currently, dried mushrooms are illegal in the Netherlands, but fresh ones can be bought legally in "Smart Shops," stores that sell cognition-enhancing products, but also magic mushrooms, salvia divinorum, and other legal but mind-altering substances.

A campaign to ban psychedelic mushrooms gathered steam after a particularly photogenic French girl died jumping off a bridge after eating them last year. A number of other incidents, most involving young visitors, have also been publicized. Amsterdam emergency services reported 128 mushroom-related incidents in 2006, more than double the 55 calls they got two years earlier. Most of them involved young British tourists.

The Dutch health ministry cited such cases in a statement laying out the rationale for a ban. "The use of mushrooms can produce hallucinogenic effects which can lead to extreme or life-threatening behavior," it said, according to a Reuters report.

Industry efforts to blunt the ban by self-policing were of no avail. In February, the Dutch Association of Smart Shops (VLOS) said the industry would self-regulate and protested that the increase in reported incidents was smaller than the increase in mushroom sales.

The conservative Dutch government has been trying to find ways to reverse the country's 30-year experiment in pragmatism with the cannabis coffee shops. Now, it is on the verge of criminalizing psilocybe cubensis. A VLOS spokesman told Reuters the coffee shops better watch out. "If they succeed with this mushroom ban then I am sure they will try to ban things like cannabis as well. This is part of a wider trend," said Freddy Schaap.

Dr. Albert Hofmann, Father of LSD, Dead at 102

Internet rumors of his passing have been confirmed for us by a friend of Dr. Hofmann's. Dr. Albert Hofmann died of a heart attack this morning at his home in Basel, Switzerland. Hofmann inadvertently discovered the effects of LSD while researching the substance in 1943. He subsequently self-administered the drug deliberately and produced the first accounts of its powerful psychedelic effects.

If you think 102 is old, just imagine how long he might have lived if he never did drugs!

Update: The above line is sarcasm. Before posting it, I asked a couple smart people if they thought anyone might misunderstand and we decided it probably wouldn't be a problem. Well, it was, and a few commenters have come away with the incorrect impression that I think Dr. Hofmann would be better off if he never used drugs. This comment explains what I really meant. I won't stop cracking jokes in the blog, but I do apologize for this one. 

Location: 
United States

Salvia Watch: Florida Senate Votes to Criminalize the Diviner's Sage

The Florida Senate Wednesday passed a bill, SB 340, criminalizing salvia divinorum, also known as "Diviner's Sage," among other nicknames. The Florida House approved a companion measure banning the fast-acting, short-lived hallucinogen last week. If, as expected, the bill is signed by Republican Gov. Charlie Christ, Florida will be the latest in what is a rapidly expanding list of states to take action against salvia.

The state of Florida will protect the youth by subjecting them (and adults) to up to five years in prison for possessing salvia, which would be classified in the same category as LSD and marijuana under Florida law.

Although lawmakers could cite little data about use of the herb, especially among teenagers, they said they were increasingly worried about children buying it online.

The bill passed the Senate by a margin of 39-0 after limited debate. The House version passed by a 109-4 margin a week earlier.

Feature: North Dakota Man Facing Years in Prison After Buying Salvia Divinorum On eBay

In what is likely the first arrest for possession of salvia divinorum anywhere in the nation -- and definitely a first in North Dakota -- a Bismarck man now faces years in prison after he bought a few ounces of leaves on eBay. Kenneth Rau, a bottling plant worker with an interest in herbalism, altered states, and religion and spirituality, was arrested by Bismarck police on April 9 when they searched his home looking for his adult son, who was on probation for drug charges.

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Kenneth Rau
Police found a marijuana pipe, eight ounces of salvia leaf, a quantity of amanita muscaria mushrooms, and a number of other herbal products. Rau now faces multiple charges, said Burleigh County States Attorney Cynthia Feland.

"He is being charged with possession of salvia with intent to deliver, as well as possession of psilocybin with intent, and possession of marijuana," she said. Although Rau told the Chronicle he thought he would be charged with a school zone violation as well, which would have made his intent offenses Class A felonies punishable by up to 20 years in prison, that is not the case, said Feland. "He is not being charged with a school zone violation," she affirmed.

(The psilocybin charges could go up in smoke. The amanita muscaria mushrooms that he possessed are not controlled substances under federal law and, while hallucinogenic, do not contain psilocybin. The active ingredient in amanita muscaria mushrooms is muscimole.)

Rau was being charged with possession with intent because of the weight of the leaves, she said. "We look at the typical use quantity," she said, "and it is similar to marijuana, with a typical use dose of .25 grams to .5 grams, and he had significantly more than that," she said.

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salvia leaves (courtesy erowid.org)
Salvia divinorum, a member of the Mexican mint family, has been used by Mazatec shamans for hundreds of years. Smoking or chewing the leaves, or more commonly, concentrated extracts, can produce intense, albeit short-lived hallucinogenic experiences. While the plant has become notorious through YouTube videos of young people smoking it and behaving strangely, it is also of interest to "psychonauts," or people attempting to explore consciousness through herbal means.

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 it is unlikely to be used repeatedly, and its active property, salvinorin A, could assist in the development of medicines for mood disorders.

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," Bryan Roth, a professor of pharmacology at University of North Carolina's School of Medicine, the man who isolated salvinorin A, told Drug War Chronicle last month. "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 considers salvia a drug of interest, but has yet to move to place it under the Controlled Substances Act. A DEA spokesman told the Chronicle recently that the plant is being reviewed to see if it meets the criteria for inclusion on the list of controlled substances.

But driven by little more than the YouTube videos and the story of one Delaware youth whose parents blamed his suicide on salvia, state legislators have not waited for the DEA's measured considerations to act. Since Delaware became the first state to ban salvia, a handful of others, including North Dakota, followed suit. Moves are currently afoot in a number of other states to join the club.

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salvia (and criminal defense) ads on web version of ND news station report on Rau's bust
Salvia became illegal in North Dakota on August 1, after a bill sponsored by three Republican lawmakers, state Sens. Dave Oelke and Randel Christmann and state Rep. Brenda Heller sailed through the legislature earlier this year. None of the three legislators responded to Chronicle requests for comment this week.

After Rau was arrested earlier this month, Bismarck police warned that it could be only the beginning in the fight against the member of the mint family. "It sure looks like there could be a market, based on the amount he had", Lt. Bob Hass told reporters. "This is the first we've seen of it." Hass did not return Chronicle calls for comment this week.

While salvia information web sites like Salvia.Net do place a single dose of salvia leaf at between .25 gram and one gram, similar to County Attorney Feland's estimate, intent to deliver still seems a stretch. "I bought eight ounces of leaf on eBay by bidding $32 for it," said Rau. "Now they're charging me with possession with intent. That's silly. Nobody wants leaves. Everyone is buying those 10X and 20X and 30X extracts." [Ed: Not to mention that on eBay one buys what is being offered a sale, not half or a tenth or twentieth of it.]

Rau was also not impressed by the prosecutor's dosage estimates. "This is a clear ploy to exaggerate the number of saleable units," he complained. "These drug warriors have long used this ploy to make dealers out of everyone. Accepting those figures, an ounce of Salvia Divinorum would give 120 doses and make anyone holding an ounce of it a dealer. This is ridiculous since an ounce is clearly the standard saleable unit for leaf. Applying the prosecutor's standard marijuana dosage and saleable quantity would be the amount that would fit in the end of a pinch hitter. This standard would make anyone holding even an eighth ounce of marijuana a dealer."

Rau also scoffed at the notion that anyone is going to be buying fractions of an ounce of salvia leaf. "You can buy an ounce online for as little as $10," he pointed out. "Who is going to split that up into smaller quantities? Hell, you would probably end up spending more on baggies that you did on the leaf," he said.

"This is ridiculous legislative overreaching," said Rau of the new law. "They only based it on those wacky YouTube videos, and even on those, you see people trying to abuse the stuff as much as possible and ham it up, and it still doesn't hurt them. And why jump from selling it in stores to making it a felony," he asked, "don't they do misdemeanors anymore? I didn't even know it was illegal here, and with their first prosecution they go for the max."

The local TV station's web site has inadvertently supported Rau's point. At the time of this writing, an online version of the news report about Rau's arrest was still pulling up salvia ads by Google. Rau emailed the link to Drug War Chronicle, proving that the salvia ads are showing up on computers in North Dakota.

A mild-mannered 46-year-old, Rau's interest in salvia derived from a broader interest in herbalism, religion and spirituality, as well as efforts to deal with his own inner demons. "I read that salvia facilitates lucid dreaming, so I tried chewing some leaves before bed time, and it was interesting because I would see faces and remember names I had long forgotten."

He also tried salvia as a cure for depression. "I have some childhood issues to deal with. They had me on Paxil," he said. "They want you to take their pharmaceuticals, but if you want to take an herbal remedy, they want to throw you in prison. Are they going to save me from myself by throwing me in prison for years?"

Now, Rau is fighting for his freedom, but there aren't many resources in North Dakota, and he doesn't even have a lawyer yet. "The ACLU doesn't even list anyone in the state," he said. "I've emailed the ACLU Drug Law Reform Project, but I haven't heard back from them yet."

Still, he said, his arrest has motivated him. "Maybe this is an opportunity for me to join the fight," he said. "I've never been a drug user, never been arrested. I started experimenting with this stuff because I thought it was legal. I didn't want to get into trouble, but now they're treating me just like some meth dealer."

Salvia Watch: Two More States and One City Act Against the Plant, and North Dakota Marks First Bust

Aroused by videos of young people using salvia divinorum on YouTube and spurred on by law enforcement eager not to miss an opportunity, legislators across the country have this year been raising the alarm about the fast- and short-acting hallucinogenic herb, despite the lack of any evidence that its use is harmful. In the latest outbreaks of salvia mania, the South Carolina and Florida Houses have passed a bill to criminalize the plant, a Massachusetts town has banned it, and police in North Dakota -- one of a handful of states where it is already illegal -- announced their first salvia bust.

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salvia leaves (photo courtesy Erowid)
On Wednesday, the Florida House passed HB 1363, which would ban salvia possession and place it on the state's Schedule I, along with marijuana and other psychedelics as drugs with no accepted medical use and "high potential for abuse."

Salvia has experienced "growing popularity among teens and young adults," said Rep. Mary Brandenburg (D-West Palm Beach), the bill's sponsor. It is not clear what evidence she based that claim on.

A companion Florida Senate bill to ban salvia has already cleared committees and is ready for a floor vote. If it passes and is signed into law by Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, possession or sale of the drug would become a third degree felony in Florida.

Six days earlier, the South Carolina House passed HB 4687, which criminalizes salvia and puts it in the same category as marijuana, LSD, and ecstasy. The bill passed with little discussion on a lopsided 101-4 vote. After one more routine housekeeping vote, it heads to the Senate.

The bill was pushed by law enforcement and drug prevention groups despite little evidence it is being used in the state. Neither local law enforcement nor the State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) officials consulted by The State newspaper were aware of any reports of its use.

"SLED hasn't seen this substance in South Carolina at this point, but we're certainly prepared to enforce this new law if it is passed," said Richard Hunton, SLED inspector.

North Dakota law enforcement had its chance earlier this month, when they arrested a Bismarck man for possessing eight ounces of salvia leaf. (The drug is most commonly ingested by smoking salvia extracts, which are significantly more potent than the leaf.) Kenneth Rau has been charged with salvia possession with intent to deliver in what North Dakota cops believe is the state's first salvia bust.

Now, they're looking for more, Lt. Bob Haas of the Bismarck Police told WDAY-TV6 News. "It sure looks like there could be a market, based on the amount he had. This is the first we've seen of it."

Even some towns and cities are getting in on the act. The most recent is West Bridgewater, Massachusetts, where city selectmen voted to ban the plant this week. Although Massachusetts is among the states considering action against the member of the mint family, the state was not moving fast enough for the West Bridgewater folks.

"What makes Salvia divinorum dangerous is that it has hallucinogenic properties like LSD and it can be purchased on the same Web site where you find Beanie Babies and baseball cards," Selectman Matthew Albanese said. "I can't imagine why the Drug Enforcement Agency has Salvia listed as a 'drug/chemical of concern' as opposed to a 'controlled substance,'" Albanese said.

Albanese might have asked the DEA. The Chronicle did three weeks ago, and DEA spokesperson Rogene Waite told us that the agency is following procedure by evaluating eight factors listed in the Controlled Substances Act in determining whether or not to schedule a drug. Unlike Massachusetts selectman or various state legislatures, (this time at least) the DEA seems to actually be waiting for evidence before it acts.

Since 2005, seven states have restricted use of the substance. And about a dozen other states have similar legislation pending.

Looking for a New Boogie Man

Editor's Note: Eric B. Wilhelm is an intern at StoptheDrugWar.org. His bio is in our "staff" section.

As the recent frenzy over the herb salvia divinorum and attempts to ban it have heated up in a number of states, the opportunity to honestly and realistically discuss the matter in terms of drug policy has been mostly lost in favor of irresponsible journalism and knee-jerk political reactions.

Opportunistic politicians have come out with particularly harsh demands for criminalization in order to appear protective of troubled youth, while journalists stand by, failing to challenge orthodox prohibitionist assumptions. One example of rampant alarmism and distortion is the March 11 article by the Associated Press entitled "Is Salvia the Next Marijuana?" Without even detailing how this widely distributed piece is unbalanced and lacking, we can merely examine the title to see the way that utterly misleading beliefs about drugs are perpetuated by the media.

It's really quite simple why salvia is so far from being "the next marijuana." The offending article itself establishes early on that the herb "is a hallucinogen that gives users an out-of-body sense of traveling through time and space or merging with inanimate objects." Even the most dishonest drug warrior wouldn't claim marijuana does anything like that to users. Other recent articles quote users who say the salvia high is simply not fun or long-lasting enough to make people want to try it more than once.


Marijuana lasts much longer, often induces euphoria and laughter, and merely alters the user's perceptions a bit -- it does not immediately "blast them into outer space." Because the dissociative and hallucinogenic qualities of salvia are so intense and jarring to the psyche, few choose to consume it very frequently. The tens of millions of Americans who use marijuana generally are not looking to dissociate themselves from their bodies or their surroundings, but often to do the very opposite - to enhance their experiences or simply to relax in their surroundings. Anyone who has any doubt that the use of a hallucinogen will never overtake marijuana use can check the Monitoring the Future survey of drug use by high school students. The most recent data shows that for every 12th grader who used ANY hallucinogen (LSD, magic mushrooms, PCP, mescaline, salvia etc.) in the past month there are 11 who have used marijuana in that time.

Looking beyond the absurdity of claims that salvia may become the "next marijuana," in terms of popularity or frequency of use (as implied by the media hype), there are a few ways in which salvia may become quite similar to America's favorite illegal drug. As salvia becomes a banned drug in more and more states, illicit drug dealers will no doubt pick up the slack in demand. Curious adolescents will no longer have to find their way to the head shop across town in order to buy some -- trying to convince someone 18 or older to actually buy it if they are underage -- because their neighborhood drug dealer might be offering it to them the next time they score some pot. Alternatively, salvia users who grow their own plants in their home or garden, which is reportedly an easy task, will soon become the subject of the kind of SWAT raids that often claim the lives of innocent people. By the way, this little bit of gardening will get you a mandatory minimum of 2 years in prison in Louisiana.


I have to wonder whether concerned citizens who are passionately calling for outright criminalization have truly considered what the potential results of their demands. In some states the possession of salvia is a felony, which could include years in prison and hard labor. We ought to seriously consider whether we want the government and police to be deciding how to deal with young people who begin experimenting with this substance or if the guidance or punishment should be left up to parents. Is hard labor really what a bored and curious young person needs to "straighten them out"? And what about the users of salvia who claim to be consuming the drug responsibly and for the purpose of gaining spiritual insight or to foster deep introspection? How will society at large benefit from spending our collective resources tracking down and imprisoning them?

If it makes no sense criminalizing salvia, how can we justify the rest of the War on Drugs? There is no way to arrive at a rational drug policy without asking such questions. As it stands though, challenging conventional beliefs about drug laws is about as alien to most politicians as salvia trips, so the task of thinking clearly and demanding change belongs to the people.

Location: 
United States

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.

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salvia leaves (courtesy erowid.org)
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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