Salvia Divinorum

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Legislation: Illinois Joins Short List of States Banning Salvia Divinorum

As of January 1, possession of salvia divinorum in Illinois will be a felony. Before the legislature passed a bill this year, the obscure Mexican mint with hallucinogenic properties had been unregulated and freely sold at tobacco stores, "head shops," and even gas stations.

https://stopthedrugwar.org/files/salvialeaves.jpg
salvia leaves (photo courtesy Erowid.org)
"We decided to move forward rather than waiting for someone to be killed because of it," said state Rep. Dennis Reboletti (D-Elmhurst), the bill's sponsor. He told the Chicago Tribune it was necessary for Illinois to regulate the herb tightly because the federal government had failed to act. The DEA considers salvia a "drug of concern," but has so far not moved to schedule it under the Controlled Substances Act.

Salvia has traditionally been used in religious ceremonies by Mazatec Indians in southern Mexico, but in recent years, it has spread to the US and other countries, where it is easily available over the counter or via the Internet. At high doses, salvia can produce intense hallucinations, but those effects are short-lived, with a "trip" being over in a matter of minutes. It is not a drug experience that most users wish to repeatedly revisit.

But for Reboletti and his peers, the risk of teens and college students from salvia use are so great that it must be banned. "It's very likely that you could hurt yourself or hurt others while in this drug-induced state," he said.

But others said that given salvia's spiritual and medical uses and potential, banning it is too harsh. Crystal Basler, owner of a religious supply store in Carbondale, told the Tribune most of her customers were medical -- not recreational -- users. "Some people describe [the effect] as they get very relaxed, kind of like taking an anti-stress pill," Basler said. "The leaf is very, very mild. There's no reason to ever make the leaf illegal. A lot of women buy it for PMS depression."

Salvia should be regulated, but not banned, she said. "I'm a big fan of it being regulated," Basler said. "But it shouldn't be illegal because you're interfering with people's right to choose in terms of their health care and religious following."

Salvia has already been made a Schedule I drug under state laws in Delaware, Louisiana, and Missouri, as well as a handful of towns around the country. Bills to ban it have also been brought in Alabama, Alaska, California, Florida, Iowa, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Texas, but have so far not succeeded.

Salvia Divinorum: Vermont Town Gets Fight Over Sales Ban

Last week, Drug War Chronicle reported on an escalating campaign to criminalize salvia divinorum, the fast- and short-acting hallucinogenic Mexican member of the mint family whose use has seeped into the popular consciousness among North American psychonauts in the past decade. The story opened with the town of Middlebury, Vermont, declaring a public health emergency to stop a local tobacconist from selling the potent herb.

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salvia leaves (photo courtesy Erowid)
Now, the store owner is fighting back. The day our story ran, James Stone, proprietor of the Emporium Tobacco and Gift Shop, announced he will appeal the order and has hired an attorney to fight it. "If they had come to me first, I would have worked with them," Stone said.

But that's not what happened. The town council acted on the matter without notifying Stone, who only learned of the ban when a reporter called him the next day. The council acted after Police Chief Tom Hanley reported that the town school resource officer had become aware that teenagers were using salvia. While Hanley could not name any cases where anyone had suffered any adverse effects from ingesting the drug, he urged the council not to take that chance. "It's a tragedy waiting to happen," he said.

Hanley also made the odd claim that the hallucinogenic effects of salvia, which last for less than 20 minutes, can be extended for several hours if the user is drinking alcohol. "You can't have kids with developing brains putting this stuff in their bodies," Hanley warned. "The effects are different for different individuals and you just don't know what's going to happen."

But the Middlebury ban is not just against sales to minors. It is a total ban.

Salvia has been a "substance of concern" for the DEA for several years, but remains legal under federal law. Five states and a handful of municipalities have criminalized it, and similar efforts are afoot in seven other states this year. But Middlebury is unique in having chosen the public health emergency route.

That's raising eyebrows among civil libertarians. "It sounds very arbitrary and very broad and very subjective," said Allen Gilbert, executive director of Vermont's chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. "How does one person make the determination that something is a danger?" Gilbert said.

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."

https://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.

DEA: Mind-Altering Drugs are Available in Stores, But Don’t Buy Them

Someone needs to remind the DEA and CBS 4 in Denver that many people actually enjoy doing drugs.

DEA Warns Over-The-Counter Drug Is Like Acid
encourages people not to take salvia. It also identifies by name several stores you shouldn’t go to because they sell it and describes vivid hallucinations you can avoid by not smoking it.

The thing is, suggesting that a drug is "a lot like taking acid" and complaining that it is available "at the Head Quarters on South Marion Street in Denver" is a curious way of discouraging salvia experimentation. I wonder how the proprietors of Head Quarters feel about local news exposing them for selling potent legal drugs and giving away their location.

Dave Chappelle once did a skit in which he played a crack addict addressing a group of school children about the dangers of crack. During the course of his presentation, he inadvertently provided numerous details about where crack could be purchased, at which point the students all started taking notes.

This is just like that, except it’s not supposed to be funny.

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