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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."
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.

Feature: Oregon's Messy Medical Marijuana Statehouse Politics

With some 14,000 patients register\ed with the state under the Oregon Medical Marijuana Act (OMMA), Oregon's is one of the most successful programs in the country. But thanks to a well-organized, if fractious, activist community, as well as legislative foes of medical marijuana, OMMA itself (the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program) and the patients are the objects of a frenzy of activity in the legislature this year.

While some of the legislation has been inspired by the medical marijuana community, much is hostile. Oregon NORML, one of the leading activist organizations on the issue, identifies 19 separate pieces of legislation affecting medical marijuana patients, with only five winning the group's approval.

Among the bills are 12 measures calling for drug testing of everyone from police officers to elected officials to welfare recipients, including one that has already passed the Senate, SB 0465, which would shield employers from lawsuits from patients fired for testing positive for drug tests. There are also two bills that would amend OMMA, one in the House, HB 3299, and one in the Senate, SB 0161, as well as bills that would give prosecutors the option of charging cultivation as a misdemeanor instead of a felony and set up a state-operated dispensary system.

The main battles have been fought over the employee drug testing bill and the bills that would amend OMMA. While the session is unlikely to end until June, so far, it's been a bruising one for medical marijuana advocates. While they have a handful of strong advocates in the statehouse, including Sen. Floyd Prozanski (D-Eugene) and Sen. Frank Morse (R-Albany), those allies have been isolated in early votes -- the drug testing bill passed the Senate 25-5 -- or irritated with some measures put forth by activists.

The drug testing bill drew the opposition of the ACLU of Oregon, as well as medical marijuana supporters. "We believe that bill would undermine the Oregon Medical Marijuana Act, which was approved by the voters, permitting Oregonians suffering from serious medical conditions to be able to use marijuana to ease their suffering," said Andrea Meyer, legislative director for the group, who testified against the measure. "There are many patients whose ailments can be relieved so they become productive employees, just as is the case with the thousands of Oregonians who use prescribed substances."

"Employers rely on urinalysis for testing impairment, but that kind of testing does not indicate impairment," said Meyer. "There is no connection between the presence of THC metabolites and impairment. As we all know, THC can remain in the body for up to 30 days. This bill presumes that the medical marijuana user is impaired on the job, but that's not the case, and this does not address the underlying issue of safety, which is what it's all supposed to be about. If they are really concerned with safety, they would do impairment testing of all employees. What is important is that they can perform. The fact that someone used medical marijuana the night before coming in for work does not mean he is impaired."

But while the drug testing bill sailed through the Senate, which rejected a measure offered by Prozanski that would have explicitly protected patients, it may be dead in the water in the House. "It's been assigned to the House Ethics Committee, where the prevailing wisdom is that it's dead," said Leland Berger of Voter Power, who is intimately involved with medical marijuana legislation in Oregon. "It could rise again, but for now it's dead," he said.

So is SB 0676, which would have created a state garden and dispensary system as a pilot program for testing different strains. Championed by Oregon NORML, the bill would have addressed the chronic supply problems some patients face, but its chances withered in the face of fears it could provoke the DEA.

"It's pretty bad in the legislature this year," said Madeline Martinez, director of Oregon NORML. "Prozanski was upset about the dispensary bill. He has always been a friend of hemp and medical marijuana, but he is afraid this one will bring the feds down on us," said Martinez. "Sen. Morse says he doesn't think he can get it out of committee because the attorney general advised that that if it were to happen, everyone would start getting arrested," she explained.

"We need to do something, and I'm not really fond of the California dispensary model," said Martinez. "A lot of my patients are on SSI, so I don't want to see them paying $15 a gram. Gee, you can choose between your medical marijuana, your pharmaceutical drugs, and eating cat food. I'm really upset with and against the California model."

Martinez, a 56-year-old law enforcement retiree, runs a garden for patients, whom she provides with limited amounts of medical marijuana at no cost. "I'm blessed to have a wonderful garden. We are able to fill our donation buckets, and now other growers are donating five or six ounces at a time. It's amazing how seeing it happen has the power of creating a cycle of giving and giving," she said.

But while Martinez and her patients are able to get their medicine, that's not the case for many patients, who either lack the health, the skill, or the talent for growing, and that's the biggest failure of OMMA, she said. "That's the worst feature: no access," she said. "You pay for a right, and then you can't use it, especially if you're unable to grow for yourself. OMMA didn't address that."

Now the main battle remaining is over the bills that would modify the OMMA. HB 3299, pushed by Voter Power, contains several provisions protecting patients or providers, including reciprocity with other states, allowing people under court supervision to use medical marijuana, and imposing penalties on police for willful violation of the law. But it also contains a provision that would subject program members who transported medical marijuana without their registry card to 30 days in jail.

Martinez and Oregon NORML are not supporting HB 3229 in its current form. "There are many good things in HB 3299," said Martinez, "but 30 days in jail for patients caught transporting without their card? Some of the patients I take care of couldn't do one day in jail. That needs to come out."

It just might, said Berger. While HB 3299 appears dormant -- it has been referred to the graveyard known as the House Elections Rules and Ethics Committee -- some of its provisions may end up wrapped into SB 161. "SB 161, which includes some things we've been after for years, passed to the Senate floor on a unanimous vote last Thursday," he said. "We may be able to get stuff from 3299 into 161. Sen. Morse said he would see what he could do."

But for all the sturm and drang at the statehouse, the session may end with little actually happening on the medical marijuana front. That could change if the community were better organized, said Berger. "There is more cooperation and more positive feeling among activists than at times in the past," he said. "But at the same time, there is a sort of lobbying by mob, with different groups pushing different bills. What we really need to do is have a conversation the year before the next session, raise some funds, and hire a lobbyist. It's tough to get legislation passed in Oregon. You have to have a consensus among all the affected groups. Law enforcement, the program itself, and advocates all have to be on the same page, or it's not going to move. That means advocates have to be on the same page, too."

Editorial: Madison & marijuana

United States
The Capital Times (WI)

Medical Marijuana: Bill to Make Rhode Island Law Permanent Passes House, Senate Committees

(Interested parties in or near Rhode Island should check out the SSDP Northeast Regional Conference in Providence from later today through Sunday.)
leading RI patient activist Rhonda O'Donnell, at DC protest
A bill that would make Rhode Island's medical marijuana law permanent is headed for House and Senate floor votes after the House Health, Education and Welfare Committee passed it on a 10-3 vote Tuesday and the Senate Health and Human Services Committee passed it on a unanimous voice vote Wednesday. Unless HB 6005 and its companion legislation in the Senate, SB 0791, pass, the Rhode Island medical marijuana program will be ended on June 30.

The Rhode Island legislature last year overrode a veto by Gov. Donald Carcieri (R) to make the state the 11th to legalize medical marijuana, but the final version of the measure included a sunset provision. So far, some 244 Rhode Islanders have registered with the state to use the drug with medical approval.

One of those patients, Craig Paquette of Richmond, who suffers severe spinal pain from injuries suffered in a car wreck fifteen years ago, as well as serious side effects from narcotic pain relievers, praised the House committee vote. "I do not want my family to see me suffer. I am off the painkillers now, and with a little marijuana, my pain is reduced, my sick stomach goes away, and I feel human again," he said in a statement after the vote. "Because of this law, I have a quality of life I would never have had without it, and I would hate to have that taken away."

Gov. Carcieri doesn't care. His spokesman, Jeff Neal, told the Providence Journal Wednesday he opposes making the medical marijuana law permanent. "First," Neal said, "this Rhode Island statute is in direct conflict with the federal ban on marijuana. Second, the governor shares the concerns of the state police that a state medical marijuana law promotes the illicit drug trade while also making marijuana more available to children and others not using it for medical purposes."

But Rhode Island legislators have overridden the governor's veto once already on medical marijuana. Perhaps they will have to do it again.

Medical Marijuana: Minnesota Bill Passes Senate Committee

The Minnesota medical marijuana bill narrowly passed the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday on a 5-4 vote. The bill, SF 345, has already been approved by the Senate Health, Housing and Family Security Committee and now heads for a vote in the Senate Finance Committee.

The bill would allow seriously ill patients to use marijuana with a physician's recommendation.

A House companion bill, HF 0655 has so far successfully followed a similarly torturous path. It is now before the House Finance Committee for the second time.

The favorable vote came despite sometimes heated testimony by law enforcement officials who argued it would "send the wrong message," lead to increased marijuana use, be difficult to enforce, and conflict with federal law. But the bill's lead sponsor, Sen. Steve Murphy (D-Red Wing) called those concerns overstated.

"I'm happy that we are one step closer to passing this bill that will help patients suffering from cancer, MS, and other diseases to receive the care their physicians recommend," said Murphy after the vote.

The number of states with laws protecting medical marijuana patients from arrest increased on April 2, when New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) signed the 12th state medical marijuana law. The other states with medical marijuana laws are Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.

Marijuana bills clear hurdles

Providence, RI
United States
The Pawtucket Times (RI)

GOP wants aid cut for students caught selling drugs

United States
River Falls Journal (WI)

Sick people need pot

United States
Chicago Sun-Times

Lawmaker seeks restrictions on baking soda to fight drugs

St. Louis, MO
United States
The Columbia Daily Tribune (MO)

Editorial: Things Are Gradually Moving in the Right Direction
David Borden
Earlier this week I learned from some colleagues who are doing work in Maryland that a bill to restore parole for second-time drug offenders had been passed by a committee in the state's House of Delegates but was facing an uncertain fate in the Senate. A number of senators on the committee had committed to voting for it, but one more was needed to get the bill to go through and have its chance in the full Assembly. The bulletin listed five senators who were still undecided.

I decided that, even though in absolute terms the number of people on our list identified as being from those five districts would likely be small, it was important to take some action. Mandatory minimum sentencing is one of the great evils of our time. According to a report by the Justice Policy Institute, in 2005 Maryland had 4,900 people incarcerated whose worst offense was a drug offense (though it's not known how many are serving mandatory minimums due to limitations in the available datasets), and Maryland spends the greater part of its correctional budget on incarcerating drug offenders.

Things have gotten a little better recently -- the state is one of only 11 that have fewer prisoners now than four years ago -- but the state's incarceration situation is still a travesty. One or two phone calls could well make the difference for a legislator at the state level. One of our members wrote back to let me know the staffer in his senator's office said that his was the only call they had received about the bill at all. One is better than zero -- we made some impact. How much? No way to really tell.

Going into our political database and checking off the names of those five undecided senators, looking to see who we had in their districts, had the effect of making me think. It made me wonder why anyone would not want to restore parole to these people. After all, it's not even legalization or decriminalization. I fervently want for more people to understand the deleterious consequences of prohibition so we can end it, but that's not on the table this year. These are nonviolent offenders. In parole, the Board considers a person's conduct while incarcerated and a range of other factors before deciding whether to give him or her a second chance. I don't expect everyone to think the way I do on everything to do with drugs and criminal justice. But this one seems so straightforward at this late date when mandatory minimums have been so heavily criticized for so long. No one said this job would be easy. But I had to stop and wonder why the clearest acts of conscience can seem so unclear to so many.

Thursday brought good news on the issue, the bill had passed the committee and the margin was comfortable -- one Republican even supported it. A fight is expected on the floor of the House and the Senate. But in getting this far the bill has gone further than any other mandatory minimum repeal bill in Maryland to date.

Things are gradually getting better -- starting to, anyway.

Look for more alerts from us on this issue, at the federal level, over the coming months.

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