By Alexander Harris and Suzanne Hoyle
Capital News Service
From Maine to Missouri to California, state legislators are pushing to outlaw or regulate salvia divinorum, an herb that has become a popular recreational drug among young people.
Until recently, it has been legal throughout the United States to possess and distribute salvia, a plant grown in Mexico and used for centuries by the Mazatec Indians. But since 2005, Missouri, Delaware, North Dakota and Illinois have banned salvia by classifying it as a Schedule I hallucinogen, putting it in the same category as heroin, LSD, marijuana and ecstasy.
In January and February, by unanimous votes, the Virginia General Assembly passed a similar law banning salvia and sent it to Gov. Tim Kaine for his signature.
“Putting it on the Schedule I will not harm anybody,” said the bill’s sponsor, John O’Bannon, a Republican delegate representing suburban Richmond. He said his legislation would strike “a reasonable balance between public safety and civil individual liberties.”
O’Bannon, a neurologist, said salvia potentially has harmful effects. He cited the death of Brett Chidester, a Delaware teenager whose parents blame salvia for their son’s suicide in 2006.
“It’s really not a pleasant thing to take. It can cause bad trips, dysphoria and sweats,” O’Bannon said. Dysphoria is a general feeling of physical discomfort, anxiety and discontent.
According the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, substances are defined as Schedule I if they have a high tendency for abuse and do not have a medicinal purpose.
Rogene Waite, a spokeswoman for the DEA, said the agency is studying whether salvia should be declared a Schedule I drug at the federal level. If so, it would be considered a controlled substance in every state, she said.
Possession of a Schedule I substance (except for marijuana) is often classified as a felony. For example, under an Illinois law that took effect Jan. 1, possession of salvia is a class 4 felony punishable by up to three years in prison.
Some states have regulated salvia without declaring it a Schedule I drug.
In Maine, it’s illegal for anyone under 18 to possess or use the plant. In Oklahoma, it is illegal to have salvia if it is “enhanced, concentrated or chemically or physically altered” – a law aimed at potent salvia extracts. In Tennessee and Louisiana, it is legal to grow salvia for landscaping or aesthetic purposes but not for consumption.
Bills to ban or regulate salvia are being considered in many other states – including Alabama, Alaska, California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, New Jersey, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah, Wyoming and Wisconsin. On Feb. 11, the New York State Senate passed a bill prohibiting the sale of salvia.
A species of mint, salvia is usually sold as dried leaves in various degrees of potency. People smoke the substance for a high that can last from a few minutes to half an hour. Salvia causes hallucinations, a perception of overlapping realities and a loss of body, dizziness and impaired speech, the DEA says on its Web site.
On the Internet, people can buy 1 ounce of salvia leaves for less than $15 or 1 gram of the least-potent salvia extract for $11.
Salvia is native to the state of Oaxaca in Mexico. For centuries, the Mazatec Indians of southern Mexico have used salvia in shamanistic rituals.
More recently, salvia has proliferated on the Internet and at college-area paraphernalia shops. Thousands of videos on YouTube.com show bong-smoking teenagers “tripping” on the drug.
“I think the Internet has actually driven this. I think the Internet is one of the reasons why it’s actually spread out of the local indigenous areas in Mexico,” O’Bannon said.
Salvia is banned in such countries as Australia, Belgium and Italy.
Daniel Siebert, of the Salvia Divinorum Research and Information Center in Malibu, Calif., said he has devoted 20 years to studying the plant. He said that salvia shouldn’t be available to minors but that responsible adults should be allowed to use it.
“Plants are part of the natural world that we are born into,” Siebert said. To ban salvia “seems to me to be some sort of crime against nature.”
Siebert sells salvia on his Web site. He said he has few repeat customers because most people do not like the effects of salvia. Even those who enjoy the experience are not inclined to use salvia often, Siebert said.
He said salvia can be a “psychological tool for finding personal insight” for some people. He believes the plant can be therapeutic if used responsibly.
“It’s kind of troublesome having these kids video-taping themselves and putting it on YouTube,” Siebert said. “It creates a skewed image of salvia.”
It’s unclear how many states will seek to ban or regulate salvia. Matthew Gever, a policy associate for the National Conference of State Legislatures, said legislators may be more concerned about drugs with higher visibility, such as methamphetamines.
“There are a lot of states where legislators have brought it (salvia) up,” he said. “Someone introduces it, but doesn’t go anywhere. It’s so far off the radar.”
Suzanne and Al wrote this story for VCU’s Capital News Service. Versions of the article were published by several newspapers and Web sites, include The Virginian-Pilot and Stateline.org. Suzanne and Al discussed salvia laws on the VCU InSight show that aired Feb. 8 and 10. That show also featured a video segment about salvia produced by Terrell Brown.
In a follow-up story distributed by CNS, Al reported that Gov. Kaine signed the bill into law on March 2. Beginning July 1, it is illegal to have salvia in Virginia.