States Move to Ban Hallucinogen Salvia
By Suzanne Hoyle, Special to Stateline; Alexander Harris, Special to Stateline
(Updated 1:35 p.m., March 5)
It's a type of mint plant, with broad leaves and a hollow stem, widely used by landscapers and gardeners as ground cover. It's also sold on the Internet for about $15 an ounce for leaves, $11 a gram for the more potent extract, to be smoked or chewed for a high lasting a few minutes to a half-hour.
Thousands of videos on YouTube.com show bong-smoking teenagers "tripping" on the drug.
Called salvia divinorum, it's been legal in the United States until recently, although banned in several countries, including Australia , Belgium and Italy . Now, state legislators from Maine to Missouri to California are pushing to outlaw or regulate the herb that has become a popular recreational drug among young people.
"I think the Internet has actually driven this," said Virginia state Del. John O'Bannon (R) who sponsored a bill outlawing the drug. "I think the Internet is one of the reasons why it's actually spread out of the local indigenous areas in Mexico ."
Salvia is grown mainly in 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. It is usually sold as dried leaves in various degrees of potency. Salvia causes hallucinations, a perception of overlapping realities and a loss of body, dizziness and impaired speech, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) says on its Web site.
Since 2005, Missouri , Delaware , North Dakota and Illinois have banned salvia outright by classifying it as a Schedule I hallucinogen, putting it in the same category as heroin, LSD, marijuana and ecstasy.
According the DEA, Schedule I substances are defined as having a high tendency for abuse and do not have a medicinal purpose. Possession of a Schedule I substance (except for marijuana) is often classified as a felony. For example, under the Illinois law that took effect Jan. 1, possession of salvia is punishable by up to three years in prison.
Virginia's governor on Sunday (March 2) signed a similar bill into law, which takes effect July 1. O'Bannon, a neurologist who sponsored the bill, said salvia potentially has harmful effects. He cited the 2006 death of Brett Chidester, a Delaware teenager whose parents blame salvia for their son's suicide.
"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.
Other states have taken action to regulate salvia in different ways.
In Maine , for example, it's illegal for anyone under 18 to possess or use the drug. 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 Senate passed a bill prohibiting the sale of salvia.
Rogene Waite, a DEA spokeswoman, 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. Also, sending it by mail would then be prohibited.
Daniel Siebert, of the Salvia Divinorum Research and Information Center , a Web site Siebert maintains out of 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 don't enjoy the experience of using salvia. Even those who do are not inclined to use salvia often, Siebert said.
"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."
Seibert says he sells to people in states that ban salvia because California law does not prevent him from doing so. But he said he informs customers in such states of the legal risk they take by possessing or using salvia.
Some Internet retailers won't send salvia to customers in states and countries that ban the substance. For example, one seller on eBay has posted a notice that reads, "I do not ship to the following states in the USA: Delaware, Illinois, Louisiana, Missouri, North Dakota, and Tennessee ."
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 it doesn't go anywhere. It's so far off the radar."
Suzanne Hoyle and Alexander Harris are journalism students at Virginia Commonwealth University .