Is Salvia the Next Marijuana?

Lawmakers say Salvia poses health risks to the teens who abuse it.


March 11, 2008— -- TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - On Web sites touting the mind-blowingpowers of salvia divinorum, come-ons to buy the hallucinogenic herbare accompanied by warnings: "Time is running out! ... stock upwhile you still can."

That's because salvia is being targeted by lawmakers concernedthat the inexpensive and easy-to-obtain plant could become the nextmarijuana. Eight states including North Dakota have already placedrestrictions on salvia, and 16 others, including Florida, areconsidering a ban or have previously.

"As soon as we make one drug illegal, kids start looking aroundfor other drugs they can buy legally. This is just the next one,"said Florida state Rep. Mary Brandenburg, who has introduced a billto make possession of salvia a felony punishable by up to fiveyears in prison.

North Dakota lawmakers last year passed a bill that makes salviadivinorum a schedule I controlled substance, a category thatincludes such drugs as heroin and marijuana. A person who makes,delivers or possesses a schedule 1 controlled substance is subjectto a felony charge.

Some say legislators are overreacting to a minor problem, but noone disputes that the plant impairs judgment and the ability todrive.

Native to Mexico and still grown there, salvia divinorum isgenerally smoked but can also be chewed or made into a tea anddrunk.

Called nicknames like Sally-D, Magic Mint and Diviner's Sage,salvia is a hallucinogen that gives users an out-of-body sense oftraveling through time and space or merging with inanimate objects.Unlike hallucinogens like LSD or PCP, however, salvia's effectslast for a shorter time, generally up to an hour.

No known deaths have been attributed to salvia's use, but it waslisted as a factor in one Delaware teen's suicide two years ago.

"Parents, I would say, are pretty clueless," said JonathanAppel, an assistant professor of psychology and criminal justice atTiffin University in Ohio who has studied the emergence of thesubstance. "It's much more powerful than marijuana."

Salvia's short-lasting effects and fact that it is currentlylegal may make it seem more appealing to teens, lawmakers say. Inthe Delaware suicide, the boy's mother told reporters that salviamade his mood darker but he justified its use by citing itslegality. According to reports, the autopsy found no traces of thedrug in his system, but the medical examiner listed it as acontributing cause.

Mike Strain, Louisiana's Agriculture and Forestry Commissionerand former legislator, helped his state in 2005 become the first tomake salvia illegal, along with a number of other plants. He saidthe response has been largely positive.

"I got some hostile e-mails from people who sold theseproducts," Strain said. "You don't make everybody happy when yououtlaw drugs. You save one child and it's worth it."

An ounce of salvia leaves sells for around $30 on the Internet.A liquid extract from the plant, salvinorin A, is also sold invarious strengths labeled "5x" through "60x." A gram of the 5xstrength, about the weight of a plastic pen cap, is about $12 while60x strength is around $65. And in some cases the extract comes inflavors including apple, strawberry and spearmint.

Web sites such as tout the product with imageslike a waterfall and rainbow and include testimonials like "Itmight sound far fetched, but I experience immortality."

Among those who believe the commotion over the drug is overblownis Rick Doblin of the Multidisciplinary Association for PsychedelicStudies, a nonprofit group that does research on psychedelic drugsand whose goal is to develop psychedelics and marijuana intoprescription medication.

"I think the move to criminalize is a misguided response to avery minimal problem," Doblin said.

Doblin said salvia isn't "a party drug," "tastes terrible"and is "not going to be extremely popular." He disputes the factteens are its main users and says older users are more likely.

"It's a minor drug in the world of psychedelics," he said.

Moreover, it's hard to say how widespread the use of salvia is.National and state surveys on drug use don't include salvia, andbecause it is legal in most states, law enforcement officials don'tcompile statistics, either.

San Diego State University last year surveyed more than 1,500students and found that 4 percent of participants reported usingsalvia in the past year.

Brandenburg's bill would make salvia and its extract controlledsubstances in the same class as marijuana and LSD.

Florida state Sen. Evelyn Lynn, whose committee plans to studythe salvia bill Tuesday, said the drug should be criminalized.

"I'd rather be at the front edge of preventing the dangers ofthe drug than waiting until we are the 40th or more," she said.

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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