Search "salvia" on YouTube and you'll find a ton of videos of teenagers acting incredibly stupid. One ponytailed redhead says it feels like her mouth is going to fall off, as her friends laugh at her; a kid can't stop laughing while staring at his hands; another girl has a big smile as she says, "This is weird."
The videos are purportedly of people using salvia divinorum, a psychoactive plant that's unscheduled in the United States--meaning it's currently legal without restriction in most states.
Indigenous populations in Mexico have used salvia divinorum (Latin for "sage of the seers") for centuries in shamanic medicine. Salvia use has grown in popularity in recent years partly as word spread on Internet messageboards.
Naturally, the law stepped in. Several states including Delaware have already placed salvia in Schedule I, the class supposedly restricted to drugs with no medical value and a high potential for abuse. A North Dakota man recently became the first person in the U.S. ever arrested for salvia possession.
Media reports have jumped on the story with a nice dose of fearmongering. NBC's Bay Area-affiliate incorrectly described the drug as "potlike." An Associated Press story wondered if it was "the next marijuana." The drug isn't much like marijuana at all--or LSD, another psychoactive drug it's sometimes compared with.
When ingested, salvia produces a short psychoactive trip lasting five to 10 minutes. Some users compare it to meditation or yoga; others experience more dramatic visions. Researchers say the drug is remarkably nontoxic. No overdoses have been reported.
In fact, very few problems at all have been reported due to salvia. The most publicized case was a teenager's suicide in Delaware in 2006; the medical examiner listed salvia as a cause of death despite the teen having none of the drug in his system. He was, however, taking an acne medication linked to depression.
Even a California bill attempting to criminalize salvia sale to minors admitted that "emergency rooms have not reported any particular health concerns, and the police have not reported a significant issue with public order offenses."
Nonetheless, 17 states have either passed or introduced legislation criminalizing possession or sale of salvia.
This country has used criminalization as a first resort of drug policy ever since the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act in 1914. (Before then, the United States didn't have any illegal drugs.)
The government has ignored the perils of criminalization--especially those of simple possession.
During Prohibition, alcohol possession wasn't against the law. Criminalizing possession costs an enormous amount of money, fills courts and jails with nonviolent criminals, and causes mistrust between police and otherwise law-abiding citizens.
Sometimes drug criminalization prevents legitimate medical research or use: Psychiatrists used MDMA (Ecstasy) in therapy before it was placed on Schedule I in the 1980s; LSD and psilocybin mushrooms can help those who suffer from cluster headaches; and medical marijuana can treat nausea from chemotherapy, as well as AIDS wasting syndrome and other ailments.
There's been little research on salvia, but one study reports that salvia helped eliminate one user's depression.
But the march toward criminalization soldiers on. Eventually the DEA will likely classify salvia as a Schedule I drug.
"Criminal law is the most expensive, violent and damaging regulatory system we have at our disposal," law student Alex Coolman wrote in an op-ed opposing California's law in the Daily Journal. "It ought to be used only as a last resort, when we are convinced we are confronting a serious problem that can't be solved by any other means."
Salvia hasn't caused us any real problems yet. We shouldn't create some by criminalizing it.
Daniel McQuade blogs at drugroar.com
Barry the Pot-Dealing Samaritan is risking his freedom to provide a sick person with the medicine he needs to fight cancer. Prison time. Fines. A criminal record that would follow him for his entire life. But it doesn't have to be that way.