Reefer Madness: Saint or Salvia?

One man's medicine is another man's monster

Reefer Madness: Saint or Salvia?

Rep. Charles "Doc" Anderson, R-Waco, sees monsters. Or, rather, he sees other people seeing monsters – regardless of whether that's what they're seeing.

Whatever the case, in explaining the need for his House Bill 126 – which would make illegal the drug known as Salvia divinorum, a member of the sage family that is the most potent naturally occurring hallucinogenic – Anderson has demonstrated a flair for the dramatic. "It stimulates the imaginary senses," he told committee members, and the experience of "alternate realities" is common while on the drug. It's so potent, he said, that if you "had a hemorrhage" while on the drug, "you wouldn't even know it." He's passionate, sure, but also more than a little ... well, wrong.

The drug has long been used by the Mazatec people of Central Mexico in ceremony and as medicine – and until quite recently, the drug had remained unregulated in the U.S. Indeed, it is easy enough to buy salvia online, for about $20 a gram. But in recent years, lawmakers in a handful of states have decided that salvia should be added to the lengthy list of prohibited or strictly regulated substances. The reason? The kids, of course – it's all about the kids. Here in Texas, Ander­son makes the claim (which he repeated at least twice as a guest on Dr. Phil last year) that nearly a million children around the country have tried salvia – though it's hard to see where that number comes from. Ander­son likes to paint a picture of salvia as addictive and dangerous, and he repeatedly claims that at least a dozen states have already outlawed the substance. Unfortunately, again, his claims are simply not accurate.

And then there are the monsters.

During a House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee hearing in March, Anderson sought to illustrate salvia's danger with an audio-visual presentation courtesy of YouTube. "This is not your garden-variety salvia," Anderson told the committee (actually, it does grow wild and can be cultivated in a garden – but that's another story). Using the drug is not like "breaking into the old man's liquor cabinet or taking a little marijuana from the cool guy in class," he said. It's a serious hallucinogenic, Anderson contended, and its packaging is clearly intended for kids – it's so "colorful," he said, that a kid could easily think it was something to be used on a "skateboard." To send his point home, Anderson called up a YouTube video titled "Driving on Salvia," wherein the narrator, Erik, tells the camera he is going to give driving lessons but first must take a hit of salvia from a small water bong. He tokes and then ... sits ... and stares. A cat then jumps up on the hood of the car, and again Erik ... stares. Of course, that's what's on the video without Anderson's narration. With his asides, the video seems, well, different. When the cat appears on the car hood, Ander­son told the committee: "[Erik] doesn't know how to deal with it. He sees monsters."

Anderson would've offered additional videos – YouTube is filled with footage of supposed salvia trips – but, mercifully, committee Chair Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, stopped him. The committee, Gallego said, caught the drift. Anderson implored the committee to make the drug illegal – with mere possession punishable at the low end by no less than six months in jail and/or a $4,000 fine – and warned that its use was rising to epidemic proportions: "It's on most high school campuses; it's on most college campuses," he said. Back in reality, however, things look a bit different. For starters, it isn't at all clear that the video is anything more than a joke. Reportedly, it's been making the rounds for a while, first popping up on humor site eBaum's World, and the driver, Erik, has posted a slew of other videos cheeky enough to suggest he's more aper than user.

But more critical is the question of whether salvia should be banned. A growing number of medical researchers are showing interest in the plant, which shows promise for the treatment of disorders that are "characterized by alterations in perception," salvia researcher Daniel Siebert wrote in 2007 to California lawmakers considering a similar ban. Dr. Bryan Roth, a professor at the University of North Carolina and project director of the National Institute of Mental Health Psychoactive Drugs Screening Program, says that the psychoactive ingredient in salvia, salvinorin A, basically "gives us a window into the biological basis of consciousness. It tells us that the receptor sites this compound works on impact our view of reality." So researchers are looking at salvinorin A for treating schizophrenia, depression, and Alzheimer's disease, among others. In fact, it appears that contrary to Anderson's characterizations, salvia may be beneficial in treating addictions – notably to methamphetamine and cocaine – because it seems to have an adverse addictive effect.

Moreover, the drug is not toxic. In all, says Roth, "it is sort of the anti-drug." Roth agrees that it is a strong hallucinogen, though less potent than synthesized LSD. More to the point, says Roth, most users don't at all like salvia's effects: It comes on strong and is disorienting. (It's also a drug that heightens self-awareness, Siebert wrote to California lawmakers, thus making it utterly worthless for escapist fun.) In all, says Roth, "from a regulatory standpoint, it is the perfect drug because you usually take it once and don't take it again. It is too intense, is what most people say." And to Roth, banning the drug would be a big mistake – simply put, if he can't get access to the substance, then he can't study it.

The Drug Enforcement Administration so far has not initiated any action to regulate the drug. And, contrary to Anderson's contention, salvia has not been banned in a dozen states. While several states have chosen to prohibit the substance in a manner similar to Anderson's proposal, others have actually chosen a more reasoned approach: prohibiting the sale of salvia to minors. That is the route on which California, for example, settled in 2008. Anderson doesn't see that as the best solution, but so far he hasn't earned the kind of support in the Capitol that it would take to move his bill forward. At press time, it was still pending in committee while another proposal that would prohibit the sale of the drug to minors (SB 257 by Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls) has already passed out of the Senate with a unanimous vote.

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Salvia, Legislature, 81st Legislature, Salvia divinorum, Charles Anderson, Reefer Madness, Bryan Roth

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