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Article from Slate Magazine:

The press helps fuel the next "drug menace."
By Jack Shafer
Posted Tuesday, May 6, 2008, at 7:11 PM ET

Salvia divinorum

The normally staid Associated Press attached a headline to a March 11
story that inquired, "Is Salvia the Next Marijuana?" If the AP meant
to ask whether Salvia divinorum is the next misunderstood
recreational drug to be both demonized and popularized by the press,
the answer is yes.

Although the hallucinogenic properties of Salvia have long been known
to the natives of Mexico's Sierra Mazateca range, it wasn't until the
middle of the last century that anthropologists and drug researchers
learned of the herb. A mere footnote in the psychedelic explorations
of the 1960s and 1970s—see this 1963 report by scholars Richard
Schultes and R. Gordon Wasson—the drug didn't earn its first Nexis
mention until 1991—and even then as a throwaway reference in a
Vancouver Sun article about cooking with sage.

A hokey 1998 TV documentary about the plant produced a flurry of
Nexis mentions in the British press. The next Nexis hit came in 2000
in a squib picked up by the University Wire about Salvia use on the
University of North Dakota campus. "This is another drug that is very
new to mainstream drug use. Neither the Grand Forks Police Department
or UND's had any information on this drug," wrote student Tom Schauer.

The next year, 2001, proved to be Salvia's breakout year in the
press, with 35 mentions. By 2005, it recorded 67 and has steadily
increased. In 2007, it earned 271 mentions and in the first four
months of 2008 has almost equaled that mark. Soon you'll have to wear
blinders to avoid the Salvia coverage.

The substance is still legal in all but eight states, and it's openly
sold in smoke shops and via the Internet. Just run a Google search
for "Salvia divinorum" and consult the ads Google displays in the
right margin. Another marker of the drug's ubiquity is the hundreds
of videos of purported Salvia experiences hosted on YouTube.

Smoked Salvia can be a brute of a drug depending on the dose, as this
FAQ on the Erowid drug site explains. (The drug can also be consumed
orally.) "Generally, smoked salvia effects come on quickly, peak for
5-20 minutes, and then begin to subside," the FAQ notes. Users report
visions; feelings of fright; loss of physical coordination;
uncontrollable laughter; confusion; feelings of being underground, or
underwater, or flying, or floating; experiences of "non-Euclidean"
spaces; and more, according to Erowid.

Does that sounds like the next marijuana to you? Truth be told, not
even the AP—whose headline likens Salvia to marijuana—thinks the two
drugs deliver the same psychic wallop. I think the AP headline writer
equated the two compounds because both are cheap, easy to obtain, and

Although coverage of Salvia is almost universally negative, nobody in
the press has made a good case for criminalizing its sale and use. It
doesn't appear to be addictive. (Most of the users I've talked to say
once was enough for them.) A recent Los Angeles Times article calls
it "potentially dangerous" but concedes, "[L]ittle is known about the
effect of the drug on health and safety." The best argument the St.
Petersburg Times could present for criminalizing Salvia was this bit
of nanny-statism: "If it's legal, people think it's harmless." The
logicians who write editorials at the Topeka Capital-Journal, citing
the AP story, advocate a ban on Salvia in part because "[s]ome
believe the drug … is poised to become a legal alternative to
marijuana among teenagers."

Sgt. Gordy Disch of the Dane County Sheriff's Department tells the
Wisconsin State Journal he worries about folks driving while tripping
on Salvia, but he's obviously not viewed the YouTube videos. Salvia
users tend to recline or go catatonic immediately after inhaling, so
unless they've decided to commit suicide with their car, the rest of
the motoring public is probably safe. Based on a column in today's
Wall Street Journal, I think Sgt. Disch should worry more about
Ambien users and less about Salvia smokers. The column reports that
after taking such potent sleeping pills, some people "eat, walk, make
phone calls or get behind the wheel." Others have consumed "inedibles
like buttered cigarettes and woken up gasping for air with their
mouths full of peanut butter, a sleep-eating favorite."

(A certain Slate staffer who will go unnamed—oh, hell, it was Tim
Noah—took three Ambien by mistake one morning a few years ago instead
of his regular morning meds. Driving his two kids to elementary
school, he sideswiped several cars before coming to a restful halt.
Noah's kids tried to wake him, and when that didn't work, they seized
his cell phone and called their mom to rescue them.)

How big is the Salvia divinorum menace? The AP story notes that no
known deaths on Salvia have been recorded. Based on a survey taken in
2006, the U.S. government estimates that 756,000 people aged 12 or
older had taken the drug in the previous year and that 1.8 million
have taken the drug in their lifetimes. This compares to the 23.3
million who have taken LSD in their lifetimes and the 666,000 who
took it in the previous year. Ecstasy users? Lifetime, 12.3 million;
previous year, 2.1 million.

The strongest personal argument against Salvia probably belongs to
Kathy Chidester, who lost her 16-year-old son, Brett, a Salvia user,
to suicide. Although Brett reportedly suffered from depression, his
parents believe the drug played a role in his death. Her story helped
convince the Delaware legislature to ban Salvia.

According to the AP, 16 states are considering bans on Salvia, which
means a federal prohibition can't be too far off. Parents have a
right to be terrified of their kids getting zonked on Salvia, but in
the absence of any concrete evidence that the drug does lasting harm,
can the cure promised by new legislation be worse than the disease?

Allow me to direct your attention to Licit and Illicit Drugs (1972)
by Edward M. Brecher and the editors of Consumer Reports. In a
chapter titled "How To Launch a Nationwide Drug Menace," Brecher
shows how legal efforts to suppress glue-sniffing in the 1960s and
sensational press coverage of the "menace" helped spread the

In one sense the current alarm over Salvia is worse than the glue-
sniffing panic. The adverse health effect of many kinds of "huffing"
are well-established, while the dangers posed by Salvia are still
conjecture. If the past is any guide, the coming bans on Salvia will
1) transmogrify youthful and stupid experimenters into criminals, 2)
add violence to the peaceful Salvia trade, 3) publicize and
popularize the use of the drug, and 4) encourage users to experiment
with more dangerous substances. The drug warriors will end up wishing
that it was May 2008 again and that all that bedeviled them was this
containable Salvia "problem."