House OKs bill to ban hallucinogen salvia


ALEXANDER HARRIS- Capital News Service

Issue date: 1/17/08 Section: News

A bill to ban salvia divinorum unanimously passed in the Virginia House of Delegates this week, bringing the currently legal drug one step closer to strict regulation.

Salvia is a powerful hallucinogen - some say as strong as LSD. It's the subject of thousands of videos showing bong-smoking teens "tripping" on the substance.

A species of the mint family, salvia can be legally purchased over the Internet or from specialty shops. The dried leaves are available in various degrees of potency, and people smoke them for a high that can last a few minutes or up to half an hour.

Delegate John O'Bannon, (R-Henrico), who is also a neurosurgeon, introduced the bill to outlaw salvia after receiving suggestions from law enforcement officials.

"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.

On Tuesday, delegates voted 98-0 in favor of O'Bannon's legislation, House Bill 21. The bill will now go on to the Virginia Senate for consideration. It has been referred to the Senate Committee on Education and Health.

According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, salvia causes hallucinations, a perception of overlapping realities and a loss of body, dizziness and impaired speech.

The plant, which is native to the province of Oaxaca in Mexico, is not regulated on the federal level, but at least seven states have salvia laws on the books. 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.

"I think the Internet has actually driven this. I think the Internet is one of the reasons why it's actually spread out of the local indigenous areas in Mexico, where it's been around forever," said O'Bannon.

His bill would make salvia a Schedule I hallucinogen. This would place the substance in the same class of penalties as LSD, PCP, Ecstasy and cannabis.

O'Bannon said salvia potentially has harmful effects, citing the suicide of Brett Chidester, a Delaware teenager whose parents blame salvia for their son's suicide. Delaware has since banned the substance.

"I'm respectful of individual liberties and public good. I think what's happening is this is becoming a drug that can be misused," O'Bannon said.

"Putting it on the Schedule I will not harm anybody," he said, but would make "a reasonable balance between public safety and civil individual liberties."

Salvia has potentially good uses as well, said Dr. Thomas Prisinzano, a medicinal chemistry professor at University of Kansas. Prisinzano has participated in several studies on the psychoactive chemical compound found in salvia, salvinorum A.

"From salvinorum A itself, salvia can be used to develop novel treatments for central nervous system diseases," Prisinzano said. "Depression being one, Alzheimer's possibly one-and also in the treatment of addiction."

Prisinzano is developing methods to use salvinorum A as a treatment for pain and as a therapy to end cocaine addiction. When ingested, salvia is thought to make contact with the parts of the brain affected by morphine and heroin. However, salvia produces effects more commonly associated with LSD.

Prisinzano, who received his Ph.D. from MCV, said making salvia a Schedule I substance would increase the difficulty for salvia researchers in Virginia to conduct human trials.

"From a research perspective, it (new law) is certainly going to be more paperwork," Prisinzano said.

O'Bannon acknowledged the research potential of salvia but said his bill would not inhibit research.

Staff members of the Board of Pharmacy assisted O'Bannon with his research on salvia, but Executive Director Elizabeth "Scotti" Russell said the board has not taken a specific position on the legislation.

"This will be a law-enforcement issue," Russell stated in an e-mail. "Not a Board-of-Pharmacy issue."