Lawmaker takes lead in banning Salvia divinorum

February 3, 2008

Salvia divinorum, a species of sage, isn’t banned under the federal Controlled Substances Act, but more than a half dozen states have made the drug illegal through state law. At least 12 more states, including Alaska, are debating whether to do so.

Sen. Gene Therriault, R-North Pole, has been leading the charge here. Therriault said the drug’s effects, which are similar to LSD’s, are too powerful, dangerous and unpredictable to leave it unrestricted. “What I’m trying to do here is be proactive instead of reactive to the newest drug on the scene,” he said.

Users often experience effects typical of hallucinogens, including visual distortions, hallucinations, inability to speak, uncontrollable laughter and out of body sensations, according to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. Unlike LSD, however, Salvia’s effects generally last only about a half hour.

Salvia, which is listed on a DEA “drugs and chemicals of concern” list, is cheap and easy to find online, and at least a handful of tobacco stores and head shops sell it in Alaska.

Reports of problems stemming from the plant’s use are rare to nonexistent in Alaska, said Lt. Andy Greenstreet, deputy commander of the Alaska Bureau of Alcohol and Drug Enforcement. “It’s popped up down south, but it hasn’t been much of an issue here yet,” Greenstreet said. “It’s probably just a matter of time.” Its use while driving is of particular concern, he said, but driving under the influence laws already encompass all drugs.

Senate Bill 38, introduced last January, remains in the Finance Committee. Therriault said he hopes it will be addressed this session. Last session, a similar bill never made it to the Senate floor.

The bill didn’t progress last time because it got buried behind higher-priority bills that needed to be heard in Finance, said Miles Baker, legislative assistant to Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, who co-chairs the committee. The bill has not yet been scheduled for a hearing this year, but Therriault said there has been little vocal opposition.

If passed, the bill would list Salvia divinorum and Salvinorin A, the psychotropic chemical in the plant, as Schedule IIA controlled substances under state law — the same category as LSD, mescaline, peyote and psilocybin, the active chemical in hallucinogenic mushrooms.

One problem facing lawmakers is that the drug is undetectable in humans, an issue that’s being addressed at the state crime lab, where analyst Jack Hurd is studying the drug and working to develop a test for it.

“We’re in the initial stage, here in Alaska, researching it,” Hurd said. “If you’re going to say this is against the law, you’ve got to make sure the active ingredient isn’t in other (plant) species.”

There are some indications that Salvia could have legitimate medical applications, and Therriault’s bill allows for an exemption for prescriptions, said Dave Stancliff, a legislative aide to Therriault.

“The jury’s still out because there’s not been a lot of study,” he said. “But whenever there’s uncertainty with a substance of this potency, there’s a need to prevent injuries.”

The major issue with the drug is its potency and unpredictable nature — having a bad trip is fairly common, Stancliff said. The DEA reports adverse physical effects include lack of coordination, dizziness and slurred speech.

But some relatively minor side effects should not mean the drug needs to be outlawed, said Jack Degenstein, with the Alaska Libertarian Party. Degenstein opposed Therriault’s bill in a Senate hearing last year. “This is absolutely not a public safety risk,” he said in an interview this week. “It is the most powerful natural psychedelic, but just because it’s powerful doesn’t mean it’s dangerous.” Many people are turned off by Salvia the first time they try it because of its potency and the uncomfortable feelings they get, he said.

The drug has been linked to at least one death. According to news reports, a 17-year-old Delaware boy killed himself in 2006 after reportedly smoking the drug several times over a period of months, saying in a suicide note that the experience had convinced him life was pointless. A medical examiner eventually ruled Salvia use was a contributing factor to his death. The coroner didn’t make that connection until well after the boy’s death, however, Degenstein said. “That was actually quite a controversy because about a year after the fact the coroner changed his death certificate,” he said.

For Degenstein and other opponents of the bill, the question is one of personal freedom and what consenting adults should be allowed to do in their own homes.

Although he doesn’t advocate drug use, Jason Dowell, chairman of the Alaska Libertarian Party, said people should have the freedom to choose, especially when the choice is about a plant that has had traditional medicinal uses in Mexico. “It’s ridiculous that they would try to make plants illegal,” Dowell said. “It’s just a recipe for disaster. They’re going to send innocent people to prison and invade their privacy.”