Salvia’s banned, but now the tough part

May 6, 2006

Most Del. police officers unfamiliar with hallucinogenic plant


The News Journal 05/06/2006

A bill that outlaws a widely available hallucinogenic herb breezed through the Delaware General Assembly last month and became law this week. That was the easy part. Now, police agencies face the more difficult task of enforcing the ban on salvia divinorum. The plant is legal in 47 states and can be purchased with just a credit card on hundreds of Internet sites. Plus, it is largely unknown, and unrecognizable, to local police and health officials.

"We’re taking it to our investigators now to educate them on what the leaves look like and such," said Capt. Chip Simpson, commander of the Delaware State Police special investigations section. New Castle County police are assembling pictures of salvia and information about it so officers can handle it properly if they do come across it, Cpl. Claudine Malone said.

Legislators made salvia divinorum a Schedule I controlled substance, putting it in the same category as heroin and LSD. Gov. Ruth Ann Minner signed the bill Tuesday night. The measure is called Brett’s Law, after Brett Chidester, a 17-year-old Salesianum School senior who killed himself in January. Chidester wrote in his suicide note and other essays that salvia had made him see that life was pointless.

On Tuesday, Dr. Adrienne Sekula-Perlman, deputy chief medical examiner in Delaware, revised Chidester’s death certificate to add "salvia divinorum use" as a contributing cause of his death. The immediate cause remains carbon-monoxide poisoning, which happened when Chidester enclosed himself in a tent and lit a charcoal grill. Sekula-Perlman would not comment on her decision.

The connection between salvia and Chidester’s suicide has been the subject of national media attention, including reports by USA Today, CNN and National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. Chidester’s parents, Dennis and Kathy Chidester, said journalists from across the country have called them, asking them to retell their story.

The attention has prompted other states to consider banning salvia, too. Dave Stancliff, a legislative assistant to Alaska state Sen. Gene Therriault, said he read about Chidester’s death on the Internet and began looking into salvia. "After many, many, many hours of research on Web sites, [Therriault] came to the conclusion that this is a substance we should try to work ahead of," Stancliff said. Salvia is already for sale in smoke shops in Anchorage and Fairbanks, Stancliff said, and the Internet makes it even more accessible. "The click of a mouse, and you can have this sent to you, no matter what age you are," he said.

Therriault’s bill would put salvia in the same category as other hallucinogens, including LSD, mescaline and peyote. It has not passed the state Senate yet, but Stancliff said he expects little opposition. "It would send a message to suppliers that we’re not in the salvia business here in Alaska," Stancliff said.

Only Missouri and Louisiana have banned salvia, and some online salvia suppliers say they will not ship to addresses in those states. Others say they’ll ship salvia anywhere. "Part of [the law’s goal] is education, so people know what it is and what the effects are," Stancliff said. "The second part is that law-abiding places find other places to ship."

New Jersey legislators also are considering outlawing salvia in the wake of Chidester’s suicide. Three state Assembly members said last month they would sponsor a bill to ban possession and use of salvia. Other states, including New York, Illinois and Tennessee, have been considering salvia bans since before Chidester’s suicide.

For all the attention salvia is getting, though, it still is not widely known outside small pockets of users. Since Missouri outlawed salvia last year, it has not shown up in drug prosecutions handled by the state Attorney General’s Office, spokesman John Fougere said. "We haven’t seen anything in our office about enforcing this law," he said.

Simpson, the Delaware State Police commander, said he considers the new state law a tool that police can use to crack down on overall drug abuse, even if salvia rarely is encountered. "If we do run into it, it’s another hammer we can put on people," Simpson said.