Press coverage of Salvia divinorum helps fuel the next "drug menace."

Media criticism.
May 6 2008 7:11 PM

Salvia Divinorum Hysteria

The press helps fuel the next "drug menace."

(Continued from Page 1)

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.

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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. Brecherand 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 practice.

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."

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Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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