Salvia Divinorum Hysteria
The press helps fuel the next "drug menace."
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 Wireabout 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 sound 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 vegetable.
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.)