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."

Salvia divinorum.
Salvia divinorum

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.

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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.

Mentions of Salvia divinorum in Nexis.

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.)

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.

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."

******

Whatever happened to robotripping? Send your personal accounts to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word Salvia in the subject head of an e-mail message and send it to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

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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