Pubdate: Mon, 03 Aug 2009
Source: Baltimore Sun (MD)
Copyright: 2009 The Baltimore Sun Company
Author: Michael Dresser
Bookmark: (Hallucinogens)


City Council Moves To Ban Legal Hallucinogenic Herb

In most of Maryland, salvia is a spiky, colorful plant  that looks 
good in flower beds and attracts  hummingbirds. In Ocean City, salvia 
is better known as  a legal hallucinogenic herb you can buy over the 
counter and share with friends.

But resort officials, alarmed by an increase in the  herb's 
popularity, are preparing to weed it out.

The Ocean City Council will vote Monday night on an  emergency 
proposal to ban products made from salvia  divinorum, a relative of 
herbal sage and common garden  plants that is now sold openly at many 
shops along the  Boardwalk.

The police and a majority of the council members are  backing a move 
to make possession and sale of the  substance a misdemeanor with a 
possible penalty of six  months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

"By Monday night, it will be illegal in Ocean City,"  said police 
Chief Bernadette Di Pino, warning visitors  from Baltimore not to 
bring salvia, which can be  acquired legally in Maryland and a host 
of other  states, to the beach town.

Supporters say the ban is a matter of protecting the  public - 
pointing to incidents of bizarre behavior by  people using the 
substance. Some, including Di Pino,  point to the proliferation of 
videos on YouTube showing  young people under the influence of salvia.

But critics call the move a rush to judgment that could  have 
unintended consequences more harmful than salvia  by criminalizing a 
substance that's not addictive.

Joe Mitrecic, president of the Ocean City Council, said  he supports 
passage of the legislation as an emergency  measure - making it 
effective as soon as it is signed  by the mayor.

"I believe the council feels this is a public safety  issue, and we 
want to do something about it before next  year," he said.

Councilman Doug Cymek said use of salvia has led to  violent 
outbursts on the Boardwalk, where he said as  many as 18 stores sell 
the product.

"We've had some incidents in Ocean City that have not  been good," Cymek said.

Di Pino said the incidents include one in which a woman  was yelling 
that she had been raped but turned out when  officers responded to be 
actually under the influence  of salvia. In other cases, she said, 
officers have had  to restrain people affected by the substance.

"It's like they hallucinate and see things," Di Pino said.

But a Johns Hopkins professor who is familiar with  salvia said that 
while it is indisputably an  hallucinogen, it is neither addictive 
nor physically  harmful. If anything, he said, users often try it 
once and never want to repeat the experience.

"This isn't the next cocaine or next methamphetamine,"  said Matthew 
W. Johnson, assistant professor of  psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins 
University School of  Medicine.

The substance in the cross hairs is a derivative of a  plant that is 
native to the Mexican state of Oaxaca,  where the Mazatec Indians use 
it for medicinal purposes  and to produce mystical experiences. It 
can be chewed  or smoked to induce dramatic but 
short-lived  psychedelic trips that Johnson called similar to 
those  caused by peyote or hallucinogenic mushrooms.

"It's an intense drug that definitely puts someone in  an altered 
reality," he said.

But Johnson said salvia use has not led to any  perceptible increase 
in emergency room visits - perhaps  because its effects typically 
wear off within 15  minutes.

Salvia is not a controlled substance under federal law,  but a dozen 
states - including Delaware and Virginia -  and about 10 other 
countries have banned its possession  or sale.

Spurred by concerns from Ocean City, Eastern Shore  lawmakers 
introduced legislation during this year's  General Assembly session 
to classify salvia as a  Schedule 1 drug --the same category as 
heroin. The  measure never made it out of committee.

Among the opponents were Johnson and a Hopkins colleague who argued 
that such a classification could have a chilling effect on research 
into salvia's potential usefulness as a treatment for such disorders 
as Alzheimer's disease and dementia.

Di Pino said that after the legislature declined to act, Ocean City 
received an opinion from the Attorney General's Office saying the 
municipality had the authority to enact a ban of its own. She said 
she hopes other jurisdictions in Maryland, as well as the 
legislature, will follow Ocean City's lead.

But Johnson said that while there is ample evidence in favor of 
barring the sale of salvia to minors, a law making possession by 
adults illegal with a jail term could harm those it is intended to protect.

"They have a permanent mark on their record and it affects the rest 
of their lives," he said. "That would be an over-reaction."

But Mitrecic, the council president, said city officials are 
determined to move forward with the measure even though there has 
been no public hearing on the issue. He said the council will take a 
preliminary vote Monday night, then allow members of the public to 
speak. After that, he said, members would decide whether to make the 
ban official right away or defer a final decision for two weeks.

Mayor Rick Meehan said he's prepared to sign the emergency measure immediately.

"Why would we wait another two weeks if we think it's a problem?" he said.

About salvia

Scientific name: Salvia divinorum

Aliases: Ska Pastora, Diviner's Mint, Sally-D, Lady Salvia

Place of origin: Oaxaca, Mexico

Effects: Motor impairment, altered senses, hallucinations, 
"out-of-body" experiences.

Federal status: Legal

State status: Legal in most states, including Maryland; banned for 
human consumption in 14.
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