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Drugs

Don't Give Salvia the Reefer Madness Treatment

Move over marijuana. There's a new media sensation.

Move over marijuana. There's a new media sensation.

You've probably heard about it by now. Once known only to a remote tribe of native Mexicans, salvia divinorum is a psychoactive plant that has made its way on to the Internet and into the minds of panicked lawmakers in state legislatures across the country that have moved to ban its possession. In some ways, the whirlwind of worry that has greeted the recent emergence of salvia is similar to the sweeping prohibition of marijuana in the 1930s.

Just as was the case with marijuana, the federal government has opted not to regulate the sale and distribution of salvia divinorum. Without proper age and place restrictions on its sale, salvia became easily accessible to minors on the Internet. In turn, young adults posted videos that demonstrated the psychoactive qualities of salvia on YouTube and other popular websites. Then the media caught wind of the YouTube videos, which got the attention of state legislators. Today, twelve states have banned salvia's possession. And many more are looking to ban the drug this year.

If history can teach us a lesson about what is effective in terms of regulating drug use and limiting access of a drug to minors, our country's fruitless attempt to suppress marijuana consumption is key to understanding why banning salvia outright is the wrong approach to take. Before the 1930s, the sale and distribution of marijuana was legal in most states. Marijuana prohibition took off thanks in large part to media hysteria. State legislators took cues from the media that marijuana's psychoactive abilities caused users to transform into violent and deranged zombies. Southern states began banning marijuana because they feared that the impoverished and oppressed would rise up under its spell and spoil things for those who maintained a tight grip on society.

Decades later, marijuana is no less available to young people than it was when it was first banned by the federal government in 1937. Neither the federal or state governments have yet to bring the illegal marijuana trade under control by seeking to restrict the sale of marijuana to adults and regulate the time, place and manner of sale. Young adults continue to report that it is much easier to buy marijuana than it is to obtain alcohol or cigarettes.

Outright prohibition of salvia divinorum would waste an opportunity to get formal control over the sale and consumption of the drug. Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania and nine other states are currently weighing whether to ban salvia the same way that it is a crime to possess or sell marijuana. Banning salvia would force the visible market to seek shelter in the shadows, making it impossible for the state to achieve its goal of controlling the drug. Furthermore, criminalizing salvia would further strain police resources and the prosecution of salvia law offenders would burn through scarce tax dollars. Researchers also warn than state bans on the drug would hinder ongoing medical research into potential therapeutic benefits of salvia.

The alternative to banning salvia is effective regulation and control of the drug. Such an approach would criminalize salvia sales to minors, and formally regulate and tax adult sales. Regulating salvia not only keeps the market visible, but also generates sorely needed tax revenue. California and Maine have wisely adopted this approach; legislators in Texas andHawaii are considering similar proposals.

Regulating salvia divinorum is the best way to keep the drug out of the hands of children. To be sure, salvia use by minors is both inappropriate and a bad idea. While no one has ever died or overdosed from consuming salvia, the drug's ability to alter consciousness and mood does not complement a young person's emotional naiveté, in the same way that society recognizes that minors are often ill equipped to deal responsibly with the mind altering qualities of alcohol. Yet, the notion that adults seek to alter mood and consciousness is well accepted in our society. Whether through booze, earnest meditation, prayerful revelation or diving to the bottom of the pool and catapulting to the surface, adults seek ways to alter consciousness. Salvia divinorum offers adults another route towards achieving this goal.

We can’t ignore mistakes made in our nation’s past. When lawmakers unleashed marijuana prohibition on the nation in the 1930s, seven decades of a disastrous war on drugs followed. Salvia divinorum may be the new drug on the scene, but that doesn’t mean that lawmakers have no other option but to give salvia divinorum the reefer madness treatment. Keeping salvia legal for adults like alcohol is the smart approach. Don't rush to incarcerate more Americans, and let's refrain from duplicating our disastrous marijuana policy.

Grant Smith is a legislative associate at the Drug Policy Alliance (www.drugpolicy.org)
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