Column: Salvia Isn't Close To The New Marijuana

This story was written by Tucker Wincele, The Daily Aztec

Looking to get high? If lawmakers around the country have their way, it's going to get a lot harder.

A new obsession over the legal status of salvia divinorum, a hallucinogenic plant grown in Oaxaca, Mexico, has some considering expanding the War on Drugs to fight the distribution and consumption of the plant. States across the United States as well as a handful of European nations, have enacted laws regulating and even banning the substance, with the Drug Enforcement Administration actively pushing to have it outlawed at the federal level.

Without the slightest bit of research or evidence, the DEA has compared salvia to other hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD and Ketamine and has branded it the new marijuana.

With salvia freely sold in most all tobacco or paraphernalia shops, which are alive and in full force throughout El Cajon and Pacific Beach, concerned parents and community leaders are lobbying to get salvia classified as a schedule one drug. Yet, for all the clamor, the effects and dangers of salvia have been hugely overblown.

While such dangerous generalizations are easily fed to politicians and parents, combined with the uniquely American affinity to heavily legislate against anything drug related, the public reaction seems entirely predictable. There is actually no conclusive evidence on the effects of this substance, and the difficulties the government has had criminalizing the plant are a testament to the weakness of its case. There have been few, if any, cases of salvia dependence, overdose or links to criminal activity. The same cannot be said with regards to currently legal drugs, such as alcohol and tobacco.

With alcohol responsible for 1,700 U.S. college student deaths per year and tobacco-related deaths standing at five million annually worldwide, the criminalization argument is severely undercut.

The Salvia Divinorum Research and Information Center, one of the premier salvia authorities and comprehensive databanks, explains the fallacy in comparing salvia to any other drug - especially compared to current schedule one drugs such as methamphetamine, cocaine and ecstasy. Possessing these drugs is a felony and will often lead to jail time.

Through 20 years of research on the subject, the research center has concluded that, unlike other hallucinogens that last for hours or even days, the typical salvia high is no longer than a few minutes and the overall effect is sedative. Inflated fears of drug-crazed salvia addicts driving down the freeway or stealing to feed their addiction have no factual basis. Not only has salvia not been proven addictive, but sellers have few repeat customers because most users don't enjoy the experience.

It all boils down to this: Under a campaign of misinformation, the government is trying to ban a non-addictive, scarcely used, naturally occurring plant that most people don't find enjoyable. In case you missed the news, the government can't even pay for students to go to school. How responsible is it for the already financially overstretched federal and state government to expand its role and budget? In a time when our prisons are filled to capacity, do we need to incarcerate non-violent drug users? I think not.

The best solution is a compromise between a total ban and completely unrestricted access. A cursory search of YouTube has dozens of user-uploaded experiences with the drug, many with hundreds of thousands of views. The glorification and ease of access by younger kids to the plant is a focal point in parents' battle to protect their children. Legislation that restricts purchasing and possessing salvia by minors would be a positive step. For proponents of the drug, making a concession to their opponents and reframing the arguent as an issue of personal liberty would be a prudent strategic move. And the outcry of parents against salvia would be greatly muted if they saw legislative action to protect their interest - their kids.

The lack of conclusive evidence on the dangers of salvia, the low user rate and the lack of funding to prosecute salvia users points to a public policy of restriction and discouragement, not of prosecution.

Just watch those YouTube videos - I guarantee you won't try it after that.