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What's So Scary About Salvia?

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Sacred to tribal shaman and teen thrill-seekers alike, salvia is a YouTube obsession. Gawker

By Tony O'Neill

05/16/11

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The rush to judgment has led to a disparity in how salvia is dealt with at the state level. Louisiana was the first state to ban it, and possession can get you up to 10 years in the slammer. At the moment, salvia is also illegal to possess and distribute in Florida, Missouri, Tennessee, Delaware, Illinois, North Dakota, and Minnesota, while it remains legal elsewhere. Plenty of states, including California and Maine, restrict the sale of the herb. The confusion over the status of the drug is no clearer in Delaware, where the plant itself is considered a schedule 1 drug—like cocaine and heroin—while the active ingredient, Salvinorin A, remains legal.

In New York, the Republican state senator John Flanagan has made banning salvia a political crusade. A recent op-ed by Flanagan made dubious claims about the dangers of the herb. “While the long-term effects are still being considered,” Flanagan wrote, “the National Drug Intelligence Center has indicated that they may be similar to those produced by other hallucinogens such as LSD including depression and schizophrenia.”

Yet the admittedly skimpy data on the drug’s long-term effects reveals no such consensus. Indeed, some research indicates that it might be useful in treating depression. A survey by Matthew Baggot published in the June 2004 newsletter of Erowid, a website about psychoactive drugs, found that of 500 salvia users, 25% said that the drug had “antidepressant-like effects” that caused an “improved mood” for up to 24 hours after use, while only 4% reported persistent negative effects (the most common being anxiety).

Banning the drug will disappoint teen thrill seekers, but it may well have other, much more deleterious repercussions. Studies are underway exploring the potential medical applications of the drug—after all, finding a first-in-class molecule that targets only a single brain receptor is a drug developer's jackpot. The fact that salvinorin A is so “clean” makes it especially attractive to researchers interested in developing drugs that treat brain-related disorders. Dr. Thomas Prisinzano, an assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Iowa, has suggested that salvia might be of use in treating stimulant abuse. “You can give a rat free access to cocaine,” he reported, “[and] give them free access to salvinorin A…and they stop taking cocaine.”

Other researchers, including a team at John Hopkins University, have published studies suggesting that salvinorin A may have a therapeutic effects against the symptoms of Alzheimer's, schizophrenia and depression. Classifying salvia as a schedule 1 drug of abuse—one with “no medicinal value”—would drastically slow, or even stop, further research in this field.

“We have this incredible new compound—it absolutely has potential medical use—and we’re talking about throttling it because some people get intoxicated on it,” Dr. John Mendelson, a pharmacologist at the California Pacific Medical Center Research Institute, told The New York Times. Mendelson published results from a 2010 federally financed study of salvia in humans showing that the drug is safe and its effects generally positive. “It couldn’t be more foolish from a business point of view.”

Naomi Long, Washington D.C. office director of the Drug Policy Alliance Network, which promotes drug policies grounded in science, health and human rights, agrees. “Once it’s on a Schedule I list, it will make it nearly impossible to be researched for medicinal purposes,” she says.

Yet, as often occurs in American political life, politicians in state after state persist in ignoring or flat-out contradicting scientific evidence. John Lim, a Republican member of the Oregon state House of Representatives, seemed to be taking a page out of Harry Ainslinger’s playbook when he told the Olympian, “From what I understand, this drug is at least as dangerous as marijuana or LSD." Lim’s spokesman Seth Hatmaker added, "I think it's only a matter of time before we find people addicted to this stuff.” It’s worth noting that Lim’s largest financial contributor in 2006 was the Oregon Beer and Wine Distributor’s Association. There are approximately 25 million alcohol-related deaths worldwide every year, according to the World Health Organization, yet there has been no outcry from Lim on the issue.

An estimated two million Americans have used salvia over the past decade. No deaths directly linked to salvia have been reported. While a smattering of suicides by salvia users have been reported, there’s no way of knowing whether the drug was a trigger. The Drug Abuse Warning Network reported no emergency room visits linked to salvia between 2004 and 2006.

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