What's So Scary About Salvia?

What's So Scary About Salvia? - Page 4

By Tony O'Neill 05/16/11

Scientists say that Miley Cyrus's favorite herb is not only safe, but also shows promise as a treatment for a wide array of brain disorders, including addiction. So why are lawmakers racing to ban it?

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

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That salvia is safe when used correctly should surprise no one—its original cultivators, the Mazatec Indians, have used it for centuries, claiming beneficial effects. An alternative to criminalizing salvia would be to promote education about how to use the drug in a safe, controlled manner. After all, here is a drug that challenges all of the usual reasons that the authorities cite when banning a substance. It has no ill effects to the body. It is short acting and non-addictive. Its unique mechanism of action may lead researchers to understanding and treating brain disorders. By making salvia illegal, we are saying, as a society, that the very act of inducing hallucinogenic states should be illegal, regardless of whether the drug used is actually harmful. Think about that for a moment. The law’s aim is not to protect people against danger or injury but rather to prohibit people from exploring their own inner space.

“When it comes to the issue of whether or not to outlaw the drug, which is the big question right now,” Dr. Adi Jaffe says, “I understand that parents and lawmakers want to protect our children. But salvia is not a commonly abused drug. I seriously doubt that more kids use salvia than, for example, sniff glue. But I don’t see anybody trying to make glue illegal.” The high profile of salvia on YouTube and in the media have exaggerated the frequency of the drug’s negative effects—which, in turn, has triggered public alarm that is out of all proportion to the drug’s actual reach.

John Flanagan’s bill recently passed in the New York state Senate. While taking a victory lap, Flanagan reportedly said, “Now that the Senate has passed the bill, I look forward to working with [the state Assembly] to finally protect families and get this substance off our streets.”

But to addiction specialists like Jaffe, the stakes are not so black and white. “The issue is this,” he says. “Adolescents are going to get involved in risky behavior. If we take [salvia] away, they’ll find the next thing. More than a million kids a year are using common inhalants, like household cleaners. The issue is to reduce the panic. I’m a huge proponent of education. Kids are going to do things we don’t like.” In addition, criminalizing the drug will only force it underground, creating a black market that is even less accountable than the current online commercial salvia.

But if we outlaw the sale of salvia, as Flanagan argues, won’t fewer people use it? “Of course,” Jaffe says with the resigned sigh of a man who has spent much of his professional career considering these issues. “The question is, is our goal to reduce kids using salvia, or is our goal to reduce kids using drugs?”

Tony O'Neill is the author of several novels, including Digging the Vein and Down and Out on Murder Mile and Sick City. He is the co-author of the New York Times bestseller Hero of the Underground (with Jason Peter) and the Los Angeles Times bestseller Neon Angel (with Cherie Currie).  He lives in New York with his wife and daughter. O'Neill has written numerous stories for The Fix, including an interview with Jerry Stahl and an argument against abstinence.