O.c. Votes To Ban The Herb Salvia

City Council Outlaws Sale Or Possession Of Hallucinogen

August 04, 2009|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,michael.dresser@baltsun.com

The Ocean City Council voted overwhelmingly Monday night to approve an emergency proposal to weed out 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 threw their support behind the move to make possession and sale of the hallucinogenic substance a misdemeanor with a possible penalty of six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. The final vote was 6 to 1 in favor of the ban, which takes effect immediately.

"They have to have everything off the shelf by opening tomorrow [Tuesday]," said Council President Joe Mitrecic.

Supporters said the ban is a matter of protecting the public - pointing to incidents of bizarre behavior by people using the substance. Some, including police Chief Bernadette Di Pino, pointed 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.

Mitrecic supported passage of the legislation as an emergency measure - making it effective as soon as it is signed by the mayor.

"We perceive it to be a public safety issue, after watching the videos on YouTube and all. And it's prudent for the town ... to take action against anything that can cause public harm." He said he believed Worcester County will soon consider similar action to ban the substance countywide.

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 under the influence of salvia. In other cases, she said, officers have had to restrain people affected by the substance.

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 about a dozen states - including Delaware and Virginia - 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 passed the House but died in the Senate.

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.

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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