A bill that would outlaw the psychoactive herb Salvia divinorum has passed the state Senate, prompting consumers to rush to buy it legally.
Senate Bill 138, sponsored by Sen. Bill Purcell, D-Laurinburg, would prohibit the "manufacture, sale, delivery, or possession" of Salvia divinorum. The law calls for a fine for the first two offenses and misdemeanor charges for subsequent offenses. Purcell stressed that North Carolina's law would not be as strict as those of 13 states, which made Salvia divinorum a drug on par with heroin.
"We're not out to terrorize people and put people in jail," Senator Purcell said, "but we do want to make a statement that the state does care about this."
The Senate passed the bill May 14; the House health committee approved it last week and forwarded it to the Judiciary III committee. If passed by the House and signed by the governor, the law would become effective Dec. 1.
Also known as "sage of the seers," Salvia divinorum is a psychoactive species of mint native to Mexico. The Mazatec people mix the herb into a tea for use in healing rituals, because of its hallucinogenic and presumed spiritual properties.
Today, the plant is chewed or smoked, leaving the user in an altered mental state, usually for less than an hour. Its principal agent, Salvinorin A, is the most potent naturally forming halluncinagic compound. However, it does not have high toxicity levels, and large amounts of the drug aren't thought to cause complications, like organ damage. There is no proof that the drug is addictive.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found in a 2006 poll that about 1.8 million people had used Salvia divinorum in the United States, compared to 25 million marijuana users.
Travis Porter, a sales clerk and manager at Expressions, which sells Salvia and other tobacco accessories, said there has been increased demand for the plant since the bill was introduced. He disagrees with the assertion that Salvia is too dangerous to be legal.
"I think it could be dangerous in the wrong hands, but stupid people always do stupid things," he said. "As for habit-forming? Definitely not."
Ingestion of the herb can result in psychedelic reactions, such as uncontrollable laughter and intense hallucinations. These effects do not usually remain for long, and the drug is not thought to cause major long-term side effects. National consciousness of the drug's effects has been raised in recent years because of YouTube videos showing teens under the influence of the drug.
While Purcell acknowledged the law may be difficult to enforce ("as is any drug law," he pointed out), he said making the herb illegal will curtail its use. He compared the Salvia bill to a law about bicycle helmet use, which is also difficult to enforce but has led to a higher number of helmet users.
"A lot of people might not go by this law," he said, "but at the same time, a lot of people, just because it's a law, will go by it."
Non-divinorum species of Salvia are commonly used in landscaping and gardening and would not be outlawed by this bill.
Purcell said the bill would give the government time to research Salvia divinorum and ensure it is not dangerous. He added the lack of public information on the drug is troubling. The Drug Enforcement Administration has listed Salvia as a "drug of concern."
"I think whenever there's any medication or drug that gives you hallucinations, we need to say, 'Wait a minute, we need to take a look at that,'" Purcell said.
David Brannon, a Raleigh lawyer, said the bill's purpose was political, since outlawing drugs is a safe bet for legislators. He pointed to the nonaddictive qualities of the drug and the fact that most people use Salvia only once. He said most Salvia users also smoke marijuana, and find the experience to be dramatically different, in a negative way.
"It's just making another thing illegal that shouldn't be illegal," Brannon said. "The self-correcting mechanism is already there."