State lawmaker tries to ban Salvia...
There's something vaguely unsettling about the myriad YouTube clips of people tripping on Salvia divinorum.
Watching a young kid's eyes glaze over after just one bong rip and seeing his friends stand off to the sides pointing cell-phone cameras in his face, cackling like mad hyenas as their tripping comrade grasps haplessly at phantoms in front of his face while mumbling indecipherable, monosyllabic inquiries—you can't help but wonder: How can this stuff be legal?
After seeing a few of these clips, state Rep. Joe Atkins (DFL-South St. Paul) introduced House Bill 2949, which would make the increasingly popular hallucinogenic plant a Schedule IV controlled substance, thereby making its possession and sale felonies.
"It's becoming a drug of choice for college kids on campus, because it's legal and readily available," says Atkins, who first became aware of Salvia—a.k.a. "Diviner's Sage" or "Sage of the Seers"—after seeing an ABC News segment about the plant. "They figure, 'Hey, it's legal, so it can't be that bad.'"
Having passed through the Public Safety and Civil Justice committee, the bill is now in legislative limbo as part of a financial bill, and would need to pass before the legislative session ends in late May to stay alive. With the state budget almost $1 billion in the red and the bill requiring funding for enforcement, Atkins admits passage is a bit of a long shot. Should it succeed, Minnesota would join eight other states in criminalizing Salvia.
Sometimes chewed, but most often smoked, the Mexican-cultivated plant has been used by Mezatec shamans in religious ceremonies for centuries. The plant's trip, which begins within seconds of being smoked and usually lasts between 5 and 45 minutes, varies from person to person, but the most commonly reported sensations include "merging" with inanimate objects, uncontrollable fits of laughter, and the notion that both space and time are illusionary constructs. More on that later.
While politicians and media reports have played up the Salvia-as-social-menace angle (a Delaware teen's suicide in 2006 was blamed on the plant and inspired much outcry), hard science offers a more nuanced take on the maligned mint. In 2002, researchers at the University of Berkeley questioned 500 Salvia users about the long-term effects they had experienced. Forty-seven percent reported increased insight, 44.8 percent reported an improved mood, and 21.6 percent reported increased self-confidence. The following year, researchers at the University of Nebraska-Kearney injected rats and mice with salvinorin A, the psychoactive chemical in Salvia, and examined the physiological effects. They found that the drug had produced "no histological changes," which is esoteric parlance for "no tissue damage." This led them to conclude that "the toxicity of salvinorin A is relatively low, even at doses many times that of what humans are exposed to."
Hoping to bolster my own understanding of this mysterious sage (and sheepishly welcoming the opportunity to write "psychedelics" on an expense account), I decided to give Salvia a try while it's still legal. I walked into a downtown St. Paul head shop—just one of at least two shops in the Twin Cities that hawk Salvia—and made a beeline to the "tobacco room," which is to say the "bong room." The "tobacco use only" signs seemed to be winking flirtatiously at the browsing patrons.
I asked a pony-tailed clerk with a dark, wispy goatee if they sold Salvia. He led me to the back of the room, took his position behind a glass counter containing a colorful bouquet of assorted pipes and bubblers, and motioned to a line of boxes along the wall. Each box was marked to delineate differing potencies: 5x, 10x, etc., all the way up to 30x. I opted for 15x, figuring it would be a happy medium. The clerk reached inside and grabbed a small, one-ounce package of "Purple Sticky Salvia," priced at $59.99, and rang it up at an adjacent cash register.
"So which piece do you recommend to smoke this stuff?" I asked, peering through the glass counter.
"Actually, we recommend that this be used as incense," he said.
I patiently awaited the punch line. When it became apparent he was serious, I rephrased the question to the effect of how other people—not necessarily me or anyone he knows—usually go about smoking it. With that, he took out a small "tobacco" pipe valued at $29.99.
I gathered my paraphernalia and took off. Once home, I opened the packet of Salvia and poured some out on a coffee table. The stuff was a fine, dry mix of black and dark green leaves that had a lush, almost piney odor, like rain-soaked woodchips. I hovered over the table and anxiously loaded a bowl.
Lighter in one hand, packed pipe in the other, I sat back in my easy chair and raised both to my lips. The lighter's flame kissed the bowl and the entire contents burst aglow as I inhaled deeply. The smoke was harsh and tasted like a cross between a rotten cantaloupe and a dusty attic.
I leaned forward to discard the cashed pipe on a coffee table, holding my breath to keep my lungs full of the festering smoke (one hit is all you need to feel the full effects, provided you hold it in for 20 to 30 seconds). I leaned back in my easy chair counting off the seconds.
Fifteen. Sixteen. Seventeen.
Somewhere around 20, it happened. I felt my id and ego dissolve into the space around me and, along with them, my sense of self. Frightened, I sank into the chair and tried to process what was happening. Problem was, "I"—whatever that meant—had ceased to be. The pronoun suddenly seemed like an unnecessary device, a hapless attempt to divide one into many, an act every bit as deft and resourceful as taking a .45 magnum to a horsefly. I was overcome with the sensation that space was two-dimensional, that all existence was a blanket blowing idly in the wind, and we were all a part of it, our consciousnesses the stitching holding it together.
I was the chair. The chair was me. Just as there was no "I," there was no "other."
Mind you, these sensations were not as literal as these descriptions might imply; translating hallucinogenic abstractions into the written word simultaneously downplays and sensationalizes the experience. How to go about contextualizing something so incomprehensible, so divorced from concrete reference points? You'd have better luck filming a nightmare. Or photographing a dream.
After 10 minutes, normalcy mercifully returned. I felt dizzy and lightheaded for the remainder of the hour. Afterward, just a bit tired. Other than that, I could detect no hangover effects, either positive or negative. The experience was not pleasurable, and reinforced my understanding that Salvia is not a "party drug." This is a substance for psychonauts and the spiritually curious, similar in that regard to psilocybin mushrooms. It's preposterous to think Salvia might ever catch on to the same extent as marijuana or alcohol, irrespective of its legality.
The next day, I called Representative Atkins and asked him if he cared to join me in researching his pet issue more thoroughly. After all, I had plenty of leftovers, and he'd be able to brandish his position with more credibility were he to experience the "drug" firsthand.
"I'm holding a pipe and a baggie of Salvia in my left hand as we speak," I said.
"Frankly, it's not something that I have a considerable amount of time to do," he gamely replied. "Even if I wanted to."
"What if only I smoked it?" I asked. "Would you at least want to observe the effects?"
"Not particularly," he said.
Ultimately, it's this fundamental disconnect that accounts for the misunderstanding surrounding Salvia. As has been the case with other mind-expanding substances, the inability and unwillingness to differentiate between "psychedelically potent" and "socially dangerous" has spawned quixotic efforts to dispose of a natural plant via government prohibition. Maybe this time reason will triumph over fear.
But don't hold your breath.
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