Article: The Chicago Tribune: New Year, New Laws

Clock ticking on sale of herb

The Chicago Tribune recently published this article about Illinois State’s proposed rescheduling of Salvia Divinorum as an illegal drug.

In ’08, [Illinois] will add type of salvia to list of banned substances

By Robert Mitchum
Published on December 25, 2007
In the Chicago Tribune

Originally appearing here.

Green, leafy and innocuous, salvia divinorum looks like it would be more interesting to a gardener than a police officer.

But the plant’s unique hallucinogenic properties have turned “the sage of the diviners” into a botanical target caught in a crossfire between politicians, spiritualists and scientists over whether it’s a drug that should be banned or an herb that should be freely available for research and personal use.

On Jan. 1, the legality argument will be settled in Illinois, as the state becomes the latest to list salvia divinorum as a Schedule I substance, the strictest level of control.

The classification will effectively ban the plant, which was previously available at tobacco shops, “head shops” and even gas stations. Possession or sale of salvia divinorum will become a felony, with legal consequences as severe as those for heroin or LSD.

State Rep. Dennis Reboletti (R-Elmhurst), who drafted the bill classifying the salvia divinorum as a Schedule I drug, said it was necessary to regulate the drug tightly in Illinois because it has not yet been banned by the federal government.

“We decided to move forward rather than waiting for someone to be killed because of it,” Reboletti said.

Salvia divinorum is a powerful natural hallucinogen initially used in religious ceremonies by Mazatec Indians in the Oaxaca region of Mexico. In the last 30 to 40 years, it has spread to the U.S. and other countries, where it can often be bought over the counter or from Internet sites as leaves or a liquid extract.

The plant’s leaves can be smoked or chewed to very different effects. At higher doses, the drug may produce hallucinations and other sensory distortions, though the duration of its effects — about 20 minutes — is much shorter than usually observed for synthetic psychedelic drugs such as LSD.

Reboletti said it was dangerous for such a powerful drug to be so freely available in Illinois, able to be bought by teens and college students.

“It’s very likely that you could hurt yourself or hurt others while in this drug-induced state,” he said.

Others say that banning the plant and its derivatives is too harsh, given its potential for spiritual and medical use. Advocates say salvia divinorum has erroneously earned a reputation as a recreational drug thanks to Internet videos and sensationalistic reports.

Crystal Basler, owner of The Country Goddess, a religious-supplies store in Carbondale, has sold salvia in its leaf or extract form for about a year. She said that until recently, most buyers of the herb were middle-age professionals rather than thrill-seeking teenagers.

“Some people describe [the effect] as they get very relaxed, kind of like taking an anti-stress pill,” Basler said. “The leaf is very, very mild. There’s no reason to ever make the leaf illegal. A lot of women buy it for PMS depression.”

Basler said she explains to her customers that salvia is for spiritual or medicinal use, rather than recreational use, occasionally to the point of making them watch a British documentary on the drug before she sells them the product.

“I’m a big fan of [salvia] being regulated,” Basler said. “But it shouldn’t be illegal because you’re interfering with people’s right to choose in terms of their health care and religious following.”

Rick Doblin, director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, agrees that salvia divinorum produces an experience that’s more introspective than thrilling in nature.

“Only a small percentage of people actually buy it more than once,” Doblin said. “It’s not fun in the way people normally seek out drugs.”

Doblin, who himself has tried chewing the plant’s leaves, described the experience as “introspective, curious, weird.”

“I really felt like there was this closeness developed between the stars, the trees and us,” Doblin described. “It seemed like the stars were both light-years away and right there between the leaves of the tree.”

Doblin said salvia divinorum is unique among hallucinogens in how it targets the brain, which could make the plant, or its derivative chemicals, useful for treating medical conditions such as depression.

He said that although he wasn’t aware of any clinical studies on salvia in process, restrictions could make future research on the drug “much more difficult.”

Reboletti said no local scientists or doctors contacted him when the bill was being considered by the state legislature but added that he would not obstruct the use of salvia for research purposes.

“If the University of Illinois were to come to me … we could definitely amend the bill if that were the case,” he said. “If they wanted to possess it for research purposes, I wouldn’t have an issue with that.”

As for personal use of salvia, the ticking clock of legal sales has made the herb and its extract a hot item for retailers such as The Highway, a tobacco store in Chicago.

“People are stocking up because of the ban,” said Sebastian Pogorzelski, co-owner of the store. “They’re saying, ‘Wow, that’s crazy, I’m going to come in and buy some more.'”

But Pogorzelski said he thinks salvia’s popularity will wilt once the ban goes into effect.

“I doubt anyone’s going to go out to another state or anything just to purchase it,” he said.