Hallucinogenic salvia remains in legal limbo

Salvia herb
Salvia, a hallucinogenic herb that gives users a brief but powerful high remains readily available across Canada two years after the Harper government pledged to make it illegal. Handout

TORONTO – A hallucinogenic herb that gives users a brief but powerful high remains readily available across Canada two years after the Harper government pledged to make it illegal.

At a press conference in Winnipeg on Feb. 21, 2011, Conservative MP Shelly Glover spoke of a “responsibility to help protect our youth” when she announced a commitment to add salvia divinorum to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA).

Glover said the legislative process could take up to two years.

Today, salvia has yet to be added to the list of illegal psychedelic drugs that includes mescaline, GHB and “magic mushrooms.”

Glover was not available to comment on the status of salvia, said spokesperson Rachelle Squires.

Steve Outhouse, director of communications for Minister of Health Leona Aglukkaq, said late Tuesday: “We remain committed to listing salvia as a controlled substance.”

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“Health Canada continues to survey the prevalence of salvia and available information on these substances that have the potential for abuse and harm, especially among young Canadians,” he added.

Salvia is already illegal in a number of countries around the world, including Australia, Germany, Japan and Italy and it is regulated in countries like Norway, Finland and Iceland.

In the U.S., salvia is illegal in at least 20 states.

The proposal to make salvia illegal in Canada was made by Health Canada, which warned little is known about the long-term effects of the hallucinogenic herb.

Health Canada classified salvia divinorum as a natural health product, which means it is regulated under the Food and Drugs Act.

According to spokesman Sean Upton, the sale of products containing salvia divinorum or its main active ingredient “may be subject to enforcement action by Health Canada.”

So why is salvia so easy to buy online and at stores across the country?

It’s sold – with a wink – as incense.

A disclaimer on Nevada-based reads: “All of our products are for incense purposes only. Our products are NOT for human consumption.”

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The website for Bogart’s Pipes and Papers in Edmonton lists salvia among the “herbal incense products” it offers.

A similar caveat appears on the website of Toronto’s Sacred Seed, which sells salvia. “All of our products are intended and sold for legal and safe use only, of course.”

No matter how it’s marketed, police can do nothing. Sgt. Julie Gagnon of the RCMP said only that salvia “is not a regulated substance.”

The Botanical Spirit Shop, based in Surrey, B.C., sells salvia
online for between $7 and $50 per gram, depending on the potency. “We
craft a precise concentration level with our well-respected ‘Mexican Sweet
Leaf’ and then enhance it with Salvinorin-A crystalline, to complete this clean
and pure product,” reads a description on the company’s website.

At Roach-O-Rama in Toronto’s Kensington Market, there is a small sign posted behind the counter advertising salvia prices. No one at the store would comment.

An employee at Vancouver Seed Bank, who declined to give his name, said salvia is not a big seller for the store. Customers who do purchase it are warned about its effects.

“It’s pretty intense stuff,” he said.

A manager at the Toronto Hemp Company, who identified himself only as Zack, said his store stopped selling salvia because of complaints from parents. Still, the company’s website gives detailed instructions on how to use salvia.

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“Because Salvia alters perception and behavior, it should never be used in public. Doing so could draw unnecessary attention to oneself,” it reads. “If one is not accustomed to it, or is taking a potent extract or preparation, one should make sure that a sober ‘sitter’ is there to prevent harm to oneself or one’s environment.”

An ad posted on classified site Kijiji by someone in Ontario reads: “I am offering salvia divinorum [for] $5 if you buy four or more plants. Otherwise it is $10 a plant. Plants are roughly 4-10 inches. First come first serve.”

Richter’s Herbs in Goodwood, Ont., sells salvia and its owner calls the government’s plan to criminalize it “a textbook example of overreaction.”

Conrad Richter added: “The vast majority of our salvia divinorum customers are not ordering the plant for personal psychoactive use.”

The BC Civil Liberties Association has opposed the criminalization of salvia, too, claiming there is insufficient evidence the herb is harmful.

In its 2011 submission to Health Canada, the association wrote: “We note that many of the physical and mental effects of this product that are cited on the Health Canada website – including ‘slurred speech and awkward sentence structure’, ‘lack of physical coordination’ and ‘uncontrollable laughter’ – beg a comparison with the effects of alcohol, which is a legal but regulated product.”

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The grassroots organization Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy (CSSDP) urged the government to abandon plans to add salvia to the CDSA.

“Criminalizing the use and possession of salvia divinorum and salvinorin
A will drive use further underground, which creates a barrier between
young people and potential support systems offering positive help,” the CSSDP suggested in its submission to Health Canada. “The
threat of being charged for drug use has prevented young people from
calling for help if something goes wrong while using.”

Hundreds of videos appear on YouTube showing people reacting to the high that comes from salvia, including laughing, moaning and screaming, writhing on the floor, and damaging property.

Calgary resident Trevor Hall says there are just as many videos showing people reacting badly to alcohol. He tried salvia four years ago with a friend in St. Catharines, Ont. and doesn’t understand why it’s on the government’s radar.

“It’s a short period of pure joy for the person who smokes it,” Hall, 23, recalled. “It did not do much for me. It was a different story for my friend, who could not stop laughing for most of the high. After 10-20 minutes the high was gone.”

Singer-actress Miley Cyrus made the hallucinogenic herb famous when a video showing her inhaling salvia appeared online in December 2010.

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Salvia has also made headlines in recent years for other reasons.

In 2011, Ryan Santanna died after leaping from a 15th floor balcony in New York. The 21-year-old reportedly laughed, made animal noises and jumped from the balcony after smoking salvia.

In 2006, a 17-year-old boy in Delaware asphyxiated himself in his family’s garage after repeated use of salvia. Brett Chidester’s death resulted in salvia becoming illegal in the state.

Christopher Watcheston, convicted of raping and killing a woman on Calgary’s C-Train in 2008, claimed he was under the influence of salvia at the time and did not know what he was doing.

And Cassie Walde of Burnaby, B.C. was seriously injured in February 2010 after she smoked salvia and jumped out a third-story window.

Despite being cheap and easy to acquire, salvia is not nearly as popular as drugs that are already illegal. According to the findings of Health Canada’s 2011 Canadian Alcohol and Drug Use Monitoring Survey, only 0.6 per cent of Canadians over the age of 15 reported using salvia compared to 0.9 per cent who said they used crack cocaine and 9.1 per cent who said they used cannabis.

Daniel Siebert, widely regarded as an expert on salvia, opines that the herb has no significant potential for abuse, lacks toxicity, and has demonstrable medical benefits.

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“Salvia divinorum does not present a risk to public health or safety,” he wrote in a submission to the U.S. Congress. “Criminalizing it would only serve to create a problem where one did not previously exist.”