As Massachusetts currently considers a more rational marijuana policy, some state legislators are using the flawed logic of prohibition to try to outlaw another plant they fear kids are using as a legal substitute for pot.
This past month, supporters of a ballot initiative that would liberalize this state’s marijuana laws through decriminalization were given a hearing at the Massachusetts legislature’s Joint Committee on the Judiciary. The proposed reforms, which voters might have a chance to consider in November, stem from the thinking that current criminal laws are a costly and ineffective way of actually keeping people from smoking pot or using other drugs. Making possession a civil rather than criminal offense would modernize the state’s drug policy, and would be more respectful of “the civil liberties of those having a harmless toke,” as the Phoenix wrote this past November, endorsing the proposal.
Even as this drug-liberalizing proposal is being debated, however, Republican state representatives Vinny deMacedo, of Plymouth, and Dan Webster, of Hanson, are opening another front in the drug war by seeking to list Salvia divinorum — a hallucinogenic plant that can be purchased legally online or in local smoke shops — as a Class C drug, along with LSD and marijuana. Seven states have already criminalized salvia, and North Dakota is currently prosecuting the first case under that state’s law.
But if preventing youths from using salvia is the goal, the history of drug prohibition suggests that criminalization may be the worst way to do it.
Salvia is a powerful entheogen — a “god-creating” substance that causes vivid spiritual feelings, altered perception, and hallucinations. Studies suggest, however, that salvia does not produce the euphoric high that, in other drugs, promotes addiction by triggering the brain’s “reward” circuitry. Indigenous groups in Oaxaca, Mexico — the plant’s native territory — have used it for years to achieve those spiritual states. But despite salvia’s non-addictive effects, deMacedo still labels it a “gateway drug.”
“Call me old fashioned,” he says, laughing, “but I think drugs are bad. When kids see a drug that is legal, there’s a feeling that it must be okay.” DeMacedo introduced House Bill 4434 on behalf of police in Plymouth and Hanover, who first heard from parents about MySpace posts and YouTube videos showing high-school students acting goofy while supposedly on the drug. (As of April 22, a YouTube search for “salvia” resulted in 3740 hits, many of which appear to feature kids who have smoked the drug, who then either seemed trapped in slow-motion bewilderment or in fits of convulsive laughter.) The legislators are concerned that, in an unregulated market, kids can access salvia easily.
DeMacedo’s fix for that unregulated-market problem, however, is not to regulate salvia, but to outlaw it.
The legislators’ underlying concerns are legitimate. In principle, currently anyone can buy salvia from smoke shops around the state (or online). And because scientists are as yet unclear as to its long-term effects, precaution suggests we might want to keep salvia out of teenagers’ hands. (That said, while there is little science to detail the risks or benefits of salvia, preliminary studies suggest that derivatives of its active chemical could be useful for treating cancer, Alzheimer’s, or even AIDS. But if the history of marijuana research is a guide, criminalizing salvia will freeze research into potential therapeutic applications.)