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More on AB 259, Salvia, and Uncomfortable Bedfellows

Yesterday I noted the progress of AB 259 — a bill that would criminalize the sale of salvia divinorum to minors — through the California legislature and wondered whether it makes sense to support such a bill as a pragmatic matter.

Now one of the reasons for my hesitation becomes evident in a press release from the “Wonderland Treatment Center,” one of the proponents of AB 259. Here are the first three graphs of the release, with some of the more interesting claims bolded:

LOS ANGELES, Jan. 17 /PRNewswire/ — Howard C. Samuels PsyD, Executive Director and co-founder of Wonderland Treatment Center in Los Angeles, has won a major victory in his crusade against the hallucinogenic plant “Salvia Divinorum.” On a 7-0 vote cast just yesterday, the California Assembly Committee on Public Safety passed Assembly Bill 259, introduced by Assemblyman Anthony Adams (R-Hesperia), which would make the sale or distribution of Salvia to any person under the age of 18 a misdemeanor in the State of California. Samuels had recently petitioned the Assemblyman on the cause, which found widespread support on behalf of state, county, and local law enforcement agencies among many others.

“Young people are dying from this drug,” said Samuels. “Making a substance illegal may not always succeed in making it impossible to get, but it makes it much, much harder to get, especially for kids and teenagers. This is a vitally important first step for our kids and our community.”

Salvia is a naturally grown, mint-like leaf which has been equated to providing users with experiences similar to that of the mind-altering drug LSD. Side effects include uncontrollable hysteria, an out of body experience, and a feeling of total confusion or near-madness.

There are several problems here.  The claim that “young people are dying” from salvia is not backed up by empirical evidence, and, oddly enough, is contradicted by the actual text of AB 259 itself, which states that “medical experts and accident and emergency rooms have not reported any particular health concerns” about the drug.  In the United States, there has only ever been one asserted claim of a link between salvia use and the death of a young person. That occurred two years ago, and even in that case the connection between the drug and the death is tenuous at best. Compare that to the actual risk of a legal drug like tobacco, which is documented as killing more than 400,000 Americans every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the problematic nature of this claim as the basis for a “crusade” against salvia is thrown into sharp relief.

Similarly, the description of the “side effects” of salvia leans rather heavily on “Reefer Madness”-style language. While salvia can be quite a strong drug, the claim that it produces “hysteria,” “total confusion” and “near-madness” as a “side effect” doesn’t correspond at all to a drug whose effects are more typically described as wearing off within five or ten minutes and leaving the user with a mild sense of euphoria.

When I see (what I consider to be) misleading language like this, it really gives me pause about supporting AB 259 — not because I disagree with the basic idea of prohibiting the sale of salvia to minors, but because I feel seriously uncomfortable about the political allies.