Salvia — if you’ve heard of it you probably either:
a) need to put down your bong for a bit and get some fresh air
b) need to pry your eyes from YouTube for a few minutes and get some fresh air or
c) need to do a little more drugs, watch a little more YouTube and get a little more fresh air because you’re an avid New York Times reader.

In any case, what you probably know about salvia is just about as much as most scientists, researchers and politicians: very little. Unfortunately, people haven’t used that lack of knowledge as a research opportunity; they’ve used it as a fear tactic.

Salvia is an increasingly popular (and therefore dangerous and demonic) drug that has been gaining the affection of teenagers across the country for more than a decade. It’s a strong hallucinogenic herb from the mint family that is smoked or sometimes chewed to induce a five-15 minute trip supposedly similar to LSD. (No, I don’t know from personal experience.)

Among the very little research done on salvia, no studies have found it addictive, and — take this with a grain of salt — most have found minimal health effects.

And, oh yeah, did I mention that it’s still legal in 37 states, including Michigan? You can even buy it at local head shop Stairway to Heaven. Cue the unnecessary, knee-jerk public hysteria.

As you would expect, salvia is likely on the fast track to criminalization now that word of it has gotten out. Ironically, the force behind salvia’s popularity is now behind its quickly deteriorating social acceptability.

For decades, salvia’s use was limited almost exclusively to Mazatec shamans in Oaxaca, Mexico. But since the 1990s, its use has spread across the world thanks to (you guessed it) the Internet. Online markets like Mazatec Gardens have quietly (and legally) built a customer base for the drug in the underground psychedelic culture.

Now, as The Times reported yesterday, an estimated 1.8 million people have tried salvia in their lifetimes, according to a recent survey by the federal government. Not surprisingly, popularity is highest among college students. A 2007 survey of 1,500 San Diego State University students found that 4 percent had tried salvia.

But salvia’s Internet popularity backfired. And it has YouTube of all places to blame. The site where stupid people usually go to post videos of themselves making their best “Jackass” impression, YouTube now features more than 5,000 salvia-related videos — most of people saying and doing ridiculously stupid things while on the drug. In one of the more popular ones, “Driving on salvia,” a guy takes a hit of salvia while sitting in the front seat of a car, but ultimately doesn’t do anything but sit there and look spaced out.

In the absence of real scientific evidence about salvia’s effects, these YouTube videos have become Exhibit 1A in the drug’s trial in the court of public opinion. And we all know how representative YouTube is of social problems.

Sadly, YouTube has been central to the debate here in Michigan, where a bill banning salvia passed the state House of Representatives unanimously in March but is still under review in the Senate Committee on Health Policy. According to the Metro Times, the man who sponsored the House bill, Rep. Michael Sak (D–Grand Rapids) — when pressed to explain how he knew about the drug’s effects — instructed a reporter to “go to YouTube, and look up ‘crazy ass salvia video.’”

To be fair, Sak was probably frustrated with the reporter’s tenacity and said the first thing that came to his mind. What Sak should have been frustrated about, though, was the poor evidence backing up his bill.

Personally, I couldn’t care less if salvia use becomes punishable with a life-in-prison sentence or so popular that my mom smokes it before dinner. However, I care that whatever decision between these two extremes that legislators make is made for a good reason. If a drug is dangerous, either label it if you think people can make an informed choice about it or criminalize it if it’s so detrimental to society that it shouldn’t be around. What you don’t do is make policy, especially drug policy, based on a whim. Or a YouTube video.

No one knows much about salvia right now. That doesn’t mean you should use it or that you should fear it. It does mean we should find out about it.

Gary Graca is the Daily’s editorial page editor. He can be reached at gmgraca@umich.edu.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.