Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Salvia, YouTube, and The War on Drugs

In Criminology we spend time discussing the social history of drug use in America, and the relationship between the social characteristics of the drug user and the drug itself. A behavior once legal becomes a crime against morality and the public order, and with drug laws, there has always been a certain bias and subjectivity regarding users which drives these laws, more than the possible harm the drug may actually cause.

Here's the latest regarding the hallucinogenic herb Salvia and the growing popularity of usage.

Until a decade ago, the use of salvia was largely limited to those seeking revelation under the tutelage of Mazatec shamans in its native Oaxaca, Mexico.

Today, this mind-altering member of the mint family is broadly available for lawful sale online and in head shops across the United States.

Though older Americans typically have never heard of salvia, the psychoactive sage has become something of a phenomenon among this country’s thrill-seeking youth.

More than 5,000 YouTube videos — equal parts “Jackass” and “Up in Smoke” — document their journeys into rubber-legged incoherence.

Some of the videos have been viewed half a million times.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist, however, to know that posting videos of yourself "tripping" is probably going to generate public heat and backlash.

In state after state, however, including here in Texas, the YouTube videos have become Exhibit A in legislative efforts to regulate salvia. This year, Florida made possession or sale a felony punishable by 15 years in prison. California took a gentler approach by making it a misdemeanor to sell or distribute to minors.

“When you see it, well, it sure makes a believer out of you,” said Representative Charles Anderson of Waco, a Republican state lawmaker who is sponsoring one of several bills to ban salvia in Texas.

When the federal government this year published its first estimates of salvia use, the data astonished many: some 1.8 million people had tried it in their lifetimes, including 750,000 in the previous year. Among males 18 to 25, where consumption is heaviest, nearly 3 percent reported using salvia in the previous year, making it twice as prevalent as LSD and nearly as popular as Ecstasy.

Recent studies at college campuses on both coasts have yielded estimates as high as 7 percent. The herb’s presence on military ships and bases has prompted enough concern about readiness that the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology was asked to develop the first urinalysis for salvia and is now testing 50 samples a month.

As with Ecstasy and its criminalization in the late 1980's, Salvia seems to be targeted more because of the social demographics of the users than any known "danger" regarding usage.

Though research is young and little is known about long-term effects, there are no studies suggesting that salvia is addictive or its users prone to overdose or abuse. Indeed, a salvia experience can be so intense, and at times so unsettling, that many try it just once, and even devotees use it sparingly.

Reports of salvia-related emergency room admissions are virtually nonexistent, likely because its effects typically vanish in just a few minutes.

Nevertheless, as the popularity of videos being posted to YouTube grows, mainstream media outlets are picking up on the story too. NBC's Today Show saw fit to run video of Salvia users getting high this morning at 7:15am (a time when, doubtlessly, scores of school-age kids were still home, as mine were, getting ready for school).

This suggests two things: first, that the targeting of Salvia and its users will be the next clarion call for politicians in the War on Drugs. And second, they will be aided and abetted by know-nothing morning shows who push these stories to ramp up public hysteria over the latest drug du jour.

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