Iowa lawmakers may ban Salvia

BY SHAWN GUDE | MARCH 6, 2009 7:22 AM

Click here to read DI columnist Christopher Patton's take on salvia, in today's OPINIONS.

UI alumnus Tanner Faaborg felt weightless, his self-perception was absent, and his eyes became linked “to what I thought was a new dimension.”

Laughter overtook his helpless body.

“Reality then began to set in as the objects of my surroundings were put back into place and the laws of physics came back into play,” he said. “The clock on my wall told me the experience was no more than five or six minutes, but I knew better.”

Although experiences among its users such as Faaborg vary, Salvia divinorum is an accessible, yet little-known drug that causes powerful, but ephemeral, hallucinations. With some decrying the drug as dangerous, Iowa legislators are considering both House and Senate bills that would criminalize the substance.

“There’s not a whole lot of information, but from all appearances — including numerous YouTube postings and reports from others — it does cause at least temporary impairment,” said Dale Woolery, the associate director of the Iowa Governor’s Office of Drug Control Policy, which drafted the Senate study bill on the issue. “When you have a substance that’s accessible, the perception for most people is that it’s safe.”

Salvia use in Iowa is not widespread.

Indeed, when questioned about his organization’s stance on Salvia criminalization, American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa Executive Director Ben Stone responded with a surprised “What’s that?”
In Iowa City, its sale is limited to a handful of stores, including the Konnexion, 106 S. Linn St., which sells the substance for between $20 and $55 depending on its potency.

And according to the Legislative Services Agency report on the House version of the criminalization proposal, there were no prison admissions in fiscal 2008 for hallucinogenic drugs such as Salvia.
Still, proponents of the measure are worried about possible growth in the use — and abuse — of the hallucinogen.

“I’m always concerned about the changing landscape of drug abuse in Iowa,” said Rep. Mark Smith, D-Marshalltown. “We’re starting to see it some in the state, and, as I said, it’s trying to figure out what substances are going to become problematic.”

Support for the measure isn’t confined to Democrats; Rep. Linda Miller, R-Bettendorf, expressed worries akin to Smith’s.

“I think the effort is more pre-emptive than the fact it is a widespread problem,” she said. “I think we are reluctant to not ban it with the way methamphetamine became such a big problem so fast.”

There’s a relative paucity of research on the subject, with both sides of the debate rejecting the others’ claims.

If passed, the measure would add Salvia to the state’s list of controlled substances, classifying it as a Schedule-I substance, similar to marijuana.

Those guilty of selling, delivering, or manufacturing the hallucinogen would be slapped with a Class C felony charge, punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000. Penalties for possession of Salvia would include a serious misdemeanor charge punishable by up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $1,875.

Not everyone is happy with the proposal, however. An official from Headhunters Glass Inc. — which carries the substance “from time to time” — took issue with negative characterizations of Salvia.

“I don’t think there is any danger whatsoever when used in the proper setting, i.e. a medicinal/spiritual setting,” the official, who wished to remain anonymous so as not to draw attention to himself, wrote in an e-mail. “Alcohol is a much more dangerous substance by far because the effects are longer lasting than Salvia and usually leave the user in a worse state afterwards.”

Others are wary of additional overcrowding in correctional facilities for Salvia offenders if the proposal is approved.

But Iowa legislators aren’t alone in their anti-Salvia backlash.

Matthew Gever, a policy associate for the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures, said 16 states now classify Salvia as a Schedule-I controlled substance, with all of the laws coming since 2005.

Among states with proximity to Iowa — Illinois, Missouri, and Kansas — all classify Salvia as a Schedule-I substance, Woolery said.

The proposal’s chances are unclear. The House unanimously passed a criminalization bill last year, Smith said, but the Senate didn’t bring it up.

This year, the House bill has progressed more rapidly than its Senate counterpart; passed out of committee, it is now on the floor.

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