Are a bunch of college kids posting dopey videos on YouTube going to be making drug enforcement and sentencing policy in North Carolina? If state Sen. Bill Purcell (D-Laurinburg) has his way, they basically will. As reported in Tuesday’s News & Observer, Purcell is sponsoring a bill to make Salvia divinorum — a hallucinogenic herb that is part of the mint family — a Schedule I drug.
Under North Carolina anti-drug statutes, Schedules I and II are supposedly reserved for the worst drugs — like heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine — and prescribe the stiffest penalties for those caught possessing, selling or manufacturing them. (Marijuana is a lowly Schedule VI.) One needn’t support harsh sentences for those who use and sell drugs like crack cocaine to appreciate why these drugs are taken so seriously by the criminal justice system: crack, meth and heroin destroy users’ lives while enriching (often violent) criminal syndicates.
In contrast, Salvia just seems to have added to the proliferation of dumb YouTube videos. Sure, well-meaning, middle class legislators can probably be forgiven if they’re spooked by images of Salvia smokers reduced to incoherent babbling and stumbling about. But it’s also plainly obvious that Salvia is nothing like crack or heroin — either in its effects on users or its impact on communities. In fact, Purcell’s bill threatens to derail promising research. A September New York Times article noted that
[p]harmacologists who believe salvia could open new frontiers for the treatment of addiction, depression and pain fear that its criminalization would make it burdensome to obtain and store the plant, and difficult to gain government permission for tests on human subjects. 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.
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.
It might be objected that, while Salvia bears little resemblance to drugs like heroin or meth, it is similar to other Schedule I drugs such as LSD or psilocybin (the active chemical in hallucinogenic mushrooms). Yet this argument only exposes how irrational North Carolina’s anti-drug statutes are for treating genuine social scourges like crack in the same manner as common recreational hallucinogens.
Salvia has been legal, largely unregulated, and readily available for years — and no one seemed to notice until YouTube came along. It makes one wonder if there would really be any discernible negative social consequences if North Carolina experimented with decriminalizing other psychedelic drugs. Hey, there are worse ideas out there — like giving high 19 year olds with camcorders the power to push through Senate bills.