The federal government announced plans to ban salvia, a readily available hallucinogenic herb that has surged in popularity over the last few years.
In a Feb. 21 news release, the Government of Canada proposed its intentions to include the active ingredients in salvia, salvia divinorum and salvinorin A, on the controlled drugs and substance list. This would criminalize possession, trafficking and production of salvia. A ban was first proposed on a government notice from Health Canada on Feb. 4.
Health Canada media relations officer Gary Holub said the Government of Canada is taking measures to regulate salvia divinorum and salvinorin A in order to protect the health and safety of Canadians, particularly youth, from their potentially harmful effects.
"The scheduling of salvia divinorum and salvinorin A will also eliminate the current misconception that these substances are a safe alternative to other illegal drugs," he said in an email interview. "Furthermore, it will reduce the potential risks to the health and safety of Canadians associated with their ready availability, with their increased use and their unknown effects."
The use of the psychoactive plant, native to Oaxaca, Mexico, has been steadily increasing. Aaron Overbeck, who works at a head shop, a retail outlet specializing in drug paraphernalia, said the increase in salvia use has to do with its possible status change. He asked for his place of employment to remain unnamed.
"With knowledge of the talks that are going on about it becoming illegal, a lot more people have been purchasing it," said Overbeck. "Curiosity is what makes people want to try it, so they want to try it before it becomes a criminal act."
Little research has been done on the naturally occurring plant's long-term and short-term effects, but it is considered to be one of the most potent hallucinogens available. Canadian behavioural studies concluded it was similar to traditional psychedelics including LSD and "magic mushrooms." Most people smoke or vaporize salvia, colloquially known as "magic mint" or "seers' sage." More traditionally, it was chewed or brewed into tea for ceremonial use tied to religion and medicine in the Mazatecan culture.
Holub said there is no way to predict what effect these substances may have on an individual.
"The effects may differ from one use to the next, depending on factors [that include] the potency, how much is used and how it is taken," he said.
In a Health Canada news release, minister of natural resources Christian Paradis said the dangerous effects of salvia are unquestionable.
"After reviewing Canadian surveillance data and scientific reports that suggest this substance has the potential for abuse especially among young people, we are taking these steps to protect the health and safety of Canadians from the harmful effects of this substance," said Paradis.
It is unknown when salvia use began in Canada as a recreational drug but its increase in popularity has been gradual and recent. According to the 2009 Canadian alcohol and drug use monitoring survey, the first study measuring the use of the plant, 1.6 per cent of Canadians 15 or older have taken salvia at least once. For those 15 to 24, the number rises to 7.3 per cent. Salvia users were also found to consume significantly more alcohol than non-users. The majority relate the experience of salvia more similarly to marijuana than to other psychedelics. The Government of Canada is taking the step to ban salvia after reviewing this information.
"The first time I just laughed and felt silly, but if used properly in Shaman tradition, you can have a breakthrough experience," said Overbeck. "It's scary, you have no control, but it doesn't last long and I think that is what draws people in."
In recent years, the legal status of salvia has been rapidly changing elsewhere. The controlled substance act in the United States saw salvia banned in Tennessee, Oklahoma and Delaware in late 2006. This was the first change of status to the drug in North America. Salvia use has already been regulated or restricted in Australia, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Spain and Sweden.
Fourth-year U of C sociology student Roger Dueck said he doesn't see why it has gained so much attention recently.
"There are way more legal substances out there that have more dangerous side effects," said Dueck. "There is no danger of addiction, or getting behind the wheel of a car. It's something that people want to try once or twice and that's it. It only lasts about a half-hour. I don't know why people are worried about it."
The Government of Canada said salvia is considered a natural health product and must be authorized by Health Canada before it can be legally sold. Holub said that the sale of unauthorized salvia may be subject to compliance and enforcement by Health Canada under the Food and Drugs Act and its associated regulations.
Extensive media coverage from news outlets and YouTube raised mainstream alarm after the suicide of Brett Chidester, a Delaware teenager. His death was officially linked to smoking salvia in 2007. Other videos of salvia trips gained airtime soon afterward.
Overbeck said salvia is purchased by individuals of all ages. He thinks that if used correctly, it could be a spiritual experience, but agreed it should be controlled.
"I personally believe it shouldn't be so accessible," said Overbeck. "If anything, there should be a limit on who is allowed to purchase it. More research should be done, so people can be more knowledgeable about whether they want to use it or not."
Salvia will not go under an immediate ban as the federal regulatory process could take upwards of two years.