OCEAN CITY – There are few in Ocean City that are not concerned with the recent proliferation of and availability of salvia in Boardwalk shops, but there is little the town can do about it, as of today.
Although some in the state view the salvia debate as an “Ocean City problem,” town officials say that they currently sit at a stalemate with the issue until the state either grants municipalities the power to instill stricter guidelines or ban the sale of the substance altogether.
“Our hands are essentially tied here, the state has deemed it a legal substance, and because the product is there, we can’t prosecute the stores for the sale of the paraphernalia, which without the salvia, would be illegal, but since the product is there, it renders it unenforceable at this time,” said Ocean City Police Chief Bernadette DiPino.
City Solicitor Guy Ayres also told the Mayor and Council that until changes are made at the state level, municipalities like Ocean City have little wiggle room as far as passing harsher rules on the hallucinogenic plant, which comes in a variety of forms.
Unlike the ban on Tasers, which the town of Ocean City passed to ban the sale or possession of them in city limits, despite being legal in the state, town officials can’t pass a similar ordinance against the sale of salvia, since the state law does not grant municipalities the power to make such a change.
Councilman Doug Cymek told the police commission on Wednesday he went undercover at a few local Boardwalk shops that sell the controversial product and was astonished by what he observed.
“I walked into one store totally unnoticed and the salesperson was explaining to customers the quality of the high,” said Cymek. “From how intense it was, to how much to take so as not to mess up your night.”
The police commission ruled to pen a letter to Delegate Jim Mathias to take the issue back to Annapolis and fight for a change in the legislation.
Mathias, with the help of Delegate Norm Conway, got a bill through the House last year, which would’ve banned the sale of the substance, but the bill never got to the Senate floor.
This year, with the DEA calling salvia a “drug of concern” and Attorney General Douglas Gansler’s verbal promise at the recent Maryland Municipal League meetings in Ocean City to fight for the issue, Mathias and Conway may have a bit more luck with a similar bill this year.
“When the tax money stops coming in because the Boardwalk has gotten a reputation for being so trashy, then the state will realize that it isn’t just an Ocean City problem,” said Worcester County State’s Attorney Joel Todd, who sat in on the police commission meeting on Wednesday.
At this point, it appears the only thing that the local officials can do is take a page from the public outcry against the risqué content of some T-shirts on the Boardwalk and simply ask the store owners to move the salvia to the back of the store.
“In some cases, salvia sold as a product was a third of the store’s inventory, and the paraphernalia took up another third of it,” said Cymek.
Salvia, or salvia divonorum, which literally means “diviner’s sage” has been around for centuries, but has only come to the forefront of public interest in the last few years. It was deemed “Ocean City’s legal hallucinogen” in a police commission report given last July by Captain Robert Bokinsky.
Although it is usually chewed or taken in liquid form, the product can also be smoked, which concerns police that the paraphernalia bought at Boardwalk shops for the intention of salvia, could be used for illegal drugs such as marijuana or crack cocaine.
“Your city solicitor is right in determining that if the salvia wasn’t there, you could bust the shops for selling paraphernalia that could be used to ingest illegal substances,” said Todd, “but since it is sold next to a legal one, you can’t do anything until the state makes a change.”
Todd recommended the police commission emphasize in its letter to Mathias that if a change was made at the state level empowering the municipalities to make a ban or increased regulation, that the town immediately would.