SNOW HILL – Salvia could be banned in Worcester County on Sept. 1, despite talk of waiting for the Maryland General Assembly to pass a statewide ban on the hallucinogen.
The County Commissioners introduced a bill to ban the hallucinogen in all of Worcester County at their regular meeting on Tuesday. The commissioners will hold a public hearing and consider passing the emergency legislation at their meeting in two weeks.
The salvia ban legislation, requested by Commissioner Linda Busick, is similar to the Ocean City law banning salvia.
“I feel that this is a very serious issue. I feel that this is an emergency based on the fact Ocean City has instituted emergency legislation,” Busick said.
The bill, if passed on Sept. 1, as an emergency bill would go into effect immediately.
The recent ban on salvia in Ocean City generated concern that sales of the hallucinogen would be pushed into West Ocean City to cater to the tourist trade.
“It’s my understanding salvia is already being sold in West Ocean City and has been for the season,” said County Commission President Louise Gulyas.
Many citizens have called to express their support for a ban on salvia in the county, Gulyas said.
Delegate Jim Mathias reportedly plans introduce a bill banning salvia in the next General Assembly, in spring 2010, as he did earlier this year.
Mid-Shore Maryland State Senator Richard Colburn, who last year sponsored an unsuccessful bill to criminalize salvia and place the herb on the list of Schedule I drugs which are illegal to sell or possess, has already pre-filed a salvia ban bill for the upcoming General Assembly session.
The commissioners questioned Worcester County State’s Attorney Joel Todd, Worcester County Sheriff Chuck Martin and Worcester County Health Officer Debbie Goeller over their views on the proposed salvia ban.
“Clearly, it’s a dangerous drug,” said Todd, who characterized salvia as “one of the most powerful natural grown hallucinogens known to mankind.”
Salvia, he said, is as powerful as psilocybin mushrooms.
“I wish the state of Maryland would step up to the plate and outlaw it,” said Todd. “I’d like to see the county pursue legislation to criminalize it here since we can’t count on the state of Maryland to do what needs to be done.”
Enforcement could be problematic, however. “Some of us probably have salvia growing in our flower beds,” Todd said.
Busick pointed out that the hallucinogenic salvia in question is grown in Mexico or Hawaii for its active properties, not gardening.
The plant in question is salvia divinorum, a mostly non-flowering variety of sage. There are over 700 species or varieties of sage, many of them popular garden plants and culinary herbs. Salvia divinorum is not sold in garden centers or other retail outlets for ornamental use.
Throughout the bill, the banned substance is called “salvia,” with the definitions section of the legislation identifying “salvia” as salvia divinorum. However, the species name is treated as just another in a list of street names for the substance, instead of as a specific scientific identifier.
The bill also bans owning or selling paraphernalia for ingesting, processing or growing salvia, but does not include details in the definitions of what that paraphernalia might consist of.
Commissioner Judy Boggs asked Todd about enforcing the paraphernalia ban.
Todd said that he had surveyed Boardwalk shops from the Inlet to 12th Street and had found paraphernalia exclusive to salvia use that would be illegal in the county is the ban passes.
Some items, like hookahs, can be used for smoking tobacco, however, and are not illegal.
Boggs then asked Todd about the possibility of a legal challenge to the law.
Todd said that it is possible, and that one merchant in Ocean City is already planning on challenging the law. Worcester County does have the legal authority to enact laws to ban dangerous substances, he said.
“I think we have an obligation to protect the citizens of Worcester County. I think we have an obligation to support Ocean City,” said Commissioner Bud Church. “I’m not worried about a legal challenge. I think morally it’s the right thing to do.”
Boggs said the commissioners also have to consider the possibility of legal challenges to the law because legal action costs taxpayer money.
The commissioners, she said, have had success regulating tattoo parlors and adult entertainment businesses without banning them. Regulation of salvia sales by age is one option, she said.
Boggs counseled against rushing into legislation, saying that the commissioners have only begun to consider salvia.
“This is the first time the commissioners have sat down and talked about it at all,” said Boggs.
Regulating salvia sales by age will do about as much good as regulating tobacco sales by age, Todd said, which means that regulation will have no effect on minors’ access to salvia.
“Salvia would continue to be sold and consumed and people’s lives would continue to be damaged,” said Todd.
Regulation might require that the substance be consumed where bought, like alcohol in a bar, to prevent its distribution to underage users, which then raises questions of people driving under the influence of salvia, Todd said.
“With a hallucinogen, I’m not sure age really matters that much,” Todd added.
“I think it’s all worthy of discussion,” Boggs said.
“This is something that’s far different than tattoos or pornographic literature,” said Busick, saying that salvia causes hallucinations, impaired motor skills, extreme paranoia, and blurred vision. People cannot make reasonable decisions under the influence of the drug, she said.
Commissioner Bobby Cowger wondered about the severity of the penalties for salvia possession, six months in jail or a $1,000 fine.
“Are you really going to enforce it?” Cowger asked. “Is it a slap on the hand?”
Salvia possession needs to be punished severely, he said.
Sentencing is up to the judge, Todd said, though he doubts many defendants charged with possession will get the full six-month jail sentence.
When Sheriff Chuck Martin was given a chance to weigh in, he supported the law, saying the county does not need motorists out there on a hallucinogen when drunk driving is already common on local highways.
However, Martin had serious concerns over enforcement and training his officers.
“Doug [Dods, Chief Deputy] and I have been trying to evaluate this headache the last two or three years,” said Martin.
The most pressing problem for the sheriff’s office is teaching its officers how to identify salvia.
“I see problems with that. I see problems with testing the items that are seized,” said Martin. If the state of Maryland does not have a ban in place, where would his office send materials for testing, he asked. He also questioned the cost of such testing and who would pay for it.
“I certainly do not want to see salvia on our streets and I never have,” Martin said.
According to Todd, the Maryland State Police lab has told Ocean City officials that it can test for salvia. Busick confirmed that offer.
Commissioner Virgil Shockley, who had little to say during the salvia discussion at Tuesday’s meeting, said later he supports the ban but has some doubts about the way the law is written, citing vague definitions in particular that could give the sheriff’s department a problem enforcing the law. Laws cannot be selectively enforced, Shockley said.
The technical aspects of the bill can probably be worked out, he said.
At the meeting Tuesday, Health Officer Goeller said she did not have much to add from a health perspective. There were only a few reports of salvia-related health issues through the health department programs, she reported. A few participants in department addiction programs spoke of salvia use, Goeller found, but as part of a range of substances used, not as an addiction. Only nine of 125 arrested teenagers seen through the Health Department’s shelter unit in Ocean City admitted to salvia use.
“I can’t make a strong case for a salvia ban based on the public health information I have right now. However, I agree with what has been said about its hallucinogenic effects,” said Goeller.
The only significant opposition to banning salvia is from the scientific and medical community, which feels that salvia could be used to develop medications.
“Is there any proof of that?” Busick demanded.
“It’s how they develop new drugs,” Goeller explained.
Goeller concluded, “I would have to punt to law enforcement. It’s much more a law enforcement issue.”
Boggs asked Goeller whether salvia was habit forming.
The scientific literature says it is not addictive, Goeller said, although it could be considered a gateway drug. Substance abusers also tend to use whatever substance is available, she said.
All seven commissioners put their name in as a sponsor of the bill. Five commissioners must sponsor an emergency bill.