SNOW HILL – Salvia is now illegal in Worcester County following a unanimous vote by the County Commissioners on an emergency bill banning the hallucinogenic substance.
The commissioners passed the emergency bill Tuesday afternoon, and the new law banning sale and possession of salvia divinorum and salvia paraphernalia went into effect immediately.
The Worcester County bill follows Ocean City’s lead in banning salvia through an emergency bill passed the first week of August.
According to county attorney Sonny Bloxom, the county law is modeled on the Ocean City law almost word for word.
The Ocean City ban did push salvia sales into West Ocean City, County Commissioner Linda Busick said. She spoke to a West Ocean City storeowner recently who had stocked salvia only after the ban was enacted in Ocean City, a move made to enhance his business.
“I hope I never get so broke I have to make my living off ruining the lives of young people,” State’s Attorney Joel Todd said.
The commissioners held a public hearing on the emergency bill Tuesday and heard testimony from law enforcement and health officials on the dangers of salvia and the practical enforcement of the ban.
Todd continued to offer strong support for the ban on Tuesday.
“I would like to urge you to pass this legislation. Salvia is a very dangerous hallucinogenic drug. It’s very popular among young people,” Todd said.
Evidence of the effects of salvia may be found on YouTube, he said, which features numerous videos of people high on the hallucinogen.
“Everyone doesn’t have a bad trip. Some people have a good trip. They shouldn’t be tripping at all,” Todd said.
Todd’s further research into the effects of salvia led him to High Times magazine’s website, a pro-drug publication, where he found, he said, many negative or cautionary comments about the use of salvia. The salvia user’s guide on the High Times site cautioned users not to walk or talk while experiencing salvia, to lock up knives and guns before ingestion and extinguish all sources of fire, according to Todd.
Many salvia users commented on that site that the salvia experience is scary, said Todd.
“This is dangerous, dangerous stuff and it needs to be made illegal,” said Todd.
Concerns over testing potential salvia confiscated from stores or individuals can be done by the Maryland State Police crime lab at the Berlin MSP barracks, Todd confirmed.
The lab must calibrate its equipment, Busick said, which will be completed in a week.
Todd said the county would not be charged when the MSP lab test for salvia’s active ingredient, salvinorin A in suspected drug materials, just as the county is not charged to test suspected cocaine or heroin.
Sheriff Chuck Martin raised concerns when the bill was introduced two weeks ago over how to enforce the ban when other, non-psychoactive salvia plants are commonly grown in gardens or landscaping.
“It can be distinguished from the garden variety salvia in the criminal lab,” Todd said.
Salvia divinorum should not be mistaken for garden-variety salvia, because it rarely flowers and is structured like a bush, unlike garden salvia.
Bloxom asked Todd to weigh in on the fine, $1,000, and prison term, six months, for salvia possession, set out by the law.
“I think that’s reasonable,” said Todd.
Shockley wondered how enforcement would be handled when the law was passed. As emergency legislation, the law would go into effect the moment it was approved. Shockley said the business owners of Worcester County needed some consideration.
“I don’t want to see a whole bunch of people arrested who are doing the right thing,” said Shockley.
The press would be reporting the passage of the salvia ban, Todd said.
Commission President Louise Gulyas chimed in that the news would be all over television. People do not always look at the news, Shockley said.
“Police always have the discretion to charge or not to charge,” said Todd, who added that he expected law enforcement would exercise discretion and give storeowners a chance to comply with the law.
In Ocean City, law enforcement charged a storeowner with possessing salvia that was packed to send back to the supplier and kept under a counter. Todd said he did not pursue those charges.
Commissioner Bud Church suggested that the sheriff’s office send deputies out on courtesy calls to the handful of businesses in West Ocean City that have sold salvia to inform them of their need to comply.
“I am like everyone else here interested in seeing the stuff off our streets,” said Sheriff Chuck Martin.
Commissioner Jim Purnell asked the sheriff about the possibility of illicit salvia sales.
If dealers can make money from an illicit substance, they will sell it, Martin said. He expects that salvia users will order the hallucinogen over the Internet or will travel to Somerset or Wicomico counties to purchase the drug where it is still legal.
The Sheriff’s office will put together in-house salvia training, based partly on a Navy Awareness Training Session from 2004.
Local law enforcement is not concerned about salvia production in Worcester County.
The county is unlikely to see salvia growhouses, Busick said. Salvia needs a specific mountain climate which is difficult to reproduce, and must be grown from cuttings. Salvia plants do not produce many seeds and those seeds do not usually germinate.
“It’s very difficult to grow,” said Busick.
Tracking salvia use right now is nearly impossible, health department officials told the commissioners.
“There is no current bodily fluid test that will identify salvia in the individual,” said Dr. Andrew Mathias, deputy director of the Worcester County Health Department.
Salvia use does not show up on the standard drug panel both because there is no test for the substance and because no one had thought to look for it.
Emergency rooms and other health care providers do not even know to ask patients about salvia use, said Mathias.
“Self reporting is a bit limited and unreliable but it’s what we have right now,” Mathias said.
If Maryland legislators pass a law putting salvia on the Schedule I list of banned drugs, a test should be developed.
Mathias had one reassuring comment for the commissioners: “From a chemical standpoint, it does not appear to be addictive.”
While salvia does not appear to be physically addictive, users are attracted to repeated use, said Ocean City Police Department Captain Robert Bokinsky, who presented a report on his research into salvia for the commissioners’ benefit Tuesday. His research has shown that 80 percent of first-time salvia users are likely to use salvia again.
The commissioners voted unanimously to pass the emergency legislation banning salvia and salvia paraphernalia.
There was little discussion between the closure of the public hearing and the vote.
“Today, Worcester County has taken another step to protect our citizens and visitors alike. The people have spoken and their voices have been heard,” said Busick, who spearheaded the legislation.
“A great day for Worcester County. We are still the land of pleasant living, thank God,” said Gulyas.