New beginning for Maryland drug policy? Marijuana & Salvia

June 4, 2009 – The week before the legislative session ended, Maryland’s General Assembly hosted Michael Phelps to recognize his achievements at the Beijing Olympics. Just two months after critics claimed his career and reputation would never recover from the infamous photo of him apparently smoking marijuana that circulated the Internet, g13c000ff4b38204f68c11892aef9f469196836b29d988dstate senators and delegates honored him with a standing ovation.

The incident underscores what some recognize as a shift away from the disproportionately “tough on crime” attitude for which Maryland legislators have been known. The General Assembly this year also moved closer to making some much needed criminal justice reform, including offering drug treatment for people who violate probation and allowing the act of calling 911 during an alcohol or drug overdose to be used as a mitigating factor in future criminal proceedings.

Another indication that state lawmakers might be ready to address our antiquated perspectives on criminal justice and drug policy came with the rejection of a bill aimed at criminalizing Salvia Divinorum and Salvinorin A (salvia).

Salvia, a psychoactive plant native to Mexico that has a generally short-acting effect on mood and consciousness, was relatively unknown until the production of a handful of online videos attracted media attention. This unleashed something of a panic among lawmakers.

Since 2005, several states have criminalized Salvia Divinorum, and a growing number of state legislatures are considering similar legislation. But this wave of prohibition misinforms public understanding of the substance and is ultimately both harmful and futile. Salvia use remains very low (fewer than 1 million users in 2006, according to federal estimates). Comparatively, around half of high school seniors have tried marijuana before they graduate, and teens continue to report that it is easier to obtain than alcohol or cigarettes.

Banning salvia outright would replace a regulated trade with an underground economy that emboldens criminals to market the drug and allows unrestricted access by young people.

If an early draft of HB 1261 had moved forward in Maryland’s House of Delegates, salvia would have been labeled a Schedule I substance, equating it with drugs like heroin and LSD. However, after informed debate with the Drug Policy Alliance, which works to reduce the harms of drug prohibition, delegates rejected a ban, instead opting for age restrictions for distribution and possession of salvia by minors. The House Judiciary Committee should be admired for taking a stand against prohibitionist policies that have proven ineffective time and time again.

Age restrictions that prevent the sale of salvia to individuals under 21 are certainly appropriate. This would allow the state to tax and regulate the herb for adults, creating a legal economy that could bring in needed revenue, maximize police resources and allow further investigation into potential medical benefits associated with salvia. Already studies have shown that Salvinorin A could be a candidate for treatment of pain, addiction, depression, eating disorders, central nervous system illnesses, gastrointestinal disorders and HIV infection.

While this draft of the bill was delayed in the Senate and did not make it to a vote before the end of the legislative session, the renewed focus on health and human rights lends promise for passage of a bill next year. A rational approach to salvia bodes well for the possibility of a new era of drug policy in Maryland – one that could eventually entail substantive reform on a range of matters, from drug mandatory minimums to parole system improvements to increased access to treatment instead of incarceration.

Here’s hoping this is indeed an indication of an institutional shift in how we think about these issues.

By Devon Hutchins. Source.

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