By MICHAEL FROST and ERICH WAGNER
ANNAPOLIS (Jan. 27, 2009)—Judicial committees in both houses heard arguments for a bill Tuesday that would outlaw Salvia Divinorum, a hallucinogenic plant native to Mexico.
"There's a herb right now that my daughter, your children and grandchildren can get their hands on in Maryland and get high and nothing can be done about it," said Sen. Richard Colburn, R- Caroline, who sponsored the bill in the Senate.
Salvia Divinorum was once used in healing ceremonies by the Mazotec Indians. According to Colburn, it is now available on the Internet for as little as $12 an ounce.
Currently legal under federal law, the new bill would make possession a misdemeanor in Maryland that would be punishable by up to four years imprisonment and/or a $25,000 fine, according to the Office of the Public Defender. Possessors of larger quantities could face felony charges and up to 20 years in prison.
Thirteen states, including Delaware, have enacted legislation regulating or banning the substance.
A federal survey conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that 1.8 million people aged 12 and over had used Salvia Divinorum as of 2006, including approximately 756,000 that year alone.
"Last year it grew considerably in popularity," said Capt. Robert Bokinsky of the Ocean City Police Department.
In Ocean City, it is sold in a number of boardwalk businesses without any age restrictions or attempts to educate the buyer, Bokinsky said. He added that a number of Delaware youth are simply crossing state lines to come to Ocean City and get it where it is still legal.
Bokinsky conducted 100 hours of research, during which he interviewed several users of the plant, many of whom had bad experiences, he said.
"Without exception, every user has said, `that stuff should not be legal,'" he said.
Some lawmakers were skeptical of the proposed legislation, saying the war on drugs is already failing.
"How are we going to win this one when we're miserably failing at the other ones?" said Sen. James Brochin, D- Baltimore County.
Naomi Long, director of the Drug Policy Alliance Metro Project, advocated a model along the lines of that used to reduce teen tobacco use. Such a strategy would favor strict age controls and restrictions on where it could be sold.
Making a drug illegal sends the market underground and takes away regulatory control, she said.
"Drug dealers do not card," Long said.
In the Senate, lawmakers also considered amendments to allow Salvia to continue to be researched for possible medical use, something some of those in favor of the bill seemed open to.
Delegate Todd Schuler, D-Baltimore County, said he'd likely vote against the House bill because of the lack of evidence showing the drug to be dangerous.
"The witnesses provided no evidence that it was addictive, or that there were short-term health effects or long-term health effects," Schuler said. "They seem to want to make it illegal just because some people had a bizarre reaction to it."
For his part, Bokinsky felt the plant has lost its connection to its mystical past.
"The use that we're familiar with is far from the sacred experiences of the Mazotec shamans," he said.
Capital News Service contributed to this report.