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Lawmakers are trying to outlaw a hallucinogenic drug known on the streets as "Sally D" before it spreads through Alaska.
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Salvia divinorum is legal in every state except Louisiana and Missouri, though several other states are reviewing different forms of regulation.
A spokesman for users testified Wednesday to Alaska lawmakers that Sally D's hazards are exaggerated, and it should remain legal. But Senate Bill 313, sponsored by Sen. Gene Therriault, R-North Pole, would list the drug as a controlled substance, effectively banning it in Alaska.
"I find this scary, myself," said Sen. Gary Wilken, R-Fairbanks, who sits on the Senate Health, Education and Social Services Committee.
The panel on Wednesday voted to move the legislation to the Senate Judiciary Committee. SB 313 does not have a companion bill in the House.
The substance originates in the mountainous regions of Mexico. Historically, the Mazatec Indians have used it for various purposes.
Users of Sally D say the drug causes a heightened sense of colors, time distortion, a sense of falling, audible voices, fully formed visions and out-of-body experiences.
"I don't know if it is a widespread threat, but it seems like a drug that could perhaps catch on and grow in popularity," Therriault said.
The most common methods of getting the drug are through the Internet, select tobacco shops and local dealers. Users typically smoke the leaves, though it can also be eaten or consumed as a tea.
"My goodness, a kid could click a mouse and 'boom' have this stuff sent to them," said Therriault aide Dave Stancliff. During the committee meeting, Stancliff said there are some 10,000 Web sites that sell Sally D.
Users are attracted to the drug because it's legal, Stancliff said.
"We've heard of it," said Jason Van Sickle, investigator with the Juneau Police Department at the drug enforcement unit. "I'm not saying it's not here, it just hasn't come across our desk at this point."
The Black Market, a tobacco shop in Anchorage, sells quantities of salvia divinorum for $35 to $80, according to manager Rachael Boelens.
"I've tried four times," Boelens said. "It's no more dangerous than alcohol."
Boelens said her shop warns purchasers not to drive while under the influence.
Stancliff referenced in his testimony the parents of a 17-year-old Delaware boy, who say salvia divinorum led to their son's suicide. Brett Chidester wrote in his journal that the drug led him to gain incredible insights into the universe. Chidester was also battling depression.
Jack Degenstein testified on Wednesday representing a group of salvia divinorum users and others concerned about laws banning the substance. He said Chidester's death was the only fatality in the nation connected to the drug, and he doubts Sally D was the leading cause of his suicide.
Degenstein said politicians and the media have misunderstood the drug.
"The fact is, divinorum is not as dangerous as one might believe," he said.
The primary effects or hallucinations last about seven minutes, followed by an afterglow buzz lasting between 15 minutes and an hour, Degenstein said.
Some first-timers seeking the drug are looking for a high, but learn it isn't what they expect and do not try it again, Degenstein said. Regular users take it for meditation sessions, he added.
The average age of users is 23 and the frequency is 1.5 times per month, according to Degenstein.
Articles on salvia divinorum say the medical community is interested in seeing its effects on those suffering from Alzheimer's disease. Other members of the committee and Therriault said they do not want the bill to impede such research.
"My concern is that we don't do anything that will get in the way of medical research," said Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau. Otherwise, he said, he does not have a problem with the bill.
Andrew Petty can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.