Drug outlawed in N.D. puts man on the spot
Aug 02, 2008 - 16:05:05 CDT
By JENNY MICHAEL
Kenneth Rau flips through his copy of “The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants” as he describes how he became interested in salvia divinorum. The nearly 1,000-page book contains page after page of information on natural substances that can effect a person’s mental processes.
“I got into it indirectly,” Rau said, explaining how he first started looking into amanita muscaria, a mushroom legal in most of the world including the United States.
Rau said he became interested in amanitas while studying religions and the origins of religions. He learned the red mushrooms with white spots were supposed to be the oldest psychoactive substance and had connections to monotheistic religions. He was interested in gaining a deeper spiritual understanding, so he thought he’d try them.
When he purchased some of the mushrooms, the buyer offered him salvia divinorum. Rau was unfamiliar with the substance and initially was uninterested. After doing some research about the plant, he learned it can cause disequilibrium and disorientation. He remained uninterested until he learned some people report having dreams of early life experiences after using salvia.
In December 2007, Rau decided to try salvia. He was unaware North Dakota was one of several states to make the plant and its active ingredient, salvinorin A, illegal. In April, he was arrested after officers found the salvia while doing a probation search on his son. Rau, 47, is believed to be the first person in North Dakota or the United States arrested for salvia.
Salvia divinorum and its active ingredient, salvinorin A, were made illegal by the 2007 North Dakota Legislature. Salvia divinorum, a perennial herb, is native to Mexico and related to other varieties of salvia, which are common garden plants. The plant is green and leafy, and has no flowers. While salvia divinorum has hallucinogenic effects when chewed or smoked, other varieties of salvia are not known to have such effects.
Neither salvia divinorum nor salvinorin A are controlled under the federal Controlled Substances Act. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Office of Diversion Control, North Dakota is one of nine states to have made possession of salvia illegal as of June. Three other states have enacted legislation to restrict distribution of the plant. Bills are pending in other states.
Rau purchased the salvia divinorum leaves through eBay, the same way he purchased the amanita muscaria. Rau said he wanted to see if he would have clearer memories of early life experiences while using salvia. He explained he had seen a teacher from his younger years once and felt a strange feeling of shame he couldn’t explain. That and some earlier nightmares spurred him on.
He stayed up the night before to ensure he’d be tired. He laid down, closed his eyes and chewed the leaves.
Rau reported having realistic dreams of “kid stuff,” playgrounds and people he hadn’t seen or thought about for years.
Rau, who has depression, said the salvia had an antidepressant effect on him, similar to a positive social experience.
He chewed the leaves instead of smoking them because the effects last longer by chewing. He said he used “smaller, more therapeutic” doses than people who use the substance for recreational purposes.
“Salvia itself is very subtle,” Rau said. “I was more interested in the more subtle effects.”
The experience wasn’t entirely positive — the salvia leaves were bitter, he said.
“You have to be pretty motivated” to use it in that manner, he said.
Rau tried to make a tea from the leaves but found the method ineffective. The bitterness of chewing the leaves combined with a busy work schedule left Rau with a lot of unused salvia divinorum.
Officers found about 8 ounces of the green leaves in Rau’s home during the search.
“I had planned on using it quite a bit,” Rau explained, saying he “just had it on hand.”
Because of the amount of the leaves found, Rau was charged with possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver. The charge is a Class A felony, carrying a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and fines of up to $10,000. A preliminary hearing in the case has not been scheduled.
Rau contends he had no intentions of selling or distributing his salvia divinorum and would not have an idea of what it would be worth in smaller quantities. He also faces marijuana charges for the April 7 incident.
A Class A felony charge of possession of psilocybin with intent to deliver was dismissed on July 16 by South Central District Judge Robert Wefald at the request of Burleigh County Assistant State’s Attorney Cynthia Feland. Feland said lab results showed the mushrooms seized from Rau were not psilocybin. Rau said they were amanita muscaria mushrooms, which are legal.
Since Rau was arrested and charged, he has become somewhat of an Internet celebrity. Typing his name and the word salvia into online search engines yields thousands of results, including forums and chat rooms dedicated to discussing his case. One forum bears the name “Free Kenneth Rau!!!”
Though some forums encourage people to contact the Burleigh County State’s Attorney’s Office and urge them not to continue with the prosecution, Feland said that would not have any effect on the case.
Since the Legislature decided to make salvia illegal, state’s attorneys have to prosecute violations of the new law, she said. She compared it to someone using marijuana medicinally being arrested for possession of the drug — though some would argue the use was for a legitimate purpose, it is still illegal under North Dakota law.
“We can’t pick and choose what to prosecute,” she said.
Sen. Randy Christmann, R-Hazen, a sponsor of the bill to outlaw salvia divinorum, said he was approached by someone in the Hazen school system who told him the plant was being used by students. Christmann studied up on it and felt it posed a danger to his constituents, primarily the young ones.
Christmann said he worries young people thinking of trying substances may have been drawn to salvia because of its legal status without thinking of its effects. They may choose not to use marijuana, methamphetamine or even alcohol because of its legal status but start using salvia.
“I don’t want our young people to be misled and think something is perfectly safe just because it’s legal,” he said.
Few, if any people, showed up to oppose Christmann’s bill in committees, though he said he received, and continues to receive, e-mails from people across the country in favor of keeping salvia divinorum legal.
“We felt there was no good reason to allow that to continue lawfully,” he said. “I just feel it’s a destructive thing without enough up-side to justify its use.”
Rau thinks laws should regulate the sale and use of salvia but not make it completely illegal.
“When you prohibit something, you lose the ability to regulate it,” he said, adding that it also limits research into possible positive effects.
He thinks it would be worthwhile for researchers to look into salvia’s effects on the elderly, since older people may have trouble recalling earlier life experiences.
Since the federal government has not moved toward prohibiting or regulating salvia, Rau thinks states may be jumping the gun in prohibiting the substance. Christmann doesn’t feel waiting for Washington to act is in the best interests of North Dakota.
“I’m not one who usually relies too much on what the federal government tells me to do,” he said.
Rau doesn’t think salvia has shown itself to be a problem drug historically. Salvia has been used by indigenous people of Mexico, called Mazatecs, for thousands of years. An article in Life Magazine in the 1960s mentioned salvia divinorum. Yet, the use of salvia has not spread as the use of other drugs has, Rau said.
“It hasn’t been something significant, because most people aren’t even aware of it,” he said.
Flipping again through the voluminous psychoactive plant encyclopedia, Rau points out other substances that can have similar effects as salvia but haven’t been made illegal. Rau believes Internet videos of people behaving oddly while smoking salvia may be contributing to the spread of laws outlawing it.
“Basically, someone wants to send me to prison because some people are abusing it on YouTube,” Rau said.
Once the court case wraps up, Rau may move to a state where salvia is legal, such as one of the states bordering North Dakota.
“This is nothing I’m ashamed of or think I did anything wrong,” Rau said.
(Reach reporter Jenny Michael at 250-8225 or [email protected].)