You can look at it, but don't smoke it.
That's the gist of a new Georgia law that took effect Thursday.
It targets a plant called Salvia divinorum, a member of the sage family, which has psychoactive properties and can produce powerful hallucinations when smoked.
The plant also gives pleasure to gardeners, simply because it's pretty. Salvia has green leaves, and bright, foot-high summer flowers and is a popular choice for flower beds, street corner gardens and office park landscaping. Hence the unusual exemption that legislators adopted along with the prohibition.
Last month, Gov. Sonny Perdue signed the bill into law. As of July 1, the plant is on the list of "dangerous drugs" in Georgia. It is now a misdemeanor offense to possess the plant except for ornamental uses.
The once commonly-available substance seems to have disappeared from shelves at head shops across Atlanta. Calls to several shops produced denials that they'd ever carried it though proprietors were happy to point out competitors who did. One store manager admitted Thursday that he'd emptied his shelves of it a day earlier but wouldn't give his name. "I really don't want to talk about it," he said.
Lawmakers added an exemption for those who are growing the plant "strictly for aesthetic, landscaping, or decorative purposes."
"That's a crack in the wall that you could push an elephant through," chuckled Mike Kunce, the CEO of Armstrong Garden Centers, which owns the Atlanta gardening chain Pike Nurseries.
Kunce said the law won't affect his stores and that he doesn't need the exemption. Pike sells Salvia plants, but he said it's a different species from the one that people smoke for a high.
"I wouldn't put anyting in the stores that was hallucenogenic because it would be bad for our reputation," he said.
The lawmaker behind the new prohibition said he wanted to address rampant popularity of the drug without going overboard.
Rep. John Lunsford (R-McDonough) said he became interested after a friend told him about some youths from Fayetteville who smoked Salvia behind an amphitheater. He went online and discovered thousands of YouTube videos demonstrating youths experiencing the quick highs it produces.
The videos show often giggling youths stumbling and otherwise incapacitated.
"I think it's a dangerous drug, no doubt about it," Lunsford said. He said he included the gardening exemption out of recognition of its popularity as an ornamental plant. "We don't want grandma to have to tear it out of her front yard," he said.
People could use the exemption to skirt the law, but Lunsford said that's an unlikely prospect given the amount they would have to grow -- hundreds of acres worth probably -- to produce an effective product. The leaves of the plant, which come from Mexico, were historically chewed by shamans there for spiritual purposes. But to pack the punch that youths seek today, its oils must be extracted and it must be smoked in concentrations 20 to 50 times higher than occur naturally.
"Unless you cook it down, it really doesn't do much for you," he said. "You can go into your yard and smoke it all day long, but I don't think you'll get much out of it," said Lunsford.
It's unclear just how prevalent salvia use is in Georgia.
Investigators in the Atlanta Police Department’s Narcotics Unit know about the drug but have not encountered it in any of their search warrants, said department spokesman Carlos Campos.
Of course, it wasn't illegal until Thursday. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation similarly has no statistics on salvia use because its labs are only now being outfitted to test for the drug.
"Obviously, we don't have any cases, but we have been getting calls from local [law enforcement] agencies about the bill," GBI spokesman John Bankhead said. He said the GBI also has gotten calls from parents who wanted to know whether their children were breaking the law by possessing it.
Bankhead said Salvia will not be a high-priority enforcement target. The agency is still placing a priority on enforcement of the high-dollar drugs that everyone already knows about -- methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana.
Thursday, July 1, 2010
By Ty Tagami
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution