Canada is no longer a safe legal haven for salvia divinorum, the potent hallucinogenic plant sold openly online and in head shops across the country.
Yet no one seems aware of the law and Health Canada is not enforcing it.
Websites and shopkeepers are still advertising the plant as a perfectly legal head trip for Canadians eager to join the thousands of "pschonauts" who've posted videos of their psychedelic salvia voyages on YouTube.
An estimated 1.6 per cent of Canadians 15 or older have already taken at least one ride on salvia, according to the 2009 Canadian Alcohol and Drug Use Monitoring Survey, the first to measure use of the plant.
For those 15-24, the number rises to 7.3 per cent.
Yet the federal government says products containing salvia divinorum and its active ingredient, salvinorin A, are considered natural health products and, as such, must be authorized by Health Canada before they can be sold.
'Illegal to sell'
"It is illegal to sell NHPs [natural health products] in Canada unless they have been reviewed by Health Canada and authorized for sale," Christelle Legault, a spokesperson for Health Canada, told The Canadian Press in an email.
"To date, Health Canada has not licensed for sale any drug or NHP that contains salvia as an ingredient."
Legault added: "The illegal sale of products containing S. divinorum and/or salvinorin A may be subject to compliance and enforcement action under the Food and Drugs Act."
This comes as news to head shops that are openly selling vials of salvia extract — for $20 to $80 per gram, depending on the potency — within spitting distance of Parliament Hill.
One shopkeeper, who asked not to be identified, said he's had no notification that the plant, also known as diviner's sage and magic mint, can no longer be legally sold in Canada. He said he purchases the extract from a Canadian supplier.
It's news to the police as well, who have complained previously that their hands are tied when it comes to salvia, which has been known to produce some adverse reactions, including one case reported by Health Canada in 2006 in which a teenage boy became incoherent and suicidal, and threatened to kill police officers.
'Nothing we can do,' RCMP says
"Until the government makes it illegal, there's nothing we can do about it," said Robin Percival, communications strategist for drugs and organized crime at RCMP national headquarters.
Informed that Health Canada says it is, in fact, illegal to sell salvia without authorization under the Natural Health Products Regulations, Percival said: "I don't think we have any jurisdiction there."
Indeed, it would appear that enforcement of the regulations is entirely up to Health Canada's Health Products and Food Branch Inspectorate.
Asked why Health Canada has not stopped the illegal sale of salvia, department spokesman Gary Holub said complaints can be referred to the inspectorate by calling 1-800-267-9675.
However, an open letter from the inspectorate to "all interested parties" on Aug. 27 suggests the inspectorate has not yet really begun in earnest to enforce the natural health products regulations.
The letter recounts that the regulations came into force in 2004. Due to the large backlog of products that needed to be assessed for safety and quality before they could be licensed by Health Canada, suppliers were given until June 2008 to submit applications for licensing.
It appears the process took longer than expected and only now is the inspectorate preparing to actually enforce the regulations.
The letter advises that a new compliance and enforcement policy has now been adopted and is to be fully implemented in February. In the meantime, suppliers are being given a six-month transition period during which those who've taken steps to become compliant and have made a submission for licensing will be "considered a lower priority for enforcement, unless a risk to health or additional non-compliances are identified."
Chances of approval slim
The chances of salvia ever receiving Health Canada's seal of approval seem slim, given the department's dim view of the product.
"Canadians should not use products containing S. divinorum and/or salvinorin A because very little is known about the substance and its potential effects on the brain, and/or body and its impact on physical and mental functions," said Legault.
Indeed, she said, Health Canada is reviewing available information about the plant to determine whether it should be included in the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, which regulates or bans drugs deemed to have a higher-than-average risk of abuse or addiction.
Salvia is already banned or regulated in about a dozen countries, including Australia, Japan, Germany and Belgium, and some dozen U.S. states.