Move to ban hallucinogenic herb questioned

An addictions expert in Alberta says the federal government needs to do more homework before it bans salvia, a potent hallucinogenic herb that's currently classified as a natural health product.

An addictions expert in Alberta says the federal government needs to do more homework before it bans salvia, a potent hallucinogenic herb that's currently classified as a natural health product.

Smoking salvia —also known as magic mint and diviner's sage — can produce a short but intense high similar to the effects of LSD.  

Health Canada announced last month that it wants to add salvia — and its active ingredient, salvinorin A — to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.

An addictions expert at the University of Alberta is questioning Ottawa's plan to ban salvia, a hallucinogenic herb. ((The Canadian Press))
The change would make it illegal to produce, possess, traffic, import or export the substances.

But a psychiatry professor at the University of Alberta says the government needs to gather more evidence first.

"At this stage it is highly under-researched and it's basically a guess shot at this point as to what the consequences are," said Dr. Sharl Els.

"Frankly, we don't even really know how many people in Canada are using salvia and let alone, how many people are presenting to emergency rooms or how many people are having side effects because of salvia."

American medical journals have reported on salvia-related health problems, Health Canada officials said.

And the Canadian Alcohol and Drug Use Monitoring Survey in 2009 found 7.3 per cent of youths aged 15-24 reported having used salvia at least once.

But Els said there's still not enough Canadian data to justify banning the substances.

"Certainly we need evidence to suggest, or evidence to demonstrate that there is indeed a tangible risk to the health of Canadians before we shape policy."

Widely available

Because salvia is currently classified as a natural health product, it must be authorized by Health Canada before it can be sold.

No such authorizations have been granted, but the agency appears to have done little to enforce its regulations. Salvia is widely available at head shops across the country and through the internet, touted as an alternative to illicit drugs.

Health Canada filed its notice of intent to ban the herb in the Canada Gazette on Feb. 4. Stakeholders were given 30 days to comment on the proposal.

Other countries, including Australia, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Italy, Spain and Sweden, have already controlled or banned salvia. It's also illegal in about a dozen U.S. states.

With files from The Canadian Press