Salvia should not be banned

A man sits in a car, lights a bong and waits until his “vision begins to vibrate.” He has just taken a hit of salvia– a drug which brings on a strong hallucinogenic experience for about 15 minutes– and then sits motionless at the steering wheel. Very shortly, he begins muttering under his breath, “Excuse me, I have to go to space now.” A minute later the man gasps and stares outside. The camera pans to show a cat sitting on the windshield of the parked car. This video and others like it demonstrate the effects of salvia, which is currently legal in Canada. Health Canada, however, wishes to make it illegal because of its similar properties to drugs like LSD.

Although salvia has been available for years, the popularity of YouTube videos showing people smoking it to get high has led politicians to call for the drug’s criminalization. Because the drug is considered a natural health product, shops are supposed to have permission from Health Canada to sell it. Permits have never been issued by Health Canada, but the distribution of the drug hasn’t been restricted– it’s available in shops across Calgary. The proposal will put salvia on the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, making it illegal to produce, possess and sell the drug.

Health Canada claims that salvia poses a risk to Canadians, especially youth. A survey in 2009 found that 7.3 per cent of Canadians 15 to 24 years old have tried salvia. While there are reasons for banning minors from using the drug– it causes intense hallucinations so minors may not be responsible enough to deal with the drug’s effects– Health Canada hasn’t provided evidence that it is harmful. It isn’t a chemically addictive substance and no negative health effects have been demonstrated.

What can Health Canada argue to justify banning salvia? Very little, actually. Like any drug that causes altered states of mind, there is good reason to restrict its use. Driving while high on salvia, if even possible, would be very dangerous. Unlike marijuana, however, it’s very easy to detect when users are high on salvia as they’re completely incapacitated. Similarly, restricting the sale of salvia to those over 18 years old and making it illegal to distribute to minors are justified actions, but the complete banning of the substance is not.

It’s dangerous to drive a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol and minors aren’t responsible enough to be allowed to buy it. These facts, however, don’t justify the outright banning of alcohol. People get hurt while drunk, yet alcohol is still rightfully legal. Instead, alcohol is regulated to prevent harm to others. It’s insufficient for Health Canada to declare that salvia poses a risk to users with the hopes of justifying a full ban without actually pointing out how those risks are likely enough to occur.

Health Canada ought to be taking an informative role, rather than a paternalistic one. Watching videos of people high on salvia is just as likely to motivate people not to use it themselves. And while statistics of reuse are sparse, it’s likely that of the 7.3 per cent of people who have tried salvia, the strong hallucinations it causes led many not to use it again. But adults should be allowed to decide for themselves whether or not they want to have such experiences. Even if studies show that salvia causes health problems, Health Canada should only be tasked with educating people on those problems. If we want to smoke tobacco, knowing that it will cause cancer, that is something we should be allowed to do.

Canadians should be unconvinced of the campaign to ban such drugs. The burden of proof is on Health Canada to show that the harms of using salvia are, like heroin, sufficiently high to justify an outright ban. No such harms will be brought forth, however, because no such harms exist.

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