LEGISLATION; Suffolk Moves to Ban Youth-Tempting Drug


BEFORE voting Tuesday to ban the sale and possession of the hallucinogenic drug Salvia divinorum, Lynne C. Nowick, a Suffolk County legislator, showed her colleagues two videos posted on YouTube.

In the first, a teenager waves his left arm while seated and staring blankly as someone else laughs. A voice in the background attributes the boy’s actions to Salvia. In the second video, a teenager appearing to be in a daze after smoking Salvia is encouraged to sit down. He does, and minutes later crawls along the floor on all fours.

Ms. Nowick, a Smithtown Republican, sponsored the bill to ban Salvia divinorum (pronounced SAL-vee-ah dee-vin-OR-um), which is inexpensive, easily accessible and legal in most of the country.

She said she began researching the drug a year ago after seeing a news report about a 17-year-old Delaware high school student who committed suicide in 2006 after smoking Salvia. The medical examiner ruled that Salvia divinorum contributed to the boy’s death, and Delaware lawmakers banned the drug.

The Suffolk County law, which was passed, 17 to 0, includes penalties of up to a $1,000 fine and a year in prison. Steve Levy, the county executive, said he would sign the ban into law after conducting a public hearing within the next 30 days. It would become effective immediately.

According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, Salvia divinorum is a perennial plant native to Oaxaca, Mexico. Salvia divinorum, an herb similar to the sage plant, has large green leaves that when smoked or chewed induce ”mystical or hallucinogenic experiences,” the agency says.

Until now, Salvia divinorum has been sold on the Internet and in several smoke shops in Suffolk, the Suffolk County Police said. Susan E. Eckert, an aide in Ms. Nowick’s office, said she bought about a half-ounce of it Feb. 27 for $15 plus tax at a store in Commack.

Krista R. Whitman, a chemical dependency coordinator at the Pederson-Krag Center in Smithtown, an outpatient behavioral health and chemical dependency treatment center, said teenagers as young as 13 began reporting their use of Salvia divinorum about two years ago.

”We have noticed that adolescents are using it frequently because it is legal and it can’t be detected in urine drug screenings,” she said. She said the highs are strongest in the first few minutes.

Ms. Whitman said that since the beginning of 2006, there has been a 30 to 40 percent increase in Salvia use by those treated at her agency. ”It went from something we didn’t even think to screen for to something we now ask all the kids about,” she said.

Dr. Humayun J. Chaudhry, commissioner of the Suffolk Department of Health Services, said Salvia divinorum has no medicinal use.

Although there are no federal restrictions on the sale or possession of Salvia divinorum, a growing number of states and countries are clamping down. The federal Justice Department said seven states and eight nations had placed controls on Salvia divinorum or Salvinorin A, the plant’s active component, and a dozen states, including New York, were considering restrictions.

Anthony T. Ferrandino, a drug and alcohol counselor in the Northport-East Northport School District, said he recently began asking students if they used Salvia.

”Several of the kids admitted experimenting with it, and one kid described the high,” Mr. Ferrandino recalled. ”He said it was like an out-of-body experience — like he was in an altered reality state. He said it lasted 15 minutes.”

Maureen Rossi, president of Kings Park in the kNOw, a group of 20 residents formed to educate parents and children about the dangers of substance abuse, said that although the use of Salvia divinorum ”is not a huge problem here, some kids have used it.”

”Just look at YouTube,” she said. ”Will this law keep Suffolk County teenagers from using Salvia? No, because they can still buy it on the Internet. But at the end of the day, it creates an important dialogue and is a step in the right direction.”

PHOTO: PROPOSAL TO BAN: Lynne C. Nowick, a Suffolk County legislator, with a package of the hallucinogenic drug Salvia divinorum. (PHOTOGRAPH BY KIRK CONDYLES FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES)