No One Is Suggesting Salvia Made Him Do It—Except Us


A recent New York Times story about Jared Lee Loughner's fondness for the psychedelic plant Salvia divinorum begins with a statement that clearly is not true: "No one has suggested that his use of a hallucinogenic herb or any other drugs contributed to Jared L. Loughner's apparent mental unraveling that culminated with his being charged in a devastating outburst of violence here." In fact, prohibitionists such as conservative commentator David Frum, Accuracy in Media's Cliff Kincaid, and Mail on Sunday columnist Peter Hitchens were quick to blame Loughner's crime on "marijuana and other mind-altering drugs." And the Times, despite its opening disclaimer, immediately lends support to this theory:

It is striking how closely the typical effects of smoking the herb, Salvia divinorum — which federal drug officials warn can closely mimic psychosis — matched Mr. Loughner's own comments about how he saw the world, like his often-repeated assertion that he spent most of his waking hours in a dream world that he had learned to control.

Salvia is a potent but legal drug marketed with promises of producing a transcendental spiritual journey: out-of-body experiences, existence in multiple realities, the revelation of secret knowledge and, according to one online seller, "permanent mind-altering change in perception."

Mr. Loughner, 22, was at one point a frequent user of the plant, also known as diviner's sage, which he began smoking while in high school during a time in which he was also experimenting with marijuana, hallucinogenic mushrooms and other drugs, according to friends. Mental health professionals warn that drug use can both aggravate and mask the onset of mental illness….

It remains unclear what, if any, role salvia played in shaping Mr. Loughner's views. But the shootings have once again drawn attention to a drug that — for little more than the cost of a pack of cigarettes and without the hassle of showing a driver's license — a growing number of young people here and throughout much of the country are legally buying and using.

If these paragraphs do not suggest that salvia "contributed to Jared L. Loughner's apparent mental unraveling," what function do they serve? And while "it remains unclear what, if any, role salvia played in shaping Mr. Loughner's views," that uncertainty does not stop the Times from suggesting that mass murder might be one side effect of smoking salvia—yet another reason to be concerned about its legal availability.

There is nothing at all "striking" about the similarity between the salvia experience and a waking dream. The same could be said of many psychoactive substances, especially psychedelics. As for the warning from "federal drug officials" that the effects of salvia "can closely mimic psychosis," that is what they say about every drug they do not like, especially psychedelics. In fact, an old-fashioned synonym for psychedelic ("mind-manifesting") is psychotomimetic ("psychosis-imitating"), which reflected the belief that scientists could learn about psychosis by studying subjects under the influence of drugs like LSD, since both states feature perceptual changes, "disordered" thinking, and hallucinations (although psychedelic users do not typically experience true hallucinations, since they usually recognize that the drug-induced visions are not real). But the superficial resemblance between psychosis and a psychedelic trip tells us nothing about the alleged role of salvia in Loughner's "mental unraveling," let alone the general risks of using the drug.

In my 2009 Reason article about "The Salvia Ban Wagon," I showed how alarmist press coverage like this New York Times story had encouraged state laws prohibiting sale and possession of the drug.