Walking down Valencia St, I ran into one of the researchers running the drug study I’d just participated in. The study was on Salvia, a legal hallucinogen that’s grown a little too popular for middle America’s comfort of late. “Dr Mendelson (guy behind the study) was just quoted in the NY Times!”, she said. “They ran a story on Salvia and it’s the number two most emailed story!” Now this I had to read. Over the course of my dosing sessions I’d learned a lot about the drug from the researchers monitoring me, and was curious to compare my knowledge to what the media was putting out there.
As usual, the NY Times was well researched and balanced. It chronicled the growing hysteria over the drug, citing its growing popularity as a recreational drug, and dutifully retelling the story of the 17 year old kid who supposedly committed suicide because of it (his mom says his mental heath was fine until he started smoking Salvia). It also linked to YouTube videos of kids doing Salvia, which were stoking much of the controversy, including the incendiary ‘Driving On Salvia’ video, which has garnered more than half a million hits.
But the article also had plenty of hysteria calming facts. It noted Salvia’s roots as a spiritual tool of Mazatec shamans in its native Oaxaca Mexica, the drug’s potential for medical use, and the virtual nonexisentce of Salvia-related emergency room visits. And when the authors bring up the oft cited ‘Driving On Salvia’ video, they mention that the video is part of a popular series of parodies. The man behind the wheel, it’s pointed out, never actually drives or had any intention of doing so—the keys he fumbles with are not to the car.
Dr Mendelson, who I met during one of my dosing sessions, interestingly, is quoted near the end of the article talking about the business opportunities for the drug.
“We have this incredible new compound, the first in its class; it absolutely has potential medical use, and here we’re talking about throttling it because some people get intoxicated on it,” said Dr. John Mendelson, a pharmacologist at the California Pacific Medical Center Research Institute who, with federal financing, is studying salvia’s impact on humans. “It couldn’t be more foolish from a business point of view.”
Later that night, flipping TV channels, I saw a teaser for a local news story on Salvia. It appeared the local news was getting in on the action. Here’s the video (sorry about the link, local news won’t let you embed video).
I have to say, for a piece probably thrown together that day based on the NY Times story, it wasn’t terrible. They incorporated a lot of facts about the drug, and even did a little original reporting by interviewing a UCSF researcher who’d published a paper on the popularity of Salvia.
But, in typical local news form, they couldn’t resist throwing in the fear factor. Most of the piece was about the dangers of Salvia. When they show a clip from ‘Driving On Salvia’, it’s shown for a split second with the voice-over, “Some kids may make the mistake of getting behind the wheel”. Then they cut to a druggy looking kid in a head shop, talking about how Salvia causes out of body experiences while he sways back and forth. C’mon now!
At the end of the piece, the CBS 5 doctor featured throughout the piece does mention the study I’d participated in, and say there may be medical benefits. But, as someone who’s done Salvia recreationally and clinically, and educated myself enough not be hysterical about it, to throw in a brief mention of the possible medical benefits at the end of a scare piece was too little too late.
Moral of the story: if something on the local news scares/interests you, read what the NY Times has to say about it. Or, even better, check for a wikipedia entry.