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Senate supports banning hallucinogenic drug salvia

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota may be on the brink of joining the North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin in banning the sale and possession of an increasingly popular hallucinogenic drug.

House and Senate bill would make selling salvia divinorum, a Mexican herb known for producing short and intense highs, a gross misdemeanor. Possession would be a misdemeanor.

Senators tentatively approved the bill Thursday.

"There's a growing concern by law enforcement people around the country that this is a problem," said Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, who authored the House bill.

Moorhead Police Chief David Ebinger said no laws govern buying the drug. There are penalties for providing children with cigarettes, but not with salvia, he said, adding that while he doesn't condone marijuana use he thinks it's far less dangerous.

When chewed or smoked, the drug produces a hallucinogenic high that lasts between a few minutes and a few hours. The effects reportedly range from intense feelings of calm to panic and depression.

Ebinger said banning the salvia could immediately cut demand.

"As noxious as this substance is ... people are going to buy something that's not nearly as dangerous or unpleasant as this stuff is," he said.

Rep. Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights, first tried to outlaw the drug in 2008. Lanning took up the fight this year after talking with Ebinger, who told him Minnesota law enforcement officials had seen an increase in the sale and use of salvia since North Dakota banned the product three years ago.

Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, who spent more than three decades in law enforcement, said that passing the bill would lessen the likelihood of increased use in Minnesota as border states enact bans on salvia.

Gov. Jim Doyle signed a bill this month making salvia illegal in Wisconsin. It's also illegal in North Dakota and South Dakota.

A handful of neighborhood stores selling salvia opened in Moorhead after North Dakota banned the drug, said Ingebrigtsen, who authored the Senate bill. The measure drew no opposition Thursday in the Senate debate.

He said he has heard from opponents of drug legislation but disagrees with their stance.

"We still have to go to battle every day," he said. "We don't want a state of euphoria walking around us."

Senate Minority Leader David Senjem, R-Rochester, asked if the bill dealt seriously enough with offenders. Ingebrigtsen indicated that some states have made possession and sale a felony-level crime but that the current proposal would be a good start.

"It's certainly something we could address at a later time," he said.

In an interview, Lanning indicated that the costs involved in jailing those who break the law prevented him from attempting to make possessing or using salvia a felony.

"Going for a felony like North Dakota did would have costs associated with it," Lanning said.

Tellijohn reports for Forum Communications Co.