Sunday Mail 6th February 2005
by Norman Silvester
THESE are the moments when one of the government's computer officials gets blasted on the herbal weed he sells from his home.
By day Robert solves IT problems for the Government. But in his spare time he flogs an alternative to cannabis called 'herbal ecstasy' across Britain, Europe and South America.
And he even sells DVDs showing how to smoke it.
The drug comes from the plant Salvia Divinorum, which is the strongest naturally-occurring hallucinogenic.
It is banned in Australia, Denmark and Finland but is not covered by British drugs laws.
Robert, 43, sold a plant to a Sunday Mail reporter posing as a buyer.
We visited his rented flat in Edinburgh's New Town where homes sell for up to £1million.
He sold us the DVD which shows him getting high on the drug which is chewed or smoked in a 'bong' pipe.
He said: 'It is an acquired taste but it is also a rewarding drug.
'There is a lot of interest in my plants from across the world.
'You get all the benefits of drugs like cannabis and LSD but not the hassle from the police or authorities.
'There is also little or no hangover from the drug. I would highly recommend it.'
Robert showed our reporter how to set up a water pipe to smoke the drug and offered him a free puff which he declined.
On his website Robert does admit that Salvia is potentially dangerous.
He says: 'It is not comforting or escapist. You may not like it and you may find aspects of it quite disturbing.'
Users of SD have suffered hallucinations, double vision and mental health problems.
High doses of SD can cause unconsciousness and short-term memory loss. Long-term abuse of SD has been linked to depression, schizophrenia and flashbacks.
Salvia Divinorum is one of a number of drugs the Home Office in Britain and many states in America would like banned.
He agreed to sell us a plant and a package of dried leaves for £25 after we called him.
We were able to book an appointment at his basement flat [...] Neighbours include High Court judges, surgeons, company executives and advocates.
Robert has sold plants to Brazil, South Africa, Iceland, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovenia, Hungary, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Cyprus and Malta.
The drug's increasing popularity, coupled with scientific acknowledgement of its mind-bending powers, has prompted the Government to review its legal status. But it could take years to ban.
Alistair Ramsay, director of Scotland Against Drugs, yesterday issued a warning against using SD.
He added: 'You do not know what you are taking - there is no quality control. Beware of using this drug, do not think it is safe because it is legal.'
Detective Sergeant Kenny Simpson, drugs co-ordinator at Strathclyde Police, said officers had recovered small quantities from raids on drug dealers. It has also been found on sale at rock festivals T in the Park and Gig on the Green.
DS Simpson added: 'Stall holders who sell Salvia Divinorum at festivals will be told not to as there have been reports of people falling ill .'
Yesterday Robert defended his right to grow Salvia. He said: 'It is completely different from ecstasy and cannabis. Salvia is not addictive - you are not going to get hooked after a few puffs.'
And he denied he was making a fortune from the drug.
He added: 'I sell the plant as a hobby and barely break even.'
Drugs expert Paul Sketts, of Glasgow University, believes legal highs such as SD are a con.
He said: 'Most are caffeine-based and you can get an equally high buzz drinking several cups of coffee quickly. However there are dangers because no real research has been done into the side effects of Salvia Divinorum.'
If you've time...
Follow this link for a detailed line-by-line breakdown of the story above
Otherwise, my initial summary rebuttal follows below...
Tabloid hack makes up story and flogs it as journalism
The above story is so inaccurate it’s difficult to know where to start.
The report is so biased that we must assume it’s a deliberate deceit rather than simple stupidity. Part of me thinks resistance is futile, but, for the record, I’ll point out a few things. In particular, to differentiate between half-truths and downright lies.
...in his spare time he flogs an alternative to cannabis called 'herbal ecstasy' Firstly, it’s important to recognise that Salvia divinorum and ‘herbal ecstasy’ are two different things. The term ‘herbal ecstasy’ has a generality about it, but is usually taken to mean a mixture of herbs containing the active ingredient ephedrine, – often supplemented or simply replaced with caffeine.
Drugs expert Paul Sketts, of Glasgow University, believes legal highs such as SD are a con. He said: 'Most are caffeine-based and you can get an equally high buzz drinking several cups of coffee quickly. Our reporter must have used the term ‘herbal ecstasy’ in talking to Glasgow University’s Dr Paul Skett. I do not have experience of this myself, but I’m quite prepared to believe the effects of ‘herbal ecstasy’ are not much different to several cups of coffee. No ‘expert’ would confuse this with Salvia divinorum, so the muddle is presumably on the writer’s part. If this was unintentional then it’s simply bad journalism, if not, it is irresponsible journalism.
I have not and do not sell ephedrine or caffeine based products. I have not and do not advertise Salvia divinorum as ‘herbal ecstasy’.
By the same token, the term ‘weed’ is popularly used as a colloquialism for cannabis. So the headline ‘Government boss smokes weed and flogs it from home’ must be seen as deliberately misleading (unless you assume the writer is not streetwise enough to be aware of the connotation).
Please note that I do not consider or promote or sell Salvia as a cannabis substitute (in fact I give cannabis fairly short thrift on this website).
“You get all the benefits of drugs like cannabis and LSD but not the hassle from the police or authorities.”
This is not simply a quote taken out of context. It’s something I didn’t say at all. Aren’t there laws against this kind of thing?
The author says: Users of SD have suffered hallucinations, double vision and mental health problems. High doses of SD can cause unconsciousness and short-term memory loss. Long-term abuse of SD has been linked to depression, schizophrenia and flashbacks.
One of the real dangers of hack journalism is when it touches on detail that the reader should be made aware of, because, in having no confidence in the writer’s credibility, you may dismiss as rubbish something that should be taken seriously.
It’s important to bear in mind that high doses of SD can affect motor control and bodily awareness. It is a good idea to have a sober sitter present, particularly for less experienced users. Individual sensitivity to Salvia is quite variable. It’s best to know how you react to it before you try it on your own.
I’m not aware of any problems with depression, schizophrenia and flashbacks associated with long term usage of Salvia. I shall further investigate, but I suspect this has been entirely made up, or he’s getting confused with cannabis again.
Many advocates of Salvia prefer the term visions to hallucinations.
Alistair Ramsay, director of Scotland Against Drugs, yesterday issued a warning against using SD. He added: 'You do not know what you are taking - there is no quality control. Beware of using this drug, do not think it is safe because it is legal.'
The report fails to mention that I do not deal in pre-processed Salvia. Apart from giving away some dry leaf samples, I specialise in the cultivation and propagation of live plants. I sell these with the recommendation that growing your own plant is the best way to get to know Salvia.
The pictures of me smoking Salvia were taken from my DVD-ROM (I added blur effect on scan above). In the report the second picture was accompanied by the caption 'eyes wide open as the drug starts to hit', the third '...wasted after puffing weed'. In fact, the order of pictures has been switched, in reality the 'eyes wide open' shot follows a few minutes after the 'wasted' shot.
The story suggests that I sold their reporter a DVD. Actually, I gave the DVD-ROM free of charge with the plant that I sold. Their undercover reporter offered me £6 for the disk, which I graciously declined (and they ungraciously haven’t mentioned).
All pictures used in the report were used without my permission.
The story contains other anomalies, for example, I don’t know in what sense I’m meant to be a government boss, I'm not even a civil servant. Neither do I follow the reporter's fixation with Edinburgh house prices. And there’s the use of pejorative and defamatory terms like ‘wasted’ – I explicitly say on my website that Salvia is not something to get you wasted – but I’ll leave my high level rebuttals there.
If you do feel like complaining to (or about) the journalist, Norman Silvester (email@example.com), please try to keep your comments factual, intelligent and civil. I understand how you may feel the gutter press deserves dogs’ abuse for this kind of thing, but abuse will only polarise opinion.
I believe the best argument will win (eventually).
Follow this link for a more detailed line-by-line breakdown
Follow this link for further communication with drugs 'expert' Dr Paul Skett
Follow this link for further communication with Alistair Ramsay / Scotland Against Drugs
Much appreciated readers' feedback