'Bath salts' proving tough to control
KEENE — Christina Close, a drug addict most of her life, had been clean for more than a year before she discovered “bath salts.” “I thought I was getting a legal high,” said Close, 31, of Keene.
The drug had a “horrific” effect on her, however, making her feel like she'd experienced a bad acid trip mixed with a cocaine high, she said recently. “Bath salts” is a catch-all name for a group of synthetic drugs that mimic both stimulants and hallucinogens and can be bought at convenience stores throughout the country as well as online.
These synthetic drugs that come in powder form are not the same as the cosmetic salts used for aromatic baths but are sometimes marketed as “stimulating bath salts.”
They have also been marketed as plant food and stain remover among other household items. Essentially, they are a chemically engineered central nervous system stimulant that mimics the effects of illegal drugs such as ecstasy, methamphetamine and cocaine, according to Assistant Attorney General Karin Eckel.
“Like every other state, we're seeing problems with synthetic designer drugs,” Eckel said. “Typically, the young adults, teens, are purchasing these products. I think it's pretty clear these substances are being used as alternatives to illegal drugs. They are being marketed in a way as to avoid illegal activity by labeling these items as bath salts or incense.”
Keene police Lt. Steve Stewart said officers have encountered several people suspected of being high on bath salts over the past year.
“We saw signs of paranoia and hallucinations. They thought that they were being followed,” Stewart said. “One of them had been talking about suicide and acted on it” unsuccessfully.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration is struggling to keep up with the new drugs. In October 2011, the Drug Enforcement Administration placed an emergency ban on three synthetic cathinones — central nervous system stimulants — used to make bath salts, but manufacturers turned around and altered their chemical mixtures to keep the sale of their products legal.
“They adjust the chemical composition, so law enforcement is constantly going back to update what's being sold, what's being used and abused,” said Rockingham County Sheriff Michael Downing. Rockingham County is also grappling with the new and growing drug problem, he said.
A few weeks ago, a woman's bizarre behavior led police to seize more than $100,000 worth of bath salts and other synthetic drugs from a market on Route 125 in Plaistow near the Massachusetts border. The bath salts raid was the first of its kind in New Hampshire, Downing said. A few days later, the woman was found again displaying bizarre behavior, this time near the Plaistow market.
“We are aware of the problem, and we have been keeping our eyes open,” Downing said. The seized substances have been sent to the state crime lab for analysis, and the case remains under investigation, he said.
Because police are not sure yet whether the bath salts seized contain the illegal substances, no charges have been filed.
“Other parts of the country have experienced this problem,” Downing said, “but it's spreading. It's here, and it's largely inexpensive, and that presents a problem because it's being sold in places of business, so it's readily accessible.''
Cases this year
So far in 2012, the state police forensics lab has had 42 cases involving bath salts, said Tim Pifer, lab director for New Hampshire State Police Forensics Lab. In about half of those cases, the bath salts were found to contain controlled substances. The other half closely resembled banned drugs, but differed enough to avoid being considered illegal.
“It really is literally a cat-and-mouse game to change formulas and minor compositions of the chemical compounds to certainly subvert the law,” Pifer said. Just last week, Eckel said, Congress passed another emergency ban on 26 synthetic chemicals and two synthetic cathinones.
Usually, police encounters with someone on bath salts result in a trip to the emergency room, Stewart said. People experience extremely high heart rates, he said. In one case, a man injured himself when he punched through a glass window.
“Part of the problem is, sometimes we don't really know if that's what they are on,” Stewart said. Suspected users may also be dropped off at the county jail under 24-hour protective custody.
According to Richard N. Van Wickler, superintendent of the Cheshire County House of Corrections in Keene, the use of bath salts in the United States increased 2,000 percent in 2010. Last week, he had a database set up to keep track of bath salts cases at the jail.
“We feel it's that bad of a problem,” Wickler said. “This is an effort that we've just started because we noticed it's been a significant increase, and it's our impression that it's much worse than the public thinks it is.”
One doctor's view Dr. Harnett Sethi, chairman and medical director of the Emergency Department at Chesire Medical Center/Dartmouth-Hitchcock Keene, said patients suffering from the effects of bath salts started trickling into the emergency room about a year ago.
“Most are coming in by either police or EMS or a combination of police or EMS,” Sethi said.“These are not patients that come easily.”
People on bath salts place a huge drain on hospital resources, as well as take an emotional toll on the nursing staff. The patients also keep police officers in the ER when they would normally return to their patrol.
“In these cases the police cannot even leave because the potential for violence or danger is so high,” Sethi said. Sethi recalled a recent case in which a woman high on bath salts had two children in her care. “The collateral damage to family and other people cannot be understated,” he said.
Manufacturers label the products “not for human consumption” in an attempt to avoid legal problems.
“Conversely and perversely, that's what patients know to look for,” Sethi said. “It's almost like they are using the not-for-human-consumption sticker for advertisement, which is twisted.” Over the past year the number of cases has increased to the point in which it is not uncommon to see one a week.
Sethi estimates that over the past three months the emergency room has seen between two to six bath salts patients a month. At first it was drug-users known to ER staff, but the use of bath salts has since spread to a wider population of people, Sethi said.
“There's this perception ... because they are legal they are safe, and that cannot be farther than the truth.”
The patients exhibit breathing and cardiac problems associated with uppers and the psychosis associated with hallucinogenic drugs, Sethi said. “It's sort of a combination of crack and PCP. … It's like the worst of both worlds. Not only do they trip, but they have a bad trip.”
There is an “out-of-control component” to these patients, he said, they are in “acute psychosis” and need to be heavily medicated on sedatives and anti-psychotic medications.
“The bath salts are even tipping our established users into a much more destructive behavior patterns,” he said. “There are so many bad things about bath salts. … I'm frankly just shocked there is not more of a public outrage about this. I can't believe people aren't out boycotting the stores selling these products.”
For more information, go to http://www.justice.gov/dea/pubs/abuse/drug_data_sheets/Bath_Salts.pdf.
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Meghan Pierce may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.