Bath salts to join list of controlled substances Sunday

Tuesday, August 23, 2011
Cpl. Jeff Bonham, Evidence Technician with the Cape Girardeau Police Department, displays several varieties of "bath salts," on Monday, Aug. 22, 2011. Last month, Gov. Nixon signed a law criminalizing the sale and possession of "bath salts" and other synthetic drugs in Missouri. The law will take effect this Sunday. (Kristin Eberts)

In her 32 years as an active drug user, Mary admits she's just about tried it all.

From a side room at the Family Counseling Center, she rattles off a list of hard-core drugs that range from crack and meth to heroin and Ecstasy.

But there was one that hit her harder than the others. Brought her life to ruin the fastest. Helped send her scurrying to rehab at age 50, swearing off drugs altogether.

And this particular drug she bought legally -- over the counter at a local convenience store, sold in a brightly colored package for about $35.

The culprit? So-called "bath salts," marketed as a household product, but in reality a high-powered powder that is being snorted, smoked and injected as a means to get high.

"It was terrible, just terrible," said Mary, who asked that her last name not be used. "What meth did to me in three or four years, bath salts did to me in three or four months. It really knocked me down."

A law that takes effect Sunday aims to curb the problem that police, health care providers and drug counselors say is getting out of hand. House Bill 641, a statewide ban on "bath salts" and "herbal incense," was signed by Gov. Jay Nixon last month.

The law expands the breadth of controlled substances in Missouri to include synthetic chemicals that can produce a high similar to that of cocaine or marijuana.

The law makes it illegal to sell or possess the bath salts and synthetic marijuana, such as K3, that were introduced in response to a similar law last year. Those caught with more than 35 grams of such drugs could now be charged with a Class C felony. Possessing amounts less than that could land you with a misdemeanor charge.

A similar law has been passed in Illinois.

Police say Missouri's law comes just in time as Cape Girardeau and the rest of Southeast Missouri has become a hotbed for bath salt users. There has been at least one fatality, and hospitals say they are seeing more and more patients who are suffering serious health consequences.

Kevin Glaser, Southeast Missouri Drug Task Force supervisor, said the product is largely being imported from Europe and that some business owners are buying their supply over the Internet.

A handful of stores in Cape Girardeau sell bath salts, which come with not-so-subtle names as "Charley Sheene" and "Lindsay," with caricatures of real-life celebrities who have famously struggled with drug addiction. They come with the warning that the product is not for human consumption.

The new law also aims to make it more difficult for companies to alter the chemical makeup to circumvent the law, Glaser said. That's what happened last year when K2, a synthetic marijuana, was made illegal, and K3 was introduced.

"This law would cover any changes that basically creates a drug that has the same effect," Glaser said. "We're hoping we won't have to come back in six months and have to do this all over again."

In Southeast Missouri, bath salts have become a major problem in the last nine to 12 months, Glaser said. They are appealing, he said, because they can be bought legally and those on probation or parole don't have to worry about drug tests because it doesn't show up in most screenings.

Glaser has already informed the stores that sell bath salts that it will be illegal beginning Sunday. He encouraged them to remove the items from their counters immediately. Some did. Others said they'd wait until the law goes into effect, he said.

Glaser doesn't look at the law as a cure-all and he knows it won't eradicate bath salts. But Missouri acted fairly quickly to regulate them, he said.

"I think that's key to keep it from reaching an epidemic proportion," Glaser said. "But it's one of those things. If the products out there and available, it's going to continue to get worse. Hopefully, this law will help it be less available."

Puts people in hospital

Illegal or not, Glaser warns that bath salts appear to be more dangerous than other more common street drugs.

"The bath salts are what we're seeing put people in the emergency rooms," Glaser said. "I've heard some hardened meth heads say they wouldn't touch that stuff."

Angela Selzer, the lead nurse practitioner for emergency services at Southeast Hospital, said they are treating patients who have used bath salts at an increasing clip.

"We're seeing some bad cases, and we're seeing them on an almost daily basis," Selzer said.

Patients who have used the drug come in highly agitated conditions and exhibit signs of paranoia and violence, she said.

"They are very uncomfortable in their own skin," Selzer said. "They are hallucinating. They are seeing bugs. They are seeing people chase them. They are hearing things. It's gotten bad."

Selzer's one admonition is for patients to be honest with them. Some do say they have used bath salts, but others deny it. That creates problems for treating it, she said.

Telling the truth, she said, could save a patient's life. Some have been rushed to the intensive care unit with respiratory failure, seizures and severe brain damage, Selzer said.

"They are gravely ill," she said. "They have been on life support. They have been nonresponsive. It can have lifelong complications. It can be fatal. This is very, very serious, and it's come on a lot faster than we anticipated."

At least one person has died. Cape Girardeau County Coroner John Clifton said one reported fatality was a direct result of bath salt use and that he suspects may have been a factor in another. In the first case, a man in his 40s, had a toxicology report that came back positive. In the other death, Clifton only learned later that the person may have been using bath salts.

The products are so new that Cape Girardeau police chief Carl Kinnison says numbers have not been tracked. Also problematic is that it's not as easy to detect. In the toxicology report for the one fatality, for example, Clifton had to ask specifically for them to check for bath salts.

But Kinnison said the anecdotal evidence is disturbing enough. One local man called in sick to work and employees later found him walking in circles in the work parking lot talking to himself. He was under the influence of bath salts, Kinnison said.

"We took him into custody, and he just went crazy at the department," Kinnison said. "He hit an officer in the face. We had to fight with him and take him. It took two or three different officers to control him."

Paranoid, out of control

In another incident, a woman was arrested at a grocery store for acting "bizarrely," Kinnison said. She had driven there with her children after taking bath salts.

"That just seems to be real consistent with people under the influence of bath salts," Kinnison said. "They're paranoid, they're psychotic, out of control. Those are just the kind of descriptions we hear."

Kinnison said he was glad the new law was going to be on the books, especially that it seemed to be progressive and would prevent chemical alterations.

Some of the people who speak out the loudest against bath salts are those people who have tried it. Three women, including Mary, spoke about their bath salts experience Monday from the Family Counseling Center. All three have been clean for various length of time, but none for longer than two months. All of them had tried bath salts, though none of them listed it as their drug of choice. All asked that their last names not be used.

Chelsea, a 21-year-old from East Prairie, Mo., said she tried bath salts only about six times. But, looking back, she hated it.

"I got so stuck on stupid," she said. "It made me seriously confused. It's a lot like meth. It even looks like meth. But it put me in a stupor."

Chelsea said she preferred meth, but bath salts were easier to get.

"You could walk right in the store and get them," she said. "You didn't even have to call anybody."

Dana Branson, the assistant program director at the Family Counseling Center, said they are seeing more and more people who have tried bath salts. In treatment, she tells them that -- legal or not -- it's just like any other drug. It has to be avoided altogether.

"I tell them addiction is like a monster," she said. "It doesn't care what you feed it as long as you feed it something. Bath salts will do as well as anything else."

smoyers@semissourian.com

388-3642

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