‘Bath salts’ abuse on the rise

By Emily Fasold

When a patient high on bath salts was brought in for care, Dan Lustig, vice president of Clinical Services at Haymarket Center, a Chicago drug and alcohol treatment clinic, could not believe his eyes.

“Their behavior mimicked schizophrenia,” Lustig said. “They were hallucinating and displaying extremely violent behavior. Calming this person down was next to impossible.”

“Bath salts,” the name of an analog drug that mimics the effects of cocaine and crystal meth, has shown a sharp increase in popularity during the past year.

The American Association of Poison Control Centers says it received 6,138 calls about the drug from doctors and family members in 2011, up from 304 in 2010. Since Jan. 31, the AAPCC has already received 228 calls.

The drug is condensed into small, colorful crystals, identical in appearance to regular bath salts. It is typically snorted but can also be injected or taken orally.

“This is an extremely dangerous drug,” said Dr. Michael Wahl, medical director of the Illinois Poison Center. “People experience tremors, fast heart rates, high blood pressure, paranoia and even death as a result of bath salts.”

According to Wahl, treating bath salt overdoses has been a challenge for many health officials. Like those suffering from methamphetamine and cocaine overdoses, patients who have consumed too many bath salts are often unresponsive to tranquilizers and taser guns.

“When people have had so much of it, doctors need to give them huge amounts of sedatives,” Wahl said. “The amount they’re given would nearly make an average person stop breathing, but they need super therapeutic amounts.”

James Ochs, the program director at Sierra Tucson, an Arizona drug rehabilitation center, believes that bath salts are even more dangerous than their illegal counterparts because manufacturers do not use quantity control on its ingredients, methendrone and methylenedioxypyrovalerone, or MDPV, which give users the high they want.

“Bath salts are much more dangerous than crystal meth and cocaine because people don’t know the dose they’re taking or how strong it is,” Ochs said. “At least with [coke and meth] users know what to expect and how much to take.”

Illinois and 32 other states have already banned bath salts, which are typically sold at head shops under names like Ivory Wave, Vanilla Sky and Loco-Motion. A label that says “not for human consumption” allows retailers to keep the drug on the shelves. However, many buyers are not using them in their bathwater.

Gov. Pat Quinn signed a measure last July to ban the sale of bath salts following the overdose death of a downstate woman last year. But the ban has not prevented drug users from getting their hands on new versions.

“This is how the dance goes with designer drugs–they change the chemistry of it just slightly and call it something else,” said Larry Solomon, clinical director of the Calvary Addiction Recovery Center in Arizona. “And every designer drug gets more dangerous every time they make them.”

Aside from unpleasant side effects, health officials suspect the drug can also have lasting effects on users, although no long-term studies have been conducted.

Wahl said the poison center has received calls from patients’ friends and family members who claimed they were still not “acting quite right” several weeks after treatment.

“It’s a nasty drug,” Solomon said. “I’ve never seen a patient say that they enjoyed it and would use it again.”

While health officials across the country agree that bath salts are a threat to public health, lawmakers are struggling to keep them illegal because as soon as one version is banned, another is introduced.

“If they could make a law that banned all versions of bath salts without having to name each specific chemical, this would be a lot easier to get off the shelves,” Wahl said.

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