Move over, mild hallucinations! The newest narcotic ravaging the US isn’t bought on corners or pilfered from pharmacies, but sold legally in stores under an unassuming name. Bath salts are all the rage, but are users becoming flesh-hungry monsters?
In 2010, the American Association of Poison Control Centers received only about 300 reports relating to the usage of “bath salts,” a man-made substance available across the country that, if consumed, can cause extreme side-effects. By the end of 2011, poison control received an additional 6,000 calls about the drug and now, after a rash of bizarre incidents where the substance was believed to play a role, bath salt abuse is becoming a nation-wide epidemic.
By May 1, 2012, the US Poison Control Centers have seen 1,007 reports already this year related to bath salt abuse — nearly four times what they experienced in all of 2010.
Bath salts are still legal in much of the United States, but a string of recent episodes where Americans believed to be under the influence of the narcotic engaged in zombie-like behavior has brought the drug to the forefront of the public’s attention.
"Bath salts can cause psychosis, agitation and paranoia. They can basically turn a person into a wild beast. I have treated bath salt users in the emergency department who have extreme paranoia and super human strength to the point that they can break through handcuffs," Dr. Daniel Bober, a psychiatrist, tells Miami’s KPLC News. And distributors, he says, are able to continuously find markets for the drug because it is easy to make, cheap to sell and easy to deter law enforcement.
"Bath salts is the name street chemists are giving the drug in order to skirt the law and fly below the radar of law enforcement," Dr. Bober adds.
This week, the Marine Corps Times published an article claiming that bath salt abuse among members of the US military was on the rise. Navy Lt. George Loeffler, chief psychiatry resident at Naval Medical Center San Diego, says that not only is the drug “so popular in the military,” but that “They actually market it to the fact that that they don’t pop positive on the standard urine drug screen.”
In early 2011, newspapers in small towns such as Cranford, New Jersey and Easton, Pennsylvania were reporting that users were snorting, smoking or injecting bath salts to get high, only to be transformed into an uncontrollable psychotic state. Last March the mother of William J. Parisio told the Star-Ledger that her son was believed to be under the influence of bath salts when he was charged with the murder of his girlfriend; a PA couple made repeated 911 calls for help in catching a nonexistent criminal a month later after experiencing severe hallucinations, Lehigh Valley’s The Morning Call reports; elsewhere, the use of bath salts was linked to an incident where a man slayed a goat while wearing woman’s underwear.
Last month, however, the now infamous encounter between a homeless man and a suspected bath salt user reignited discussion of the drug. On May 26, a 31-year-old man stripped a homeless person naked under a highway overpass and attempted to eat his victim’s face for minutes until police shot the suspect dead — but not before he devoured three-fourths of his fleshy feast. Officers investigating the Miami, Florida incident say that they believe bath salt use could have played a role, and less than a month after that episode, similar accounts have been reported: police say that, across the US, there have been no fewer than three incidents since late May where persons high on bath salts tried to literally eat other humans.\
“The packaging would say something like ‘DEA Compliant’ or ‘Not for Human Consumption. If Consumed Call the Poison Control Center,’ ” Louisiana Poison Center Director Mark Ryan tells the Christian Science Monitor. “It was almost like the manufacturer was thumbing their nose at us.”
“People thought: ‘How bad could it be? It’s called bath salts,’ ” Chief Deputy Troy Morton from the Penobscot Country Sheriff’s Department in Maine adds to the Monitor. “Once it got here and people learned about it, it took off like fire because it was legal, and it was extremely cheap.”
What people are paying, however, is hardly a bargain. Ingredients in bath salts — usually concentrated with a substantial dose of methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV) — can cause hallucinations, psychosis and dangerous behavior. As the drug first a surge in use, authorities described its effects as a high similar to LSD-induced trips that could sometimes include amphetamine-like palpitations and paranoia. After the latest outbreak of bizarre incidents, though, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was pressed to publically say, no, the “CDC does not know of a virus or condition that would reanimate the dead (or one that would present zombie-like symptoms).”
Witnesses of bath salt abuse think they might know what is to blame, though.
"I never thought I'd find her in the condition she was in," Tonya Phillips tells Virginia’s News Leader of encountering her daughter during a bath salt binge. "I was shocked. Her eyes were sunk back in her head. She had sores, almost like boils, on her body from the bath salts. It just eats them up. You could tell by looking at her she was dehydrated, she was just skin and bones. She was hallucinating bad. It was horrible."
The US Congress is currently considering legislation that, if passed, would ban many MDPV as well as mephedrone and dozens of other chemicals found in bath salts and synthetic drugs. North of the border, lawmakers hope to MDPV as a Schedule 1 narcotic of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, making its possession and trafficking on par with that of heroin and cocaine.
Notwithstanding roadblocks, bath salts — or at least its main ingredients — will be banned in Canada by this fall. Because the man-made core ingredients of the designer drug are usually factory-created compounds that emulate the effects of other narcotics, though, scientists that can continue to one-up law enforcement by synthesizing drugs quicker than the feds can identify them.