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'Bath salts' latest drug to raise alarms

The synthetic stimulants are legal in most of the U.S. for now. As more users show up in emergency rooms, states are taking action.

January 28, 2011|By Abby Sewell, Los Angeles Times
  • Dickie Sanders, left, with his father Dr. Richard Sanders. Dickie's Nov. 12 suicide came after three days of intermittent psychotic episodes apparently induced when he snorted a packet of "Cloud Nine" bath salts, his father said.
Dickie Sanders, left, with his father Dr. Richard Sanders. Dickie's… (Sanders Family )

The website that hawks the "concentrated bath salts" warns in red letters: "Not for human consumption."

It cautions against using alcohol and prescription medications while "bathing," and adds, "PLEASE do not use this as SNUFF."

But the little packets of powder, with names like "Ivory Wave" and "Vanilla Sky," were never intended for the tub, and they're not among the fragrant samples in the bath and body shop at the local mall. The "bath salts," are powerful synthetic stimulants, designed to be comparable to cocaine or methamphetamine, and with similar risks, law enforcement and health officials say.

But unlike cocaine or meth, the stimulants are legal in most of the United States, at least for now, selling for about $25 to $40 a packet online and in convenience stores and head shops.

They've become the latest designer drug to raise alarms, as enterprising chemists find ways to stay a step ahead of drug laws.

Poison control centers around the country fielded 235 calls relating to the "bath salts" last year, and already have seen 214 cases this year, according to the American Assn. of Poison Control Centers. There have been scattered reports of users dying, either of overdose or drug-induced suicides or accidents. The drugs can induce extreme paranoia and, in some cases, delusions.

"The patients who were showing up with this, they were off the wall. Some of them looked like a true psychotic break," said Mark Ryan, director of the Louisiana Poison Center.

His state has been hardest hit, with more than 160 poison control cases and at least three deaths linked to the drugs — two apparent overdoses and a suicide — since the end of September, Ryan said. Gov. Bobby Jindal banned the chemical ingredients of the stimulants by in an emergency order this month. The order remains in effect for 120 days; the Legislature would need to act to make it permanent.

Officers went from store to store the day after Jindal's declaration and picked up hundreds of packages of the drug, said Capt. George Bonnett of the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff's Office. The first arrests under the ban were made Jan. 11 in Slidell, where a convenience store clerk and customer were arrested.

The United Kingdom, Ireland and other countries have already banned the drugs. .

Florida on Wednesday became the latest of the few states to ban the products . An emergency order issued by Atty. Gen. Pam Bondi outlaws one of the key chemical ingredients, methylenedioxypyrovalerone, MDPV, for the next 90 days.

North Dakota's Pharmacy Board listed the main active ingredients — MDPV and mephedrone — as controlled substances in February 2010. And the city of Huntington, W.Va., outlawed them in December. Officials in Mississippi, Kentucky and other states have begun to take similar steps.

The Drug Enforcement Administration has listed MDPV and mephedrone as chemicals of concern, but they remain legal at the federal level and in states that have not specifically prohibited them.

"At this point, we don't have the numbers to justify scheduling them; we're just looking at them," DEA spokeswoman Barbara Carreno said.

Some want to see the scrutiny stepped up.

Richard Sanders, a family physician in Covington, La., found his 21-year-old son, Richard "Dickie" Sanders III, dead on the floor along with the .22-caliber rifle he had used to shoot himself in the head.

Dickie's Nov. 12 suicide came after three days of intermittent psychotic episodes apparently induced when he snorted a packet of "Cloud Nine" bath salts, his father said. During that period, Dickie peered out the kitchen window in terror, counting police officers and helicopters that weren't there, and sliced his own throat with a kitchen knife.

The young Sanders was an avid BMX biker who lived on his family's 180-acre farm outside Covington. Despite a history of marijuana and alcohol use and brushes with the law, Sanders said Dickie was a loving son. They called each other "partner," and Dickie served as best man for his father's wedding four years ago.

Dickie bought a packet of the stimulants from a fellow participant in a court-ordered drug diversion program, who told him it wouldn't show up on a drug test, his father said. As soon as he had taken the drug, Sanders said, Dickie called his family in distress.

"This is not a high thing. This is like a pill that creates schizophrenia," Sanders said.

The St. Tammany Parish coroner's office said the stimulants were found in Dickie's system and there appeared to be no other substances involved. His death was ruled a suicide.

Doctors and law enforcement officials say it is a familiar trajectory: A new drug hits the market, word spreads online and by word of mouth, and authorities don't realize it until people start showing up in emergency rooms.

By the time the laws catch up, the producers are already tinkering with molecules to morph the chemicals into something new.

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