Medical and legal experts have a host of questions about synthetic drugs like bath salts: How can we make them illegal? How can we deal with people high on the drugs? What’s the best approach to the problem of addiction?
But a public conference call (full audio of the call below) on the subject Monday night shows that average people have far more basic questions. For example: What’s a “bath salt”? Is it really the same thing I’d put in my bath?
State Senator Patty Ritchie (R-Oswegatchie) hosted an hour long conference call which featured a few experts in health care and law enforcement taking questions from people from all across the three-county North Country district.
Ritchie ran down a by-now well-known list of crimes and incidents related to synthetic drug use. The woman in Munnsville, Madison County who stripped naked and was assaulting her child when a deputy used a Taser to stop her, but the Taser contributed to a fatal heart attack instead; the guy in Utica who, high on bath salts, said he wanted to eat babies and drink blood; the drowning of a man in Brewerton who police said appeared to have been on a synthetic drug. One of the experts, Anita Seefried-Brown of the Jefferson County Alcohol and Substance Abuse Council, spent many minutes discussing the seriousness of the synthetic drug problem and the technical reasons why such dangerous drugs continue to be sold legally.
But the questions revealed that the experts are far ahead of at least some of the public on the issue.
Never heard of this ‘bath salts’ stuff, said caller Cathy of Ogdensburg. Caller Mike of Ogdensburg wondered what bath salts look like. Rose from Watertown wondered why these drugs can’t just be pulled off the shelves as is done for contaminated food.
Part of the problem is the speed with which the synthetic drug problem is moving.
Oswego County Undersheriff Gene Sullivan, one of the experts on the call, said that the drugs had only shown up “in earnest” at the beginning of the year.
Since the drugs are not illegal yet, police only get involved when the drug user commits a different crime or threatens the peace in some other way. As a result, he said, “most of the incidents that make the news are maybe 10 or 20 percent of what’s happening out there.”
He said ambulance crews and hospital emergency room workers are being swamped with synthetic drug users.
Ritchie said Watertown’s Samaritan Hospital is seeing an average of 5 synthetic drug cases a day, taking workers’ time away from people with other medical emergencies.
So here are some of the basic questions and answers about synthetic drugs, from Monday’s forum and official sources:
What are bath salts?
They are NOT the Calgon epsom salts you use when you take a bath. Bath salts are just one nickname for this class of synthetic drugs. “Window cleaner” is another. There are dozens of names.
They look like the bath salts used for bathing. They are smoked or snorted, though they can be taken in other ways. These drugs tend to be made of compounds that mimic cocaine, amphetamines, PCP and LSD.
What is synthetic marijuana?
This is a little easier to understand. Take some green, leafy stuff and soak it in a chemical compound that’s similar to the drugs in marijuana. You get something commonly called K-2 or Spice, though, like bath salts, there are scores of brand names.
Synthetic marijuana can produce the same effects as real marijuana, but it can also create psychotic behavior such as paranoia and anxiety. There can also be wild hallucinations.
And there are other drugs that come in pill form that mimic other illegal drugs, such as hydrocodone.
What do they look like?
They come in small, brightly colored packages designed to draw the eyes of young people. Bath salts can come in screw-top containers as well.
This stuff is legal? Really?
Yes and no. The most common chemicals in synthetic marijuana have been added to the federal government’s list of controlled substances and the state Health Department recently instituted a civil (not criminal) ban on selling synthetic drugs. But experts say that every time a drug is added to the list of illegal substances, the chemists who come up with these designer drugs change their formulas just enough to keep them outside of any ban.
State and federal law is catching up with the current state of synthetic drug activity, but slowly, and the chemists continue to change their formulas to stay a step ahead.
Cities in our area such as Rome and Utica have recently passed city ordinances banning synthetic drug sales. Other cities are looking at similar bans, in order to give their police departments the ability to confiscate drugs and make arrests. But because the drug makers continue to innovate ahead of the law, “it is going to take some creative thinking and difference in thinking in how to attack it,” Sullivan said.
The New York State Attorney General’s office has recently taken a creative approach to fighting synthetic drugs. The office is suing head shops across the state, claiming that their products are deceptively labeled. The labels on products such as “glass cleaner” say “not for human consumption” when that’s not necessarily true, or they don’t contain an honest list of chemical ingredients.
So how can I tell what’s in the drugs?
You can’t. Neither can police, ambulance crews or medical workers. That’s a big part of the problem. And since the drugs are so new, there’s often no way to test for the presence of those drugs in the body quickly, as police can do with alcohol or some other substances. They contain, as Seefried-Brown said, “poisonout chemicals with compositions unknown to us…they have unpredictable results to the user.”
If these drugs are harmful, why can’t they just be taken off store shelves, like they do when eggs are contaminated or there’s a problem with dog food?
Because food products are handled by the Food and Drug Administration, while illegal drugs are handled by agencies that handle criminal cases.
We’ve seen in the news the crazy behavior these drugs can produce. Does the behavior stop when the drugs do?
It’s hard to tell yet. These drugs haven’t been around long enough for long-term or even medium-term studies.
Some people who have taken the drugs and stopped have reported continuing to have problems. Seefried-Brown told callers the story of a young woman who used synthetic marijuana and ended up in a mental health inpatient unit for many weeks. She got herself back together, smelled the aroma of synthetic marijuana at a concert “and went immediately back into a psychotic state,” she said.
There have been suicides of people who have taken synthetic drugs.
How can I tell if someone’s on synthetic drugs?
Bath salts mimic cocaine and amphetamines, so users can be agitaged and sweating. Their body temperature will be high, which is one reason why some bath salts users wind up naked — they’re trying to cool off. Their heartbeat can be rapid.
Synthetic marijuana users can show some of the same symptoms, along with vomiting, confusion and hallucinations.
Where does this stuff come from?
Like many drugs, much of it comes from foreign countries. Because the ingredients to make synthetic drugs are available legally, however, there’s a homegrown drug manufacturing industry as well.
What do I do if someone I know is on a synthetic drug?
Law enforcement officials are using caution when they approach synthetic drug users who are showing extreme symptoms. If they’re being cautious, the best thing you can do is get away and get anyone else out of harm’s way and call 911. Don’t try to reason with a synthetic drug user who’s deep into his symptoms. “Peoples’ reactions are often very irrational and very violent,” Jefferson County District Attorney Cindy Intschert said on the conference call.
These questions and answers are not intended to provide medical or legal advice, though the answers were drawn from expert literature. See a professional for the final answer.
- Drug facts about synthetic marijuana, from the National Institute on Drug Abuse;
- Facts about “bath salts” from WebMD;
- Facts and statistics on synthetic drugs, from the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy;
- Bath salts, on Wikipedia;
- Synthetic cannibis, on Wikipedia.
THE CONFERENCE CALL TOWNHALL MEETING ON SYNTHETIC DRUGS (AUDIO ONLY):