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Bath salts: Gruesome Miami attack adds to drug's bizarre history

Reports suggest that synthetic drugs euphemistically named 'bath salts' might be behind a notorious recent Miami attack. Police are well aware of curious cases involving the drug.

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Until recent months, the drug was legal in most states, widely available in tobacco shops or convenience stores, sold under other names like Ivory Wave or Vanilla Sky and coming in various shapes and forms. When it was still legal, a person could buy for $20 to $40 a small Ziploc bag or matchbox-sized container with powder or crystals that “smells like old feet,” Dr. Ryan says, and get a high that would otherwise cost, for example, $2,000 worth of cocaine.

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“The packaging would say something like ‘DEA Compliant’ or ‘Not for Human Consumption. If Consumed Call the Poison Control Center,’ ” he says. “It was almost like the manufacturer was thumbing their nose at us.”

Now, at least 38 states have passed some sort of ban or restriction, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, and the US Drug Enforcement Administration has put three bath salt compounds on its emergency ban list. The US Senate on May 24 passed the Synthetic Drug Control Act of 2011, which puts a handful of chemical compounds used in bath salts in the most restrictive category of controlled substances.

Still, bath salts can easily be found on the Internet, merely by changing search terms. The fact that they are distributed via mail and the Internet rather than by old-fashioned drug couriers helps explain why more rural places such as Maine were at the cutting edge of the epidemic rather than big cities, says Chief Deputy Troy Morton from the Penobscot Country Sheriff’s Deptartment in Maine, which was the hardest hit county in that state.

“People thought: ‘How bad could it be? It’s called bath salts,’ ” Mr. Morton says. “Once it got here and people learned about it, it took off like fire because it was legal, and it was extremely cheap.”

By some accounts, the wave of abuse may have already passed. The number of bath salt-related reports made so far this year by the country’s 57 poison control centers stands at 1,007 as of May 1, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers. In all of 2011, 6,138 calls were reported. Louisiana and Maine show a similar drop in figures.

Most professionals, however, believe those numbers severely undercount the prevalence of bath salts’ use, as police or hospital doctors gain a better understanding of how to deal with overdose cases. Most also believe that the drop is due not necessarily to declining use, but to users understanding how to take the drugs and get the euphoric or hallucinatory effects without the psychotic episodes.

In Maine, Morton says, what tipped the balance was an aggressive education campaign: “We haven’t stopped it, it’s still here. It’s just not like it was: people being out on the lawn, naked and shadowboxing.”

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