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April 8, 2013

Bath salts and potpourri: we’re not talking about presents for Grandma

by: W. Christopher Swett

In recent years, there has been a dramatic increase in the use of synthetic drugs known on the streets as “bath salts,” “herbal incense” or “potpourri.” These are not the products your grandmother might use for a relaxing bath or to add the smell of lavender to her living room; these products are chemically produced to mimic the effects of illegal drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamine, ecstasy and marijuana. Alarmingly, as these synthetic drugs grow in popularity, the number of injuries and deaths caused by them continues to rise. Just this past week, USA Today reported on a six-month investigation conducted by ESPN The Magazine and the ESPN show E:60 revealing the growing popularity of synthetic drugs and  calling their use an “epidemic” that has led to “a rash of failed drug tests and a decision at the highest levels of the university to keep the results confidential.” About a dozen members of Auburn’s 2010 national championship football team, for example, allegedly tested positive for synthetic marijuana known as “spice.”

The American Association of Poison Control Centers received more than 6,100 calls about bath salt drugs in 2011 —up from 304 in 2010— and more than 1,700 calls in the first half of 2012. Sixty percent of the cases involved patients 25 years old and younger. Even more disturbing, some people are choosing to inject these substances (rather than smoking, swallowing or snorting) into their bodies, resulting in horrific medical conditions.

What Are Synthetic Drugs

Bath salts resemble legitimate household bath salt products but are actually a powder sprayed with chemicals that stimulate the central nervous system. These psychoactive chemicals, mephedrone and methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV), produce effects similar to, but more potent than, cocaine or LSD when injected, smoked or snorted. Common side effects include erratic behavior, paranoia, violent combative episodes, dangerously high fever, excelled heart rate, acute psychosis, suicidal thoughts, and, in some cases, death.

Similarly, “herbal incense” and “potpourri” are chemically-laced substances that, when smoked or inhaled, can deliver an extreme high. These synthetic drugs consist of dried plant material that is sprayed with chemicals that mimic tetrahydracannabinol (THC) found in marijuana. There is no control over how much chemical is haphazardly sprayed on the leaves. Common side effects include rapid heart rate, vomiting, seizures, depression, paranoia, hallucinations, psychosis and both suicidal and homicidal thoughts.

Some young people believe that they are getting high the legal and safe way because the products come in artistic packaging and can be purchased in neighborhood corner stores and gas stations. Adding to the deception, these synthetic drugs are sold under often innocent-sounding names.

Efforts to Ban Synthetic Drugs

Unfortunately, the belief that all bath salts and other synthetic drugs are now illegal is a misconception. In 2011, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) issued an Emergency Order temporarily treating several chemical compounds used to make synthetic marijuana as Schedule I controlled substances, making them illegal to sale or possess, while it studied whether the chemicals should be permanently controlled. On Oct. 21, 2011, the DEA took emergency action to temporarily ban three synthetic stimulants—mephedrone, MDPV and methylone—used to make bath salts. The DEA found the chemicals “to pose an imminent hazard to public safety and health.”

Similarly, on Oct. 24, 2011, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control followed the federal government’s designation and voted to place an emergency ban on the same eight chemicals designated as Schedule I controlled substances, making their possession and sale illegal statewide. South Carolina lawmakers followed up on March 21, 2012, by passing a bill that banned more than 100 chemical compounds used to make bath salts and synthetic marijuana. Specifically, the Act added chemical components of bath salts and synthetic marijuana to the list of Schedule I controlled substances. South Carolina’s Governor signed the Act on April 2, 2012.

Finally, in July 2012, President Obama signed into law the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act of 2012. The Act bans the 31 chemical compounds most often found in bath salts and synthetic marijuana by placing them under Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act. Nonetheless, these legislative measures are not all-encompassing, and further legislation is needed to fully ban these dangerous drugs.

The Danger is Still Present

Through anti-drug laws, federal and state authorities have attempted to eliminate the dangers posed by bath salts and synthetic marijuana by banning the chemical compounds that make up these synthetic drugs. However, the manufacturers have started altering the chemical compounds within these substances in order to circumvent anti-drug laws while still providing the feeling of euphoria to users. Newer synthetic drugs containing legal chemical compounds having the same effect on the user as the outlawed chemical compounds have already hit the market.

These synthetic drugs are profitable for manufacturers, distributors and retailers. Bath salts range in price from $25 to $50 for a 50 milligram packet, while the average cost for synthetic marijuana is $30 a gram.

Federal and state authorities will eventually catch up with the drug manufacturers and ban these new chemical compounds, but, for now, the lure of quick profits provides enough incentive for these entities to continue to needlessly endanger our youth and society as a whole. The only way to put these drug dealers out of business indefinitely may be to hit them where it hurts—their wallets. Thankfully, our civil justice system provides the avenue for justice.

Communities across the country can help by taking a stand and voicing concern to local representatives that we will no longer allow these drug dealers to needlessly endanger the lives of our children, friends and family in their efforts to make a quick profit. Drug Free America offers many ways for people to get involved in their advocacy efforts, including grassroots fundraising, events and more –helping promote their message of drug abuse prevention, intervention and recovery.