PA House Votes To Ban Sale Of Bath Salts, Bill Now Moves On To Senate
Products sold as “bath salts,” when smoked, snorted, or ingested by people, are resulting in bazaar crimes across the state. On April 4, the State House of Representatives voted unanimously to ban the sale of both “bath salts” and K2, a synthetic form of marijuana. The legislation will proceed to the State Senate before being passed onto the governor’s desk.
Despite its misleading label, a product sold as bath salts under a variety of brand names has nothing to do with bubble baths or a relaxing soak in the tub. In fact, the effect of this latest synthetic drug on those who smoke, inhale, or ingest it is quite the opposite. A growing number of police and hospital reports in the past month indicate that bath salts produce high anxiety, paranoia, and frightening hallucinations.
“If you dump 17 packets in your bathtub, it won’t do diddly,” said Towanda borough patrolman Randy Epler. “You could call it ‘foot powder’ or whatever. But it’s a stimulant. It speeds up metabolism, similar to coke or crack cocaine.”
As reported in the Rocket-Courier on March 24, an Oklahoma man alleged to have used bath salts was arrested near the Ulster bridge after he was seen running barefoot through snow and had asked to use a resident’s phone in the middle of the night to report that he was being pursued by “shadow people.” In the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton area, a couple high on bath salts have been accused of threatening to harm their daughter as they battled “voices in the walls,” and another young man who was caught burglarizing a house claimed that he was being “chased by electricity.”
Perhaps the scariest part of this scenario, which has been termed “epidemic” by law enforcement agents, is that the product can be purchased legally. While the lack of a regular connection with a street-level drug dealer might inhibit the use of cocaine, crack, and heroin among some thrill-seeking teens and young adults, packets or vials of granules or powder marketed under such names as Ivory Snow, Vanilla Sky, Tranquility, and Hurricane Charlie can be bought at numerous smoking supply shops, newsstands, and corner stores.
Regardless of how it is disguised, the key ingredient in each package is methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV), which is promoted to users as capable of inducing “euphoria” and “invigoration.” There is a warning on the reverse of most packages that warns that the product is “not for human consumption,” but that does not deter first-time users who are quickly hooked and who become seemingly insatiable.
In an interview on television station WENY, Bradford County coroner Tom Carman reported that three out of five drug-related deaths in Bradford County in the first quarter of 2011 were attributed to bath salts. Fortunately, there have been no deaths in Wyoming County attributed to bath salts; local police and local school districts stand vigilant.
“This is really scary stuff, and it’s hitting hard,” said drug and alcohol prevention specialist Cammie Anderson, who is working with Tunkhannock High School resource officer Rich Seaberg and school administrators to increase awareness of the problem among fourth- through 12th-grade students in the classrooms and among their parents over the Tunkhannock School District’s website over the next few weeks. Anderson noted that, since December, the district has been battling the popularity of K2, a synthetic form of marijuana. Although she is unaware of any bath salts-related incidents so far in the district, “I dread the day when it happens.”
Wyalusing School District Superintendent Ray Fleming is also unaware of any incidents among the student body, but he asserted that school officials have discussed the situation. Fleming added that the district’s drug policy doesn’t cite specific drugs but instead lists the use of “controlled” and “mood-altering” substances as grounds for suspension or referrals to law enforcement agencies.
Wilkes-Barre police chief Gerard Dessoye was quoted by the Citizens Voice newspaper as saying that he has never seen anyone “as high” as two women on a bath salt binge who were arrested after leading police on a high-speed chase on March 28. After 33 years in law enforcement—17 involving narcotics—Dessoye is alarmed by what he has seen and advises legislators to act quickly to stem the tide.
State Rep. Tina Pickett, who represents Bradford County, is one of those lawmakers leading the charge. She received a call from magisterial district judge Mike Shaw, who related to her that the rise in bath salt abuse appeared to come out of nowhere. “This has literally happened in the last two to three weeks,” Pickett explained, noting Shaw cited 10 incidents—a combination of emergency room reports and related arrests—in one week alone. Athens Township supervisor Robin Smith reportedly confirmed with Pickett that the product was being sold at an independent tobacco shop across the street from the Athens Township offices.
Bradford County district judge Tim Clark noted that he heard of bath salts for the first time about six weeks ago, when he learned of someone taken to Towanda Memorial Hospital who had overdosed on the substance. “Since then, I have heard about it almost every day,” Clark stated. “I’ve seen a lot of cases involving meth, and this seems to be very comparable to it.”
“It’s definitely on the rise, and it’s a big problem,” said Epler, who explained that law enforcement officials have little recourse when it comes to dealing with people who purchase and abuse bath salts. Unlike alcohol, for which “open container” laws provide sufficient leverage to make arrests, Epler noted, “Bath salts can be open because there is no law to govern it.” Police across the state, however, have learned that bath salts users can be prosecuted if they pose a danger to themselves or others, especially if the person is caught driving while impaired.
In lieu of swift passage of a state law banning the sale of the product, Pickett hopes that the public can count on owners of businesses who sell bath salts to voluntarily remove them from the shelves, as they did with pseudoephedrine, which was a key ingredient in the manufacturing of meth when it became the designer drug of choice in the area five years ago.
Pickett brought the bath salts dilemma to the attention of state health secretary Eli Avila during a recent meeting in Harrisburg, and he conceded that he too was just learning about the synthetic drug. As Pickett shared with him what she knew, she related, “He shook his head and said, ‘There is no end to what people will do to harm themselves,’ which is a sad truth.”
Pickett acknowledged that it might take more than a month to pass binding legislation to ban the sale of both K2 and bath salts, but she encouraged Avila to direct the health department to immediately issue alerts about the latter product to the public. Her objectives include informing people about the dangers of the drug and alerting the people who are selling it about the terrible things that are happening among the people who are making the purchases.
“It boggles my mind that a business would sell this stuff,” said Epler, who works with adjacent law enforcement agencies as a drug recognition expert.
“I’m sure that it’s profitable, because it’s expensive,” Pickett continued, noting that the cost for a small package ranges from $20 to $40. She related Shaw suggested that, since the product is also available for purchase on the internet, federal regulation would likely be necessary to completely eradicate the problem.
Epler hopes that the proposed legislation targets the specific chemical compounds that make K2 and bath salts so dangerous. He has responded to at least six incidents involving bath salts this year and related that worst-case scenarios involve people who use more than one synthetic drug simultaneously. People under the influence of the drugs who are operating vehicles remain his biggest concern.
State representatives voted unanimously to support House Bill #365 (sponsored by Rep. RoseMarie Swanger of Lebanon County) on April 4. The State Senate will take up the bill next and pass it on to Gov. Tom Corbett in the likely event of its continued support.
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