Word had evidently already reached retailers in Etowah County, Ala. Feb. 22 when county drug enforcement visited to spread the news about a ban on synthetic stimulants sold as bath salts or plant food.
A few hours after the state’s attorney general signed an order banning the substances in Alabama, workers at most of the 62 shops, mainly convenience stores, had already pulled the packages from their shelves. What the 46 law enforcement officers could do, however, was hammer home to the clerks that after midnight, any of those bath salts would be illegal to sell or possess.
“Our focus wasn’t on making arrests,” said Natalie Barton, Etowah County sheriff’s public information officer. “We were simply taking the dangerous drugs out of circulation so people could not buy them.”
The stimulant causes effects similar to cocaine or methamphetamine and is sold under the names “Ivory Wave,” “Vanilla Sky,” “Meow Meow” and “Bliss,” among others. Bath salts sold at mainstream retailers or national brands list their ingredients; these substances do not.
The situation is similar to how synthetic marijuana has recently been sold as incense. The substances themselves are legal in most places, but despite the packaging warning against human consumption, people, particularly young adults have been smoking or snorting them, the Drug Enforcement Agency reports.
Several states in addition to Alabama, including Louisiana and Florida, have enacted temporary bans on the products and others, including Mississippi, Kentucky, Michigan, Hawaii and North Dakota, are in the process of writing and ratifying bans.
Although the chemicals in these products are fundamentally different from banned narcotics, they have a comparable effect when consumed. “Bath salts” can cause hallucinations, paranoia, a rapid heart rate and suicidal inclinations. They also cause insomnia, irritability and panic attacks.
The culprit, DEA spokesman Dave Levey said, is a pair of chemicals that his agency lists as chemicals of concern — methadrone and methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV), neither of which is banned federally.
“They are so dangerous because they are unregulated,” Levey said. “There’s no quality control, no potency control. The effect someone might experience from one hit can be 100 times stronger from another batch.”
“Although we lack sufficient data to understand exactly how prevalent the use of these stimulants are, we know they pose a serious threat to the health and well-being of young people and anyone who may use them,” U.S. Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske wrote in an Office of National Drug Control Policy release on synthetic stimulants.
The American Association of Poison Control Centers reported 236 calls to U.S. poison centers in 2010 traced to synthetic stimulant use and 251 similar calls in January 2011 alone.
Levey said synthetic stimulants started appearing in the United States in 2009, but became more prevalent after states and counties started combating “Spice” use. He said they tended to be developed in Europe, mainly Germany and the United Kingdom, where they started showing in the mid 2000s.
Currently, the DEA is not prepared to enact a federal ban of bath salts. Because their ingredients are not listed, authorities have yet to determine what the active ingredients are. Banning them is complicated by the ease with which the creators can change the composition and circumvent a ban.
“It is possible to tweak them, so it’s a challenge to keep up with a ban unless we know exactly what we’re outlawing,” Levey said. “That’s what makes dealing with synthetic drugs difficult, the effect can come from any combination of ingredients.”