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'Bath salts' under close scrutiny after state bans

By the CNN Wire Staff
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The synthetic stimulants are cheap, potent and not controlled under federal law
  • Three U.S. states have banned them, and Congress has been asked to follow suit

(CNN) -- Florida authorities have recorded their first arrest under a state ban on synthetic stimulants often sold as "bath salts" as health officials in several other states are sounding alarms about the drugs.

The drugs are synthetic stimulants, usually mephedrone or MDPV, according to federal and state officials. Doses can be purchased for as little as $15-$20 and produce an amphetamine-like high for several hours when inhaled, taken with liquid or smoked.

They're not listed as a controlled substance under federal law, and are sold under brand names like "Cloud Nine," "Ivory Wave" and "Vanilla Sky" in stores and online. The Office of National Drug Control Policy says it doesn't know how widespread their use has become, but White House drug czar Gil Kerlikowske said last week that they pose "a serious threat" to anyone who takes them.

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi banned the sale of the drugs in late January, following similar bans in North Dakota and Louisiana. Authorities there made their first arrest under the ban on Monday, charging the owner of a Panama City head shop with possession of a controlled substance, Bay County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Ruth Corley said.

The arrest followed an ambulance call for a man who had taken the drugs, who also faces charges, Corley said. She said authorities have had "bizarre medical calls" from bath-salt users, including one man who tried to tear apart the back of a patrol car with his teeth and a woman who attacked her mother with a machete.

"Health care officials here were expressing a lot of concern with spring break coming up," Corley said. While other stimulants can produce similar effects, "what made it so dangerous is it was legal," she said.

Users report a feeling of euphoria, increased sociability and productivity and often sexual arousal. But their side effects can include elevated heart rates and a harsh crash as the drug wears off. Mephedrone can produce hypertension and restricted circulation to extremities, as well as pain and swelling in the nose and throat when inhaled. Health officials say the drugs also can produce extreme paranoia, hallucinations and hostility in their users.

Louisiana public health officials began raising alarms in December, noting that 84 people had been treated in state emergency rooms by that point. The state accounted for more than half the calls to U.S. poison control centers about the drug, state officials said in announcing their ban in January.

Before the Florida ban, Bay County's sheriff hand-delivered letters to the shops that sold the drugs, asking them to stop "because it was so detrimental to public safety," Corley said. The back-seat biter required seven deputies to subdue him, she said.

All eight of the shops where "bath salts" were sold before the ban have stopped, Corley said. Testing has linked MVDP chemically to the controlled substance cathinone, allowing authorities to prosecute its possession and use as an analogue to the illegal drug, she said.

The drugs emerged in Europe in late 2008, and the European Union had banned mephedrone in all 27 member countries by March 2010. Across the Atlantic, U.S. poison control centers began sounding an alarm about the drugs in December after seeing more than 150 calls related to their use.

New York Senator Charles Schumer, the No. 3 Democrat in the U.S. Senate, has called on Congress to step in and ban the drugs nationwide. Schumer said earlier this week that the bath salts are "nothing more than legally sanctioned narcotics."

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