Bath salts are a relatively new designer drug the American Association of Poison Control Centers says is moving across the nation. The drug first got noticed last fall when calls to poison centers spiked.
“We’ve been sort of lucky—we haven’t had the hundreds of calls like in Louisiana,” says Dr. Zane Horowitz, medical director of the Oregon Poison Center at Oregon Health & Science University. “But it’s showing up.”
The “salts” are actually synthetic stimulants likened to amphetamine, cocaine and meth. They’re sold online, in smoke shops and convenience stores, with names like Ivory Wave, Red Dove and White Lightning. Sold legally as chemical derivatives because they’re marked “not for human consumption,” the drugs are also falsely marketed as household products such as stain cleaners, plant food or fertilizer, pond salts and insect repellent.
And, just to be clear, the substances that regulators want to pull the plug on have nothing in common with legitimate products sold to enhance your experience in the tub.
Most are made up of methylenedioxypyrovalerone, or MDPV; some include other drugs such as mephedrone, known locally as “Oregon Sunshine” or just “Sunshine.”
They can be inhaled, smoked, injected or snorted. The high of both drugs is likened to that of cocaine and meth, and side effects include seizures, extreme paranoia, hallucinations, agitation, chest pain, hypertension, rapid heartbeat and suicidal thoughts.
Horowitz says just one hit can leave users profoundly depressed and suicidal.
“I honestly believe this should be an FDA Class I substance,” Horowitz says.
The new drugs are impossible to detect by routine toxicology screens and, in many cases, even after comprehensive drug screening, according to Poison Press, a newsletter published this winter by the Oregon Poison Center.
“The reason we’re [banning bath salts] now is, it has gotten here now,” says Gary Schnabel, executive director of the seven-member Oregon Board of Pharmacy, which will meet March 23 to consider a ban.
According to the American Association of National Poison Centers, U.S. poison centers have taken 469 calls nationwide since Jan. 1 about “bath salts”—a 61 percent increase from the 291 calls recorded in all of 2010.
In Oregon, the Poison Center has received numerous phone calls with questions, but only two actual overdoses have been linked to bath salts—and that was only because the users admitted to health officials they had used the salts.
In April 2009, reports of teens using “Sunshine” began to surface in Bend. At the time, officers didn’t know what it was or what it could do. In Portland last October, Lincoln High School principal Peyton Chapman warned parents in a letter about a new drug being used by students also called “Sunshine.”
In January, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal placed an emergency ban on bath salts. Since then North Dakota and Florida have followed suit. And legislators in Hawaii, Kentucky and Mississippi are introducing bills to ban both MDPV and mephedrone in their states. The salts have already been banned in the U.K., Finland, Denmark and Sweden.
“We know it’s happening in other states; let’s prevent it,” says Schnabel.
In order for Oregon’s Board of Pharmacy to ban substances like MDPV and mephedrone, the board must prove the drugs are being used and that there is a pattern of abuse.
Schnabel says the proof in Oregon is mostly anecdotal, since emergency rooms focus on treating individuals before confirming what substance was ingested.
“We’ve had cases where we’re pretty sure it’s one or two of these drugs,” Schnabel says. “[But] there’s no test that I can do to say, ‘Aha! That’s what it is.’”
FACT: The Oregon Pharmacy Board will meet March 23 at 10 am in its Portland office, 800 NE Oregon St., Suite 150, to consider amending the list of state-controlled substances to include MDPV and mephedrone.