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Use of bath salt drug appears to be on the rise in California

"Bizarre suicides” are one of the "hallmarks of the drug," according to a poison control expert

Last Saturday, video cameras recorded a gruesome assault in Miami: A naked man walked off a freeway ramp, attacked a homeless man and began eating his face.

As motorists and cyclists looked on, the man accused in the attack, Rudy Eugene, reportedly growled at police and continued the assault, before an officer shot and killed him.

Police are awaiting the results of toxicology tests to see if Eugene was high on a drug known as "bath salts."

“These drugs have absolutely nothing to do with the product sold at Bed, Bath and Beyond,” said Rick Geller, the director of the California Poison Control Center.

Bath salts are a chemical stimulant similar in composition to methamphetamine and have hallucinogenic effects that are similar to LSD, according to Geller. In most states, including California, selling the drug is a crime, but possession is not.

Use of bath salts appears to be on the rise. Nationwide, the number of calls to poison control centers about the drug increased more than 20 times in 2011, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers, from 304 reports in 2010 to 6,138 last year. Health officials say the drug is more widely used in communities already rife with meth addiction.

Prior to last year, California's poison control center had recorded only about a dozen instances of bath salt use. But since January 2011, the center has received 293 calls regarding the drug, and 94 percent of those calls involved people who were in or en route to emergency rooms, according to Geller.

“These agents cause extremely violent behavior like PCP, they cause vivid hallucinations like LSD, they can cause superhuman strength like PCP and amphetamines, and they can cause an acute psychotic break that may not ever get better,” said Geller. “This is just striking. The people who use bath salts are getting far more toxic effects than from any other street drug.”

There appear to be more problems associated with the drug in Southern California than in the Bay Area. Although local law enforcement agencies have not tracked use of the drug, “police agencies [in Southern California] have dealt with this issue a lot,” said Michelle Gregory, a public information officer for the California Department of Justice. “This seems to be the major area where this drug lies.”

Smoke shops and convenience stores across the state had, until recently, sold bath salts under the names Ivory Wave, Cloud Nine and Vanilla Sky among others. But in October, as the drug made its way through the southeastern United States, California lawmakers passed a law making the sale of the drug a misdemeanor. At least 40 states have enacted similar bans.

Officials first took notice of the drug in Germany in 2007 and believe it entered the United States through New Orleans in August 2010, and quickly spread throughout the Southeast and Midwest. News reports of bizarre and often violent acts allegedly committed by people high on bath salts quickly followed.

In one case, a 21-year-old Louisiana man slit his throat in front of his family after he snorted bath salts, because he believed police were after him. In another case, police arrested a Pennsylvania couple who claimed to be high on bath salts, after the man and woman nearly cut their 5-year-old daughter with a knife they were using to stab the “90 people" they believed were "living in the walls” of their apartment. In West Virginia, police arrested a man they found wandering the woods in lingerie after he allegedly stabbed a goat.

At least two suicides in California have been attributed to the use of bath salts, according to Geller. In February, after a San Diego County man who had used bath salts killed himself, lawmakers there declared the drug a public nuisance, allowing officials to take legal action against stores that continue to sell it.

But outright bans on the drug are difficult to enact. Because the drugs are synthetic, police say manufacturers easily alter ingredients to get around such laws.

In December, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Synthetic Drug Control Act, which, among other things, bans bath salts. The U.S. Senate is now considering the legislation.

Geller believes that what happened in Miami may persuade many people not to try the drug.

“If you consider that it causes behavior that gets you shot by police, that bizarre suicide is one of the hallmarks of the drugs, that people who have used these drugs have lost their minds and are not getting better, why would you want to take that chance?” he said. “I think that’s a pretty compelling argument against trying this.”

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