A legal drug even a head shop owner won't sell because "It's too hard-core."

Posted: March 26, 2011

HARRISBURG - A Northeast Pennsylvania couple almost slash their 5-year-old daughter with knives as they attack "voices in the walls." A man caught burglarizing an upstate house tells police he was "chased by electricity." And two men die of exposure in Allegheny National Forest.

Those episodes - all in the last two weeks - are being attributed by authorities to a new and potentially lethal designer drug known as "bath salts."

And it's legal.

Use of the powerful party drug, first popularized in European clubs, has swept across the nation, alarming police, physicians, and parents and galvanizing legislators in Pennsylvania and other states to take action.

The drug methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV), a stimulant that can produce hallucinations, is marketed in small packets under names such as "Vanilla Sky" and "Ivory Wave." Multicolored wrappers promise "euphoria" and "invigoration."

But you don't soak in these bath salts. Users ingest, inject, snort, or smoke the product sold in powder or rock form that resemble the sodium-based crystals used for centuries to soothe aching muscles in the tub.

The "salts" can deliver a paranoia-filled, violent high that has landed some users - typically teenagers and young adults - in emergency rooms and sent loved ones scrambling to call poison hotlines.

Republican State Rep. Tina Pickett, who represents rural Bradford County in the northern part of the state, said a district justice called her Wednesday to tell of three people in the emergency room that day, and 10 within the last week.

"He said their state of mind is so extreme they end up in the psych ward," said Pickett, who hopes for swift passage of a bill banning the drug. In a committee hearing last week, she urged the state health secretary to issue a public warning.

"From what I heard in the district justice's description and the urgency in his voice," she said, "I'd call this a crisis."

As quickly as the drug appeared on shelves of convenience stores in smaller cities and rural areas of Pennsylvania, reports of overdoses and bizarre crimes began cropping up.

And not just upstate. The Poison Control Center at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia had a spike in calls about "bath salts" - from four in 2010 to 55 so far this year.

The center's medical director, Kevin Osterhoudt, blamed the drug's easy availability over the Internet and even in bait shops. He said the surge in calls reflected the tip of the iceberg in usage.

"It's very hard to get cocaine if you're a suburban teen; it's very easy to get 'bath salt' products," Osterhoudt said.

He said the drug turned up most often in reports to the Poison Control Center under the product names "White Rush," "Cool Wave" and "Puffnstuff."

A spokeswoman for Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams said his office had not yet prosecuted crimes involving people known to be high on "bath salts," but that it was only a matter of time.

"It has hit other parts of the state harder than here, but it is of concern to us," Tasha Jamerson said. "If left unchecked, we will have a problem."

State Sen. Larry Farnese (D., Phila.) said he was trying to get ahead of the problem by introducing a bill Monday adding MDPV to the list of controlled substances, which would ban its retail sale.

"It's a public-safety issue, which is why the government needs to act fast," he said.

Five states have already banned sales of MDPV. Pennsylvania is among many states, including New Jersey, where such bans are being drafted or considered.

U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.), along with nine other senators, introduced a bill that would ban the sale of MDPV across the nation.

Earlier this month, the federal Drug Enforcement Agency listed MDPV as a "drug of concern," which means the agency is examining the possibility of banning its sale. But spokeswoman Barbara Carreno said the agency could take 18 months or more to do so.

"We have to justify what we do," she said. "Taking something off the market is a time-consuming process.

She said the DEA was aware the drug was problematic but had to establish that it was dangerous and merited government intervention.

Brian Edmondson, owner of the Hemp's Above head shop northwest of Harrisburg, said he had received samples of "bath salts" from manufacturers but decided not to sell them.

"It's too hard-core; that's not something we want to get into," said Edmondson, whose shop specializes in incense and pipes.

Nevertheless, he said, he didn't think the legislature ought to rush to ban the product. "If there are legislative concerns of health risks, then test it to make sure it's not safe," he said. "They said that about marijuana, and yet we use it medicinally."

The drug is also causing problems for a sector of the beauty products industry - the makers of Calgon and other traditional bath salts. The Personal Care Products Council, a Washington trade group that represents bath-products manufacturers, issued a statement in January trying to spell the difference between those products and the drug.

"This is not a story about bath salts, this is about designer drugs and the problem with illicit drug knockoffs that are legal," said Jay Ansell, vice president of cosmetic products for the trade group. "Our members are concerned because a good product is being impugned."

Osterhoudt said he had seen several reports of young people injuring themselves by trying to snort one of the best-known traditional bath relaxants: Epsom salts.

They, too, ended up in the emergency room - with bloody noses.

Contact staff writer Amy Worden at 717-783-2584 or aworden@phillynews.com.


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