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Vigilance is Key to 'Bath Salt' Drug Ban, Officials Say

While the state of Florida has issued a ban on the drug known as 'bath salt,' officials say it's up to parents to keep an eye out.

Though the state of Florida recently banned them, experts say “bath salts” – the latest drug that users are taking to get high - will probably never totally disappear.

They may be around in one form or another, experts say, as companies that manufacture the drug will find ways to get around the state’s ban and put them back into the head shops and convenience stores at which they had been legally purchased. Or by hawking them over the Internet.

Dr. Cynthia Lewis-Younger, managing director of the Poison Control Center in Tampa, says that unfortunately, it’s already true. She noted that since the ban was put in place in January, the majority of the 106 reported cases to all three of Florida’s poison control centers occurred after that date, within the past six months. Six of them occurred in Hillsborough County.

“That’s just the sickest of the sick,” she said. “The people who have taken the drug and don’t feel that bad won’t be seeking help, so the number of users is much higher.”

Also known on the street as “fake cocaine,” the synthetic drug is a far cry from the bath salts that are actually meant for your bath. Manufacturers of the drug gave them that name along with a “not for human consumption” label on them to skirt U.S. Food and Drug Administration guidelines, according to experts. They’ve further disguised their intended use by giving them names like “Vanilla Sky” and “Bliss."

But the effects they have on users is anything but blissful. The active ingredient in most of them is a substance called MDPV, a stimulant that mimics the effect of illegal drugs like crystal meth and cocaine.

A Local and National Issue

People who have been hospitalized are often reported to exhibit violent behavior and suffer hallucinations. “People are dying all around the country from this,” Lewis-Younger said. “They get suicidal, or so violent that law enforcement gets involved.”

Jarious McGhee, 23, was Tampa’s latest resident to reportedly die from ingesting bath salts. Police apprehended him at the intersection of Dale Mabry and Kennedy Boulevard, after witnesses reported him ranting, singing and beating on cars. He later died in an area hospital.

According to a recent news report about McGhee’s death, a doctor at the hospital concluded without a doubt that McGhee died from taking bath salts, saying the drug was found in all of his tissue samples taken at his autopsy.

As highly publicized as McGhee’s death and Florida’s ban on the substances has been, people still aren’t sure how widespread the use of the drug is. But, according to Jack Feinberg, vice president and clinical director at Tampa’s Derek Jeter Center at Phoenix House, his center has been treating people who have used bath salts to get high.

“It would be hard for me to tell you how big of a problem it is in New Tampa, but I can tell you that it’s one of a set of substances that the young people are doing, both as a an alternative to drugs they can easily get tested for in court or just as a subset of new substances they are trying,” Feinberg said.

He said his facility regularly tests its patients for the drug, but the big problem is that bath salts are just one of the new many “designer drugs” manufacturers are creating, distributing and selling legally in Tampa and around the country. In order to get around the law, all they simply have to do is label them as either bath salts, incense, potpourri, fertilizer or any other material “not fit for human consumption” and people, especially the young, catch on right away.

He noted with disgust a tea shop right across from an area high school advertising an incense “better than “K2,” another “legal” hallucinogen people can readily buy with little or no problem. “These clearly are products that some entrepreneur is making and selling them as one thing but clearly knowing they are going to be used for another,” he said.

While Feinberg applauds Florida’s ban, he said experience shows that drug use, “legal” or otherwise, is not going to go away no matter how many bans and laws are implemented. “Once the genie’s out of the bottle, that’s it,” he said, noting that manufacturers of these types of drugs have long ago figured out how to switch the chemistry to get around the drug laws and the testing and back out onto the street.

Parents Must Be Vigilant

However, Feinberg noted that people on the lookout for them still have one of the best weapons to fight drug abuse with, communication.

“Look for changes,” he said. “If your child is getting As and Bs in school and now they are having trouble, or they’ve always been friends with kids in the neighborhood and now they have different friends and they are gone for long stretches, these are signs something is wrong.” 

The synthetic drug has been on the federal Drug Enforcement Agency’s watch-list for a while. Though the drug is hard to detect chemically, experts say physical signs include paranoia, delusions, racing heartbeat, chest pain and at times, combativeness and suicidal thoughts.

By banning the substance, Florida is following in the footsteps of a half-dozen other states. At least one Tampa head shop owner said he respects the prohibition.

“I never sold any of that stuff, and I never would,” said John Lewis, owner of  head shop on E. Fletcher Ave. He remembers with amusement the day the ban went into effect and he had reporters and cameramen visiting his shop all day.

“They were really disappointed they didn’t find anything,” Lewis said, adding that people looking to get rid of the drug altogether face impossible odds. “I won’t sell it, but that doesn’t mean the gas station down the street won’t. And what about cough syrup? People die from drinking that all the time.”

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