These ‘bath salts’ more like cocaine than Calgon

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“It’s certainly hot right now,” DEA spokeswoman Barbara Carreno said. “Part of that is because, besides not being detectable by drug tests, it’s very, very potent.”

Louis J. de Felice, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Medicine, conducted one of the first studies on the drug, sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. He found that the drug causes the brain to release more dopamine, while at the same time trapping the dopamine in the brain — effects similar to both amphetamines and cocaine.

“You could probably mimic the effects of bath salts if you take amphetamines, wait 20 seconds, and then take cocaine,” he said.

In the long term, though, Mr. De Felice suspects the drug may cause Parkinson’s disease by killing neurons. It also affects the parts of the brain that deal with cognition and mood, which explains the suicidal tendencies officials have reported days after users take bath salts. Mr. De Felice said the drug could lead to accelerated memory loss and schizophrenia-related conditions.

Bath salts originated in China and India, where most is still produced. They were shipped to Europe until they were banned there, after which they became popular in the U.S. While the main focus for now is on stopping imports, Mr. LeMaitre said, it is only a matter of time until they are produced in the U.S.

In fiscal 2011, U.S. Customs and Border Protection seized 28 shipments of bath salts totaling 74 pounds. In the first eight months of fiscal 2012, there already have been 32 seizures totaling 70 pounds.

Most bath-salts packages contain the three main ingredients in powder form, undiluted and unmixed with each other, said William Wagner, lead chemist for the Border Protection’s Laboratories and Scientific Services in Chicago.

Finding a new market

Agents seized the first package in 2008, when the drug was sprayed on plant material and sold in aluminum packets. After about a year and a half, the Border Patrol began seizing mostly pure powder on its way to an individual.

“Presumably, whoever’s importing it is going to be reselling it,” Mr. Wagner said.

At that point, experts suspect, other substances are added to dilute the bath salt, a common practice with other drugs.

In 2010, there were about 300 bath-salt-related calls to poison control centers across the country. By 2011, that number had risen to more than 6,000, reaching their peak in June. Based on information through April, the number of cases has receded in 2012, and are on pace for about 3,000 calls.

Because of the lack of data about the drug, calls to poison control centers are the most reliable way to track bath-salt usage, and experts cannot speculate about the patterns of those calls.

Because it is a designer drug produced in labs rather than coming from a natural source (as marijuana and heroin do), bath salts come in many varieties and often in potencies the user can’t be certain of. In extremely potent forms, users can remain high for hours and feel the effects for days afterward.

It is thought to have caused a man in Canada to repeatedly slam his face into a fence and a New Jersey man to stab himself repeatedly before throwing his intestines at police.

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