- The Washington Times - Friday, September 28, 2012

A New York man was just arrested for the second time in four days on charges of larceny, drug possession and endangering a child. The police found him standing on a mobile home, tossing his personal possessions and yelling that there was a man trapped in his chimney.

In Pennsylvania, just two days after giving birth, a woman stripped, fought off her nurses and tried to bite a police officer. In Arizona, a naked man recently crashed a stolen jeep. In New York, a woman attacked a police officer, yelling, “I want to kill someone and eat them.”

This is what the origin of a man-made drug scourge looks like. These bizarre criminal acts were committed by people high on “bath salts” — an infamous synthetic designer drug sweeping the nation.

Bath salts have effects similar to those of methamphetamines. The street chemists who manufacture these drugs are staying one step ahead of the law, but that can change. Physicians, law enforcement officers and public officials need to make better use of advanced drug detection technologies. By working together, they can defeat this epidemic.

Bath salts are not the traditional products available for bathing, such as Epsom salts. This is a popular term for “synthetic cathinones,” as these drugs are known to scientists, and they are man-made. First appearing in the United States in late 2010, they are related to such widely recognized drugs as LSD, Ecstasy, meth and PCP.

Since their introduction, bath salts have quickly gained notoriety for being cheap, potent and readily available. But they also come with major health risks. Bath salts can elicit paranoid delusions, extreme anxiety and vivid hallucinations as well as dangerous, even deadly, physiological symptoms.

Technically, bath salts are illegal. This summer, President Obama signed legislation banning several types of synthetic drugs. However, drug makers — amateurs and professionals alike — are circumventing existing laws by slightly modifying the chemical structure of their products. The drugs’ effects are the same, but their exact chemical composition is just different enough to avoid legal scrutiny.

These drugs are then sold under harmless-sounding monikers — usually “bath salts,” but also “plant food,” “potpourri” and “incense.” They aren’t difficult to find, often selling for as little as $16 per gram at head shops or convenience stores.

Because these drugs are unregulated, inexpensive and accessible, demand for them has jumped dramatically in the past year.

Meanwhile, poison control centers across the country received nearly 6,000 more calls about bath salts in 2011 than they did in 2010.

Fortunately, public officials are beginning to combat this growing crisis. New York recently filed lawsuits implicating 16 stores for mislabeling bath salts and other synthetic drugs. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has placed three chemicals commonly found in bath salts on its “Schedule I” list of controlled substances.

These are important steps. But much more can be done.

Part of the reason bath salts have become so popular is that it’s widely believed they can’t be detected via urine testing. Even a DEA official has described them as “not being detectable by drug tests.” That has changed. Some laboratories have developed tests that can identify bath salts.

Technologies like those used to monitor pain medications can be adapted to check for illicit drugs. Scientists in the United Kingdom, which struggled with a rash of bath-salt overdoses and deaths before the United States did, were the first to do so.

U.S.-based scientists can now detect multiple synthetic cathinones — even those that the DEA has not yet classified as Schedule I substances.

Public health officials need to avail themselves of these tools. Right now, they’re struggling to keep up with the street chemists and their constantly evolving drug cocktails. Using these detection tools, they can better design their prevention campaigns and provide law enforcement with the information needed to crack down on bath-salt manufacturing.

A three-pronged effort drawing on the insights of law enforcement, doctors and drug-testing lab scientists will be crucial to identifying the latest trends in the drug market and responding with appropriate policies and laws.

Man-made drugs like bath salts represent a growing crisis for public health, but with new technologies — and smart, collaborative policymaking — this scourge can be defeated.

Dr. Harry L. Leider is chief medical officer and senior vice president of Ameritox, a medication monitoring company.

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