The headlines are lurid. One thing that stands out about the new drugs known as bath salts, plant food or glass cleaner is that users' behavior can be truly bizarre.
"A Syracuse man on bath salts holds a knife to a five-year-old boy's throat. A Utica man drank blood and wanted to eat babies, police say," said state Senator Patty Ritchie at a telephone town hall Monday night that was attended by over 5,000 people in three counties. It was one of three different meetings involving Jefferson County this week about these synthetic drugs.
Jefferson County Sheriff's Detective David Pustizzi spoke to several dozen community members at South Jefferson High School in Adams on Wednesday. He said area police are getting about five calls a day dealing with users of the drugs. Often, it's users themselves that call 911, with delusions about having been shot or robbed, or about people coming after them. Pustizzi said, "People that are thinking that they're going to be eaten by minks, there was a guy stabbing an air conditioner, because he saw people coming out of it, trying to get him."
Samaritan Medical Center emergency department's Kathy Cole Sleeman says the ER, too, is dealing with about five patients each day who have taken the drugs. She said, "They think that they can jump off buildings. They think they can jump out windows. They pick at their face. They think that they have bugs in their mouths or spyware stuck under their skin."
Cole Sleeman says the health effects of the drugs are serious. Users snort or inject the drugs, or consume them orally. Patients come in hot, often with temperatures between 103 and 106 degrees. Pustizzi says there's a strong risk of overdose, because it takes just 3 to 5 milligrams of the drugs for a user to feel the effects, but packages often contain up to 500 milligrams. And it takes time for the drugs' effects to be felt, so users often take more as they wait for the euphoria to kick in, and then get hit all at once with very strong effects.
"We even had one patient tell us that he was so high on bath salts he had to use heroin to come down. It's very scary. It's very scary, because it's so accessible and it's so addicting," said Cole Sleeman. The stories of bizarre behavior highlight the special danger for law enforcement and health officials dealing with users.
"It's just a very, very volatile situation every time they get one of these calls," said Jefferson County District Attorney Cindy Intschert at Senator Ritchie's telephone town hall. Intschert said that, as in the case of synthetic marijuana, drug makers seem always to be one step ahead of law enforcement. While the original chemical compounds used to make bath salts in the past are now illegal, manufacturers have regularly changed their formulas to stay ahead of bans.
"So it's been
changed just enough that it's no longer on the illegal list, if you
will. So we're trying to wrap our collective minds around a way to,
you know, hopefully come up with some laws that will instead be ahead
of the cooks, if you will," said Intschert.
A new federal law aims to do that. Earlier this month, President Obama signed into law a bill banning 31 different compounds used in synthetic drugs, including bath salts and glass cleaner. The law also bans other chemicals that produce similar effects. Several area head shops were raided Wednesday by federal and local law enforcement officers targeting bath salts under the new law.
New York's Attorney General's Office also has tried to go after sellers of the drugs. The products are sold locally as Green Buddha glass pipe cleaner, Clear, and Eight Ball, and are labeled “not for human consumption.” Pustizzi said, "But everybody knows that's what you do with it. The problem is, because they mark it not for human consumption, it makes it difficult for the FDA to get involved and say this is an illegal substance, for legislation to come along, because although they're using it, it's not as intended."
This has led the state Attorney General's Office to go after sellers of the products for civil penalties, Intschert says. She spoke at a meeting of the Alcohol and Substance Abuse Council in Watertown on Tuesday and said, "Quite frankly, the Attorney General's Office has, I think quite inventively addressed this by saying, you know what? We're gonna go at the packaging. Are they mislabeled? And we have – we being my office – I've been in contact with the Attorney General's Office, to see what we can coordinate."
Like other New York localities who have instituted bans on the drugs, Jefferson County health and law enforcement officials are working on drafting a local ordinance for the County Legislature's review.