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Warning on designer ‘bath salts’

A new and dangerous family of illegal designer drugs called “bath salts” has begun to show up in the south suburbs, police say.

Police departments including Abington, Hingham, Quincy, and Weymouth have all made arrests for possession of bath salts in the past year. And a man in Abington was arrested and charged with manufacturing drugs including bath salts in 2011. Officials say they expect to continue making arrests as more of the synthetic drugs move into the area.

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The drugs are chemically unrelated to epsom salts or traditional bath salts and have no legitimate uses, according to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. They are often marked as “plant food,” “jewelry cleaner,” “phone screen cleaner,” or “not for human consumption.”

The drugs, which until August 2012 were legal in Massachusetts, are often sold in convenience stores or on the Internet, and most commonly come in 50-milligram packets labeled with innocuous names like Bliss, White Dove, and Cloud Nine, but their effects can be anything but blissful, authorities say.

They are central nervous system stimulants that produce a feeling of euphoria and often extraordinary strength for three to four hours, followed by a period of psychosis, violence, suicidal thoughts, seizures, tremors, paranoia, hallucinations, rapid heartbeat, and other issues that can linger for days or even weeks, officials say. Because the drugs are relatively new, their long-term effects on the body are unknown. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, they are highly addictive.

“The very first time you take them, you could die,” warned Marshfield police Lieutenant Steven Marcolini.

A 50 mg packet normally sells for between $25 and $75. The packaging often makes the content appear harmless and also “difficult to impossible for law enforcement to distinguish them from real bath salts,” said Norwood police Detective Lieutenant Peter F. Kelly.

The illegal drugs can be manufactured as a powder or crystal, in white to light brown. They sometimes have a slight odor that has been described as “bad feet.” They can be sprinkled into food and drink and consumed orally, snorted, injected, smoked, or inhaled in a mist, according to Kelly.

Since August, bath salts are classified as a Class C illegal substance. But Kelly says manufacturers regularly make small changes to the chemical makeup of these drugs to skirt the law, making prosecution difficult. Anyone convicted of possessing bath salts can face up to a year in jail, a $1,000 fine, or both. Anyone convicted of distributing bath salts can face five years in jail, a $5,000 fine, or both.

Recent arrests in neighboring states lead law enforcement officials here to believe that the drugs will continue to filter into Massachusetts.

In Torrington, Conn., police spokesman Lieutenant Michael Emanuel said officers arrested a man on Feb. 20 with a quantity of drugs including bath salts that they suspect he intended to sell to buyers in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts.

In Maine, a 53-year-old man was arrested three times in January and February on drug-related charges, and local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies confiscated a total of 24.5 pounds of bath salts as a result of the arrests. According to Troy Morton, chief deputy in the Penobscot County Sheriff’s Office, the drugs are believed to have come from Texas and China. Morton said the man was charged with multiple counts of intent to distribute the drug.

Prosecutions are still relatively rare in the south suburbs. The Norfolk district attorney’s office estimates that it has prosecuted fewer than 10 cases involving bath salts in the past six months. Plymouth and Bristol counties report none.

Abington Police Chief David Majenski, whose department has seen a few cases involving bath salts use in the past year, says he expects to see more in the future and advises parents and other law enforcement officials to be aware of the drugs.

“To keep our heads in the sand would be a mistake,” said Majenski. “If things like that can happen here, they can happen anywhere.”

Kelly said that new trends in drug use often start on the West Coast, where bath salts use is currently more prevalent, and move eastward. He said the use of bath salts can begin in middle school, and recommends that parents make themselves aware of what’s going on in their children’s lives.

“A good parent is a nosy parent,” he said, adding, “We need a warrant to look in your kid’s closet, but you don’t.

“If you suspect someone has ingested bath salts,” said Kelly, “you should call 911 immediately. They’re unpredictable. This is not something you want to try to handle yourself.”

Dr. Jason Tracy, chief of emergency medicine at South Shore Hospital, says that his hospital has not seen any recent case involving the use of bath salts, but points out that it’s not always possible to determine what a person might have ingested when they are in a highly agitated state like someone on bath salts. They might have taken something similar or even a combination of drugs.

“We see plenty of highly agitated patients, though. It can be challenging to tease out just what the agents are,” he said.

Jim Morrison can be reached at jamesandrewmorrison@gmail.com.
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