An epidemic of “bath salt” abuse is sweeping the United States and some experts worry that it may hit Canada, since the designer drugs are unregulated and available on the Web.
Not actually bath salts, the products labelled Red Dove, Ivory Wave and Hurricane Charlie are also available via small retail outlets to customers, who smoke, snort, inject or eat the chemicals.
The powders’ effects are similar to those of methamphetamine, and can include rapid heart rate, visual hallucinations, paranoia and psychosis, as well as self-mutilation and suicidal thoughts, authorities say.
A man from Fulton, Miss., cut his face and stomach repeatedly after hallucinating on the drugs. In Louisiana, the family of a 21-year-old man says he committed suicide following three days of delirium after he snorted the chemicals, according to the Washington Post.
Since September, poison control centres from Florida to California have received hundreds of calls about exposure to mephedrone and methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV), the substances in the powders. The first calls appeared in Louisiana, which outlawed the salts with an emergency order in January, after the state’s poison centre got more than 125 calls between October and December.
Although most victims have been men 25 to 35 with a history of meth abuse, authorities are sounding the alarm for younger users curious to experiment.
“One of the risks that you take with this is killing yourself or hurting someone else,” said Richard Geller, medical director of the California Poison Control System.
“If a college student is to engage in this behaviour, they need to know that this is unusually high risk. You’d have to be unbelievably foolish to try this if you knew about it.”
The California centre has received six emergency calls from people who used the drugs. All of the calls came from different parts of the state, which suggests to Dr. Geller that Californians are buying the salts online.
“We live in a rapid-cycle, fast transportation era. It’s no surprise that things spread this quickly any more,” he said.
“Drug abuse knows no borders. The U.S. Canadian border, even after 9/11, is porous. What shows up here will find its way to Toronto.”
Authorities believe the substances may come into the United States through the Port of New Orleans via ships from India and China. Head shops and convenience stores also sell the salts, often in containers marked “not for human consumption.” A 250-milligram jar or baggie goes for $25 (U.S.). Occasionally, the drug is marketed as plant food, as it was in the U.K. when that country saw an epidemic earlier last summer.
“If you really wanted bath salts, you wouldn’t buy this because the quantity is so small,” said Dr. Geller. “You’re not going to find it at Bed Bath & Beyond.”
American companies are starting to distance themselves from the stimulants, including The San Francisco Bath Salt Company, which issued a terse statement last week.
“These are not your typical bath salts, or really even bath salts at all,” wrote a representative, adding that none of the imposters contain sodium chloride (sea salt) or magnesium sulfate (epsom salt), “staple ingredients of a typical and true bath salt.”
Although not yet regulated, the powders are now facing federal scrutiny in the U.S., with lawmakers in Kentucky and Mississippi now looking to ban their sale.
Although officials at Health Canada are aware of the drugs, they have not seen widespread marketing or use of the products in this country.
“In 2010, only seven seizures of drugs analyzed by Health Canada’s Drug Analysis Service were found to contain MDPV. This indicates that this substance is not seen very often in Canada,” spokesman Stéphane Shank wrote in an e-mail, adding that the agency will monitor the products.
“We’re not seeing the bath salts coming into our service,” said Michael Torres of media relations with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.
Still, Dr. Geller says the salts are enjoying a hugely lucrative trade in the U.S., with a retail network that has fanned quickly across the country since last fall, which is worrying since they have the “worst possible aspects of a number of drugs.”
“There’s visual hallucinations like LSD, only they’re worse than LSD because they motivate violent behaviour. It seems to create a dependence and craving immediately, worse than crack cocaine. It has created psychotic breaks and some of these people are not getting better.”