Unregulated 'bath salts' drug becoming more dangerous

HOUSTON - Miami's story of a "zombie" man eating the face of another person before being fatally shot by police is just the latest chapter in America's drug war. For the last year and a half, authorities across the country can do little more than clean up the mess left by the latest drug craze, because, for now, the powdery substance called bath salts is not illegal.

The synthetic substance, sometime sold as plant food in smoke shops and convenience stores, can mimic the effects of ecstasy and amphetamines. A few cities have banned the sale, but it is still legal in most.

Authorities in the medical field and law enforcement told KPRC Local 2 the lack of regulation is leaving the door wide open to danger.

A 19-year-old drug user told Local 2 he actually stopped his illegal methamphetamine habit to use the cheaper, legal bath salts.

"I was attracted to it because it was cheaper than meth and I could walk to my store within 50 feet and buy it legally," said the user who did not want to be identified.

Now going through treatment in a substance abuse program at Cenikor treatment facility in Houston, the man said bath salts have an intense high but can cause paranoia and hallucinations.

Despite the name, the white powdery substance is not something you use to relax in the bathtub. It is sold over-the-counter at smoke shops and convenience stores labeled with cute names like "Tranquility" and "Ivory Wave," but it is being used as a way to get high. Cenikor drug counselor Roy Ortega said what kids and adults of all ages are buying is unregulated, synthetic amphetamine.

"The young people think because it is not a narcotic, there is nothing wrong with it," said Ortega.

Baylor College of Medicine psychiatrist Dr. Thomas Kosten warns that whether it is listed as a narcotic or not, bath salts are drugs. Dr. Kosten pointed out that since they are unregulated, the combination of chemicals in each does vary, but most either are synthetic forms of the drugs ecstasy or amphetamine.

"When you take large does of amphetamines or ecstasy, you get bad side-effects. You get paranoid. You can get hallucinations. You can get agitated and you can get violent," said Kosten.

Three out of 10 people using amphetamines can become addicted. One in 50 can get something called amphetamine psychosis. Dr. Kosten said this is a relatively small number but they apply to the regulated and illegal versions of the drugs. With bath salts being unregulated, legal and constantly shifting mixtures in each batch, all bets are off when it comes to people's reactions.

"One out of 50 when there are only 50 people using equals one person, but one out of 50 when it is 5,000 people and you are starting to see hundreds of these folks with psychosis," Dr. Kosten said.

That is just what has been happening since the drug hit the market over a year ago.

Ben Taub Hospital in Houston reported the numbers are growing. They see at least one to two cases every month. In Friendswood last week, police reported arresting a man under the influence of bath salts who first tried to walk into traffic and then later was burned when he tried to light his dad's truck on fire.

Bath salt incidents have been happening across the country for the last year and a half.

In Calvert, Kansas, a woman was found walking down a road with one son, the other -- a toddler -- was left beaten and abandoned behind her. Police testified the mother thought her son was an evil spirit.

In Scranton, Pennsylvania, a man broke into a monastery and attacked a sleeping priest.

And there is the Miami case where a man people have dubbed a "zombie" attacked and ate pieces of another man's face before he was fatally shot by police. In that case, both men were found without clothes.

"People with psychotic behavior will do very unusual things. They will start to act like wild animals and in this case imitate a wild animal in a fairly gruesome way," Dr. Kosten said.

The Baylor psychiatrist said even when people try to quit taking the amphetamine like bath salts, the agitated violence can give way to depression and that can turn the violence inwards.

"You get the depression that follows that can often add up to the impulsive suicides," Dr. Kosten said.

That was the case in Mandeville, La., where a teen cut his own throat in front of his parents who were both doctors. They had taken the young man to the hospital to be treated for a reaction to bath salts after he had suffered delusions.

In Sante Fe, Texas, a man committed suicide after his father, James Baldwin said he was consumed by paranoid delusions of being stalked by law enforcement. Baldwin's son left a rambling suicide note blaming bath salts before he hanged himself.

"I am telling you that it is poison. It killed my son. I am telling you, it wasn't my son that killed my son, it was that damn bath salts," said James Baldwin whose son committed suicide.

Dr. Kosten said these particular drugs react to people's DNA so different users can have different side-effects even from the same batch of bath salts.

"It is very much like playing Russian Roulette with this substance. You don't know if you are going to be the person who gets the psychosis. You don't know if you are the person who is going to get the addiction. You don't know if you are going to be the one who simply walks away having had a good time and that is it," Dr. Kosten said.

Another major danger, especially for people trying bath salts in the Southern states, is the salts can cause a spike in body temperature. It can shoot as high at 104 to 105 degrees. With cities like Houston or Miami carrying triple digits in the summer time, Dr. Kosten said there is a real chance of people dying.

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