“It causes psychosis,” said Zareth Irwin, a doctor at Legacy Good Samaritan Medical Center in Northwest Portland. “She was withdrawn and so afraid. She sat there for five hours.”
Local emergency doctors are seeing more and more patients high on the new designer drug. The increase spurred Irwin, co-director of the Oregon Chapter of the American College of Emergency Physicians, to make bath salts part of presentations for the first time at the group’s annual conference this January.
These aren’t spa-variety bath salts, though they’re marketed as look-alikes. The white powder is typically manufactured in China and Europe and then sold in bright packets with names like Ivory Wave, Bliss and White Dove, police say. Though the package labels warn “not for human consumption,” users snort bath salts and report effects similar to methamphetamine or cocaine.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration became alarmed enough by the trend that it used its emergency powers last month to outlaw three of the major chemical components of the drug: mephedrone, methylone and a substance commonly known as MDPV. The making, selling and using of bath salts is now a felony.
“Anytime you put an uncontrolled drug with unknown effects into your body, you are playing a very dangerous game,” said Jodie Underwood, a DEA special agent in Seattle.
Bath salts have been available in some smoke shops and convenience stores for $15 to $30. Internet wholesale websites also sell them.
While officials scramble to respond to the new substance, chemists are creating variations “almost daily,” said Zane Horowitz, director of the Oregon Poison Center. Slight tweaks of the outlawed chemicals create different drugs that are technically legal, he said.
Though Oregon listed the same three chemicals banned by the DEA on its controlled substances list in April, the federal move will mean that police can more easily enforce the law, authorities say.
The Oregon Poison Center has received 58 calls so far this year about bath salts – a group of drugs that “nobody really heard of until a year ago,” Horowitz said. A few of the calls were requests for information, but most – 47 – reported exposure.
The rise of bath salts in Oregon is part of a national phenomenon. Between Jan. 1 and Oct. 31 this year, the American Association of Poison Control Centers tracked 5,625 calls reporting exposure, said association spokeswoman Loreeta Canton.
In Oregon, calls to the poison center come from across the state, but Horowitz said bath salts are most popular among young people who frequent the club scene, particularly teenagers.Ashanti Hall, a promoter at a Southeast Portland club, said the drug’s novelty and decorative appearance draw in teens. “Kids are willing to experiment with it,” Hall said. “It looks fun and sort of cute.”
Jean-Luc Aguirre, 21, of Portland said he tried bath salts once and never will again. It was bitter and triggered dark hallucinations, he said.
Police investigated the death of a 17-year-old boy last April in Southeast Portland, initially linking the fatality to bath salts based on tips from his friends. The teen was a fixture at downtown clubs and apparently had tried bath salts, but toxicology tests showed he died from a swirl of other drugs in his system.
It’s not clear if bath salts have been involved in other overdose deaths because the State Medical Examiner hasn’t routinely tested for the chemicals, pathologists say.
Southern states have seen the most fatalities, with somebody dying of a bath salts overdose for the first time nationally in Louisiana last November. In Washington, four deaths have been investigated this year as casualties of the drug, according to the Washington State Patrol toxicology lab.
When Louisiana banned six chemicals found in bath salts last January, calls received by the state’s poison center dropped from 110 last December to 10 now.
Local drug officials say they hope for the same change in Oregon.
“The big thing was, ‘Well, it’s not illegal,'” said Portland Police Detective Jack Morris. “Now it is.”