Users snort, smoke or swallow the powdery chemicals. / (By Michael Heinz/Journal & Courier)
Earlier this year, Cathy Whiteaker of Lafayette watched a young female acquaintance sink into a downward spiral of erratic behavior broken by long bouts of sleeping.
Whiteaker knew something was wrong, but she didn't know what.
In April, she and her family learned the woman had been using "bath salts," a synthetic drug, sold legally in Indiana, that mimics the highs of methamphetamine, amphetamine or ecstasy.
Use of bath salts -- no relation to traditional salts -- eventually led the young woman to give up custody of her son to the boy's father, one of Whiteaker's relatives, so she could get clean.
"People need to know that this drug, bath salts -- it's destroying lives and families. It has hurt ours," Whiteaker said.
Law enforcement, medical professionals and legislators alike have sounded the alarm in recent months about bath salts. They're the newest designer drug, experts said, created to skirt laws regulating illegal substances.
In Lafayette and elsewhere in Indiana, however, the days of bath salts -- as currently formulated, at least -- are numbered.
Effective Friday, the manufacture, sale and possession of the key ingredients found in bath salts will be illegal in Indiana. Several other states have already banned the drug or are considering it.
The little-publicized Indiana bath salt ban was tucked into a state law, passed in April, that also outlawed synthetic marijuana known as "spice."
Bath salts are marketed under numerous trade names such as Ivory Wave, Vanilla Sky, Bubbles and Tranquility, to name but a few. Bodying promises the user an "invigorating" or "energizing" experience.
They have been sold through convenience stores, head shops and other places in small, plastic cosmetic containers -- $30 for 500 milligrams, or about a thimbleful.
Experts said the mix of powdery chemicals are intended to be snorted, smoked or swallowed as a recreational drug.Said to be as addictive as their illegal counterparts, bath salts produce dangerous effects, such as an elevated heart rate, agitation, paranoia, hallucinations and suicidal tendencies, according to doctors.
Experts have pointed to some sobering statistics as evidence of bath salts' danger -- and their growing popularity.
In the first three months of 2011, poison control centers nationwide reported 1,400 calls related to the use of bath salts. That compares with 301 calls for all of 2010, The Associated Press reported recently.
In one scenario in Kentucky, according to news reports, authorities said a young woman using bath salts became convinced her 2-year-old was a demon. She lost custody of the boy after dropping him on his head. Another man in Mississippi took a hunting knife to his face and stomach while on the drug, police reported.
In Lafayette, doctors and law enforcement officials said they can't point to any specific crimes or emergencies in which bath salts were involved for certain.
However, anecdotal stories such as Whiteaker's point to the drug making an impact, and police in both cities and in Tippecanoe County said they're educating officers about the drug.
"It seems to be becoming more popular," said West Lafayette Police Lt. Troy Harris. "I'm concerned that we will (see more cases involving bath salts) given all the attention that it's got."
Although they want to be prepared, local authorities said they hope the state law banning bath salts will nip the problem in the bud.
Tony Steele, an emergency room doctor at Indiana University Health Arnett hospital in Lafayette, agreed.
Steele, who is president of the Indiana chapter of the American College of Emergency Physicians, said his group pushed hard earlier this year for the Indiana ban on bath salts.
"We wanted to stop this before it became entrenched," Steele said.
"If it's illegal to sell and possess, it will keep it from being sold in convenience stores, for one thing. We hope that (the ban) stems the tide of the rise in use of this drug across the state."Whiteaker, whose family was embroiled in problems stemming from bath salts, agreed that outlawing the drugs would be a big step toward limiting the harm they cause.
"If this drug does induce a lot of the same symptoms as the (illegal) drugs it's mimicking, it needs to be illegal," Whiteaker said. "I would like to think that would make it harder for people to get it."
The state law that takes effect Friday outlaws substances containing one or more ingredients from a list of 25 chemicals. The list includes the two main ingredients in bath salts -- mephedrone and MDPV.
But David Nichols, who holds the Robert C. and Charlotte P. Anderson distinguished chair in pharmacology at Purdue University, warned that ill-intentioned chemists could look for ways to slightly alter the bath salts recipe, potentially making the drugs legal again.
State Sen. Ron Alting, R-Lafayette, who wrote the law banning spice and bath salts, said he is already planning for that scenario.
He said Indiana's spice and bath salts ban is among the strongest such legislation in the country. It's even tighter, he said, than a recent federal law that bans five chemicals found in synthetic marijuana.
"I suspect I'll be coming back with a bill next year that will be adding more compounds and synthetic cannabinoids to that (existing Indiana) bill, honestly," Alting said."We want to send a message ... that (spice and bath salts) are dangerous."
WHAT'S IN 'BATH SALTS'?
The two main ingredients in so-called bath salts are powerful stimulants: methylenedioxypyrovalerone, also called MDPV, and mephedrone.
According to experts, those chemicals cause bath salts to mimic illegal drugs such as methamphetamine, amphetamine or ecstasy.
Use of bath salts can cause an elevated heart rate, agitation, paranoia, hallucinations or even suicidal tendencies, doctors said.
ABOUT THE LAW
In January, state legislators passed a law banning synthetic drugs that contain one or more of a list of chemicals, including bath salts' two main active ingredients.
The law, effective Friday, makes possession of bath salts a Class A misdemeanor or a Class D felony, depending on the amount. It also outlaws making and selling the drug.
The same law bans synthetic marijuana, or "spice." Last year, Tippecanoe County, Lafayette and West Lafayette banned that substance, citing several cases in which local users became violent or came to harm while under its influence.
To read the full text of the ban on spice and bath salts, go here.