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Bath salts, legal and scary

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A powdery substance being legally sold in California under the name of “bath salts” contains a synthetic drug that health officials say can cause hallucinations, paranoia and violent behavior when smoked, snorted or injected.

Police and health workers are so concerned, state legislators will decide this week if California should join more than 30 states that have already banned the synthetic stimulant.

“These drugs have nothing to do with bath salts that you might find at Bed, Bath and Beyond,” said Dr. Rick Geller, director of the California Poison Control Systems.

“These are very, very, very dangerous agents. … People who are under the influence of bath salts are prone to have abrupt, bizarre behavior including grotesque suicide.”

They may not be the same bath salts as sold at cosmetic counters, but they are just as easy to find. The product can be found at convenience stores, head shops and online. A gram of packaged bath salts sold at a Livermore smoke shop for $29.99 plus tax. The package came with two vials of powder, but no instructions.

The number of reports of adverse effects from bath salts are rising nationwide.

The American Association of Poison Control Centers had 302 calls reporting exposure to bath salts in 2010. As of July 31, the association has had 4,137 reports.

The same is true in California. Last year, Geller said the state poison control system saw a handful of cases. As of July 20, that number was 72, of which 55 cases were treated at hospitals.

Users have been reported at times to mutilate themselves, barricade themselves and have psychotic episodes.

A federal ban is making its way through Congress. And, on Monday, a bill for a statewide ban of bath salts sales is expected to be heard on the California Senate floor. Assembly Bill 486, written by Assemblyman Ben Hueso, D-San Diego, would make it a misdemeanor to sell bath salts. The punishment would be as much as six months in county jail, a fine of as much as $1,000, or both. It has already passed the Assembly. The bill seeks an emergency clause approval, which requires approval by two-thirds of the vote, so it could be enacted immediately if signed by the governor.

Paola Avila, Hueso’s communication director, said the assemblyman plans to work on another bill that would make possession of bath salts illegal.

Hueso scrapped another bill he was working on and subbed in the bath salts ban in May to hurry it along when constituents began calling his office about products being sold in Chula Vista. Parents saw that their children were talking about synthetic drugs on Facebook, Avila said. They also learned that local markets, including one close to a middle school, were selling them.

With no age restriction, kids of any age could buy them, Avila said, and they were.

One incident that really mobilized the community, Avila said, was when two Chula Vista teens went into cardiac arrest after using “spice,” also an artificial stimulant.

“They honestly had to restart their hearts … and that sent the whole community into a scare,” Avila said.

The most common synthetic found in bath salts is Methylenedioxypyrovalerone, also called MDPV. Others are Mephedrone and derivatives of Methcathinone, which also is known as “Khat” and is structurally and pharmaceutically similar to methamphetamine. The 72 reports of use that the state poison control center has received so far this year show a wide area of use, Geller said. Reports came from 65 cities across the state, with users tending to be in their 20s and late teens.

Livermore police recently issued a community alert about bath salts after learning a local smoke shop was selling them, but they say they have not had reports of anyone abusing the product.

Walid Akbarzadeh, owner of Cigarette City in Pleasanton, said he does not carry the product because it’s dangerous, even though customers ask about it, as often as three to five times a week.

“Just what (bath salts) do, is basically (like) crack,” he said.

Other Bay Area agencies are aware of the product, but say they have not reported any incident connected to someone using bath salts. No incidents have been connected to any arrests by the Santa Clara County Sheriffs Office, said agency spokesman Sgt. Troy Smith.

The Drug Enforcement Administration said because the chemicals in bath salts are not controlled substances, the agency has no cases on them, according to Casey McEnry, spokeswoman for the DEA’s San Francisco office. The chemicals in bath salts are considered a “drug of concern” and that the DEA is determining if they should be controlled.

Geller, of the state poison control system, thinks they definitely should.

“Let me say this about bath salts. They are substances of abuse that have no legitimate medical purpose,” he said. “In fact, they have no legitimate purpose. Period.”

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