'Bath salt' poisonings rise as legislative ban tied up
As the number of accidental poisonings explodes and parents recount horror stories of crazed teenagers high on synthetic marijuana and "bath salts," federal attempts to outlaw the chemicals have stalled.
The House has passed legislation that would outlaw "bath salts" and other chemical concoctions, sold at convenience stores and on the Internet as legal highs -- and implicated in deaths and accidental poisonings around the country. But the legislation is stuck in the Senate, where Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., is keeping it from reaching a floor vote.
As the Senate dukes it out, the clock is running on the Drug Enforcement Administration's year-long emergency bans, and casualties are growing.
The number of calls to poison control centers nationwide involving "bath salts" soared in 2011, to 6,138 from 304 in 2010. The drugs come in powder and crystal form, which resemble conventional bath salts. Users looking for a high will snort or eat the powder.
Poison control centers fielded nearly 7,000 calls about synthetic marijuana in 2011, up from 2,906 in 2010.
"It is poison," said Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, a sponsor of a bill to outlaw synthetic marijuana. "People are spraying chemicals on a pile of plant clippings, putting that in an envelope and selling it to kids."
Dozens of teens and young adults have been hospitalized in recent months -- and some have died -- after smoking, snorting or swallowing the chemicals, which mimic the highs associated with popular illegal drugs such as marijuana, cocaine and Ecstasy.
Users have arrived in hospital emergency rooms gravely ill, and occasionally violent, with puzzling symptoms that confound doctors, said Debbie Carr, executive director of the American Association of Poison Control Centers. Carr said the unusual spike in cases "caused national alarm."
In Blaine, Minn., a 22-year-old man pleaded guilty to murder last month and faces 20 years in prison after he shared 2 C-E, a synthetic hallucinogen he purchased on the Internet, with friends at a party. One teenager who tried the drug died.
In Casper, Wyo., last month, public health officials warned people to avoid the synthetic drugs after three people who smoked or swallowed "blueberry spice" went into kidney failure and at least a dozen others needed medical help. "We are viewing use of this drug as a potentially life-threatening situation," said Tracy Murphy, state epidemiologist with the Wyoming Department of Health.
In Bowling Green, Ky., Ashley Stillwell, a recent high school graduate, took a hit of a synthetic marijuana known as 7H while hanging out at a hookah bar with friends last year and was hospitalized, her mother, Amy Stillwell, said. "Within three minutes, she was paralyzed," her mother said.
The teen could hear her friends talking about her, including discussing how they could dispose of her body in a river should she die, Amy Stillwell said.
When she finally recovered enough to call her parents, they took her to the hospital, where she complained that her heart felt as if it was beating out of her chest. A drug screen didn't detect anything, so doctors called poison control to figure out how to treat her.
DEA Administrator Michelle Leonhart has used the agency's emergency powers to temporarily outlaw the substances while the FDA conducts the scientific and medical studies needed to include the chemicals under the Controlled Substances Act, making them the equivalent of marijuana, cocaine and other illicit drugs.
A year-long ban on three synthetic stimulants used to make "bath salts" expires Oct. 21. The ban on synthetic marijuana expires in September.
Leonhart believes the chemicals pose "an imminent danger" to the public, said Special Agent Gary Boggs of the DEA's Office of Diversion Control.
Manufacturers of the mixtures evade federal FDA regulations by printing a warning on the labels that says they are not for human consumption, Boggs said.
"What that means is that people are taking things that are manufactured under unregulated and unlicensed conditions," he said. "These aren't really bath salts. These things are made in basements and garages and warehouses."
At least 39 states have taken steps to ban synthetic marijuana, and 34 states have outlawed baths salts. The latest laws ban broad classes of the chemicals to prevent chemists from tweaking formulas to make them fall outside the ban. A permanent federal ban would allow the agents to act against people who import the drugs, sell them on the Internet and ship them across state lines.
Paul, a libertarian who says criminal justice is the purview of the states, placed a hold on the federal legislation that prevents the Senate from debating it. "He's a doctor. He understands these compounds are dangerous," said Paul spokeswoman Moira Bagley. "Our state has already made it illegal. It would be great to do that in all the states."
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., a former prosecutor who proposed legislation to ban the synthetic hallucinogens, said she and several other senators are trying to persuade Paul to lift his block and allow debate on the Senate floor.
"We've had many instances in our state of people who nearly died," Klobuchar said. "These synthetic drugs are often worse than the illegal drugs they claim to be."
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