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Maine Strained By Use Of Cocaine-Like 'Bath Salts'

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States across the country continue to fight the spread of a dangerous new drug: bath salts.

They aren't anything like those soothing crystals you pour into the tub — they're synthetic stimulants, so-called designer drugs that cause paranoid, psychotic, often violent behavior in users.

Bath salts can still be purchased legally in some states and, in some cases, over the Internet.

In Maine, use of the drug has reached epidemic proportions and is straining police departments and emergency rooms. So late last month, the state enacted tougher laws that make both possession and distribution of the drug felonies.

The Story Of A Bath Salts Addict

Shane Heathers, 34, says opiates like OxyContin and heroin have been his drugs of choice. But he's done his share of cocaine and other stimulants, too.

On a recent rainy night at his family's home in the southern Maine woods, Heathers says, the same scenario plays out again and again in his life as an addict. He gets arrested or ends up in treatment, calms down for a bit, then returns to hard drugs. That's what happened after a recent stint in rehab, when a friend told him about a great new drug called bath salts.

"I was warned about its dangers, kinda, too," Heathers says. "But, I guess, doing what I do, I wanted to try it. I bought it for $40 a gram. It was a much cheaper alternative. And when I tried it, I just put a very little bit, just a few specks in a spoon, I injected it."

Heathers injected it, day and night, for nearly a week. He ended up at the hospital, where police were called in with tasers after he tried to break out to smoke a cigarette. Several more bath salts binges followed. The last one took place at the house in September.

There's a steep ladder up to a lofted bedroom, where plastic sheeting covers the room's three windows.

"I punched those out," Heathers says. "I was in war with a bunch of projections, basically. That skylight was busted out. You can see all the marks around the skylight there. I had a pole and I was jamming at it."

Heathers' parents showed up with sheriff's deputies and an ambulance. They took him to an emergency room not unlike the trauma unit at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, where Dr. Jonnathan Busko sees as many as eight patients a day on bath salts, often behaving just like Heathers.

"You'll have this group of patients screaming and yelling, swearing," Busko says.

A Drain On Resources

Busko, who oversees the ER, points over at a hallway where patients are lying on gurneys. A typical patient, says Busko, requires the care of one doctor and one nurse. But a bath salts patient like Heathers requires much more.

"They take three to four nurses, our techs, our security staff and a physician to care for them," Busko says. "And that's just for each of them. So if we're seeing four to five of those at any given time, that's a tremendous use of our resources and it really draws us away from our other patients."

At the beginning of the year, hardly anyone in Maine had even heard of the drug. By the end of September, Bangor's police department had responded to as many as 400 bath salts-related incidents.

"Our practice is to send at least two officers to every call," says Lt. Thomas Regan, the night commander at the Bangor Police Department. "So if we have a domestic violence case on one side of town and a bath salt or two on the other side of town, I have no people free."

Paranoid bath salts users have been picked up armed with knives and guns. Until recently, the drug could be purchased legally in most states. But that's begun to change, as the dangers posed by bath salts have become more widely understood.

Along with Maine, other states are fast-tracking laws banning the drug. And a temporary federal ban will soon take effect, outlawing the main ingredients in bath salts, as well as bath salts made with those ingredients.

Heathers, though, doubts whether all the new restrictions will make much difference.

"They're gonna come out with alternatives to it," he says. "There's more in the laboratory that they're trying to synthesize."

And, as Heathers notes, you can still do what he did last month, when bath salts possession in Maine was still a civil infraction, punishable by a fine: Order up some bath salts on the Internet and wait for the mailman to deliver them.

Copyright 2011 Maine Public Broadcasting Network. To see more, visit http://www.mainepublicradio.org/.

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