Bath salts trend baffles drug task force — but only in Bellows Falls area

Bath salts trend baffles drug task force — but only in Bellows Falls area

Designer drug with no single recipe and legal industrial uses — and a labelling loophole — creates headaches for law enforcement

BELLOWS FALLS — The Bellows Falls Police Department has arrested five people for drug violations involving mephredrone - “bath salts” - since May, a full 21 percent of the number of heroin arrests during the same period.

“That's a trend,” said Detective Lt. Shane Harris.

But that trend is not reflected statewide.

John Merrigan, a former Southern Vermont Drug Task Force lieutenant who commands the Vermont State Police Narcotics Unit, said this trend in Bellows Falls does not reflect bath salts drug abuse arrests statewide.

“It has happened in a couple isolated circumstances,” Merrigan said. “And that has been the case for a few particular users in Bellows Falls, but it is not the norm at all.”

Bath salts have been illegal in Vermont since 2011. They are described as a “designer drug” by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) - one chemically engineered to mimic the effects of cathinone (the psychoactive ingredient in the khat plant) and other illegal amphetamines.

The substances are illegal for human consumption, but they are legal for other purposes.

According to State Toxicologist Sarah Vose, bath salts are “[legally] sold as plant food, jewelry cleaner, and marketed as something you dump in water to put jewelry in to clean it. That's how it is regulated, but not for human consumption.”

A central nervous system (brain) stimulant, they get their name because they resemble the coarse grains of Epsom salts. But otherwise, they bear no relation to the traditional bath remedies found in grandma's bathroom.

Bath salts can be purchased in head shops and online, though the FBI has continued to shut down such websites, starting last fall with the infamous Silk Road website, a virtual marketplace for chemical compounds such as bath salts.

Substitute sites have popped up almost immediately, and the FBI has stated its intention to shut them all down. But the process is akin to a Whac-A-Mole game: another one pops up almost immediately.

Merrigan said his investigations “stumble across” bath salts in Vermont, but he is not seeing a statewide trend. Police officers still arrest twice as many suspects for heroin as they do for cocaine, the drug responsible for the next-highest number of drug arrests in the state.

Bellows Falls trend

Harris said the BFPD made no arrests last year for bath salts, but this year, he has five pending cases involving the drug and three pending analyses at the Vermont State Forensics Lab just since May.

He said he is seeing some of the people he has arrested for heroin in the past now getting arrested for bath salts.

Harris said he can only guess at the cause of the increase in bath-salts-related arrests. Perhaps it is because the BFPD has been able to crack down on almost all area heroin dealers; now it's mostly down to “day trippers” who are supporting their habits, he said.

Harris speculated that the trend could be a combination of the crackdown on a heroin distribution to the area, combined with economic factors. Bath salts are available online, and cheaper.

But Merrigan is baffled by the loose connection between former heroin users now being arrested for bath salt use: the bath salts' high is not the same, and “you're still going to go through heroin withdrawals, and that is not fun,” he said.

So the Bellows Falls arrests appear to be an anomaly.

Designer drug

Prosecuting arrests related to bath salts is complicated because the drug itself is synthetic and varies chemically, making it difficult to define legally.

Suspected to be manufactured in China and Eastern Europe, mephredrone, also known as MDPV (3-4 methylene-dioxypyrovalerone), is not approved for medical use, and cannot be prosecuted under the Controlled Substances Act.

Bath salts can be prosecuted under the Federal Analogue Act of Controlled Substances, as an analogue chemical because it is designed to be chemically related to mephedrone or methcathinone, which are federally classified Schedule I drugs.

The chemical compound has a common base, according to Tara Tighe, interim director and drug supervisor at Vermont Forensics Laboratory: a “synthetic cathinone.”

The natural version of cathinone derives from the khat plant, popular in the Middle East to chew. In the U.S., bath salts are a “loosely connected” synthetic version, she said.

And, she pointed out, “The synthetic cathinone compounds are modified just slightly” from manufacturer to manufacturer. If you're a bath salts user, you might think you're getting the “same dose you got last time,” she said - but “you just don't know.”

According to Vose, the state toxicologist, “people don't know which chemicals are in there. There could be 10 different cathinones in there, or there could be one cathinone. You don't know how pure it is.”

Both Merrigan and Tighe, as an example of “you don't know what you are getting” when buying bath salts, cited the instance of a naked Florida man who ingested the drug and, in the throes of the high, beat a homeless man unconscious and then ate much of his face off.

Health effects

The effects of bath salts, a stimulant of the central nervous system with similar effects to amphetamines, are far different from those of heroin.

While heroin induces euphoria and a “twilight state of sleep” and wakefulness, according to Vose, bath salts produce “rapid heart rate, a lot of sweating, and sometimes [drug users] have hallucinations. The brain doesn't work properly and doesn't think properly.”

With no standard in dosing of what are sold as “legal highs” in head shops, or online, overdosing becomes a huge risk for users.

“There are different varieties of bath salts, but cathinone is the basic structure that was turned into bath salts,” Vose said. “There are thousands of flavors of bath salts based on cathinone, but they each have a slightly different structure: some are really, really potent, and some are very mild. You don't know that as long as the package tells you what you want to feel.”

Vose explained that “the bath salts can interfere with neurotransmitters - brain chemicals, such as dopamine and norepenephrine, associated with euphoric feeling - and that can raise your heart and blood pressure.”

And, she said, “there are also some of them that can also affect levels of serotonin that produce hallucinations.”

Vose went on to explain that psychiatric symptoms also often include paranoia and panic attacks.

Risk of death arises because “[bath salts] can also cause people to get very dehydrated, and that can lead to all kinds of problems in breaking down skeletal muscles and kidneys.”

“Packaging [in head shops] them as a legal high [implies] they are somehow safe or tested, and they absolutely are not,” Vose noted.

Arrests and prosecution

Because bath salt compounds can be changed by just a molecule at the manufacturing end, and thus not specifically covered under legislation that makes them illegal, Harris said that some of the difficulties in prosecuting a person arrested for possession of bath salts becomes proving intent to use them or sell them, with the intent that they be used to get high.

“The burden of proof is on the police,” Merrigan said.

“It's case specific, as each case is different,” he explained. “If you have a gram of cocaine on your table, you don't have to know what that is to be in trouble” with the law, noting that cocaine is a controlled substance regulated by the DEA.

In Vermont, “If it's a compound that isn't targeted by Vermont statutes, then you really do have to come up with a catch-all statute [Federal Analogue Act of Controlled Substances],” to arrest and successfully prosecute.

But when sellers label the product as “not for human consumption,” it adds a new prosecutorial hurdle.

“Basically, for an uncontrolled, undefined substance, the burden is on police to prove the person knew it had some kind of mind-altering effects.”

Merrigan explained further: “If they are selling it and telling people, 'This is the stuff that will get you high,' or 'The drug that makes you eat your neighbor's face off,' now they are on the hook for that, for promoting what they are saying it is.”

“You could sell us something you are claiming is crack cocaine and is really wax. You will still get charged with 'sale' on that,” Merrigan said.

And, “if there is other criminal activity, we address that. But if it is just that they are in possession of this substance, there is no other criminal activity other than possession of it, and we can't find anything else they have done, we don't charge it.”

Prosecution and public safety

Windham County State's Attorney Steve Brown said he recalls two cases in the last few years that he successfully prosecuted that dealt with two head shops, one in Brattleboro and one in Bellows Falls, that were selling “legal highs” that included bath salts.

The result of those cases was “education” as to what they were selling: that the drug is “not for human consumption, no matter what it says on the label,” and that it is illegal to sell anything as a product for someone “to get high” on, he said.

He said those stores no longer sell the products. He said his office has prosecuted five cases or fewer involving bath salts in the past 10 years.

Street names such as “meow meow” and a dozen others are associated with the product compound name on the websites The Commons was able to discover. Websites claim to be laboratory research suppliers, plant-food supply stores, and online head shops selling “legal highs.”

Retail sites were sourced out of Korea, the U.S., United Kingdom, Malaysia, Portugal, Cameroon, Ukraine, Turkey, and China.

“It's a huge public safety issue,” Brown said. “It's important if the public cares about this issue and they know of places selling or anyone who is using bath salts, then law enforcement needs to be notified and kept abreast of what is out there.”

“These are challenging cases at times,” he said. “But we do prosecute and had long-term success” prosecuting.

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