Ten people were arrested on Tuesday by federal agents and charged in the first-ever federal prosecution dealing with "bath salts," a dangerous new designer drug that has been linked to emergency room visits and deaths across the country.
The Drug Enforcement Administration said a Seattle-area supplier led the ring, and shipped the bath salts to a handful of New York City head shops. The bust was the first for a new New York-based DEA task force targeting bath salts, a group of substances sold in convenience stores and head shops that mimic the effects of cocaine or ecstasy.
"This is so new to us," said DEA spokesman Rusty Payne. "In the last year it's just taken off in the U.S. -- we've never seen anything like it."
"Bath salts are one of the latest designer drugs to reach our shores, and they have proven to be a public health and safety menace with dangerous, and sometimes deadly, consequences," said Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, where nine of the arrests were made.
"Bath salts" were the subject of a June 3rd ABC News "20/20" investigation that found that despite being linked to several deaths, bath salts have been sold in stores and online with little oversight.
"Bath salts" have spurred approximately 2,500 calls to poison control centers nationwide since 2010, and have been connected to four deaths so far this year, including a 23-year-old Florida man and a 51-year-old woman in West Virginia.
Seattle-New York Bath Salts Ring
The 26-year-old who authorities say is the "bath salt" ring's supplier, Miguel Ashby, was arrested in Washington state, and charged with distribution of controlled substances. If convicted he could serve 20 years in prison.
Ashby operated his company, Ascension Therapeutics, out of the Seattle area, according to a criminal complaint filed Tuesday in Manhattan federal court. He ordered MDPV, a drug commonly used in bath salts, over the internet from China, the complaint said. MDPV is a chemical designed to mimic the effects of the illegal drug ecstasy. Ashby would package the MDPV and distribute the products to the other nine defendants in the case, according to the complaint. His website was live at the time this story was published, offering bath salts for sale online. The home page reads, "Relieve your stress today!"
The other nine defendants were employed at New York City head shops, including Addiction NYC, Tattoo Heaven, Crazy Fantasy Tattoo, and Smoking Culture, and were arrested on charges related to either distribution of controlled substances, receipt of misbranded drugs, or delivery of misbranded drugs.
One of the head shop employees arrested Tuesday told an undercover agent buying bath salts he would get an "amazing high," according to the complaint.
Buying Bath Salts Undercover in New York City
During the course of the ABC News "20/20" investigation of bath salts and other designer drugs, a producer purchased "ThundaCat" at Addiction NYC, which a store clerk sold to her when she asked for bath salts. Lab tests showed that the ThundaCat packaged purchsed by ABC News contained lidocaine, which dentists use to numb the mouth, but no MDPV, mephedrone, or methylone, which are commonly found in bath salts.
ABC News also found "synthetic marijuana" products at Addiction NYC. The 14-year-old daughter of an ABC News employee went into the store to buy "Spice," a brand of "synthetic marijuana," but the store clerk said she had to have ID showing she was 18 and no purchase was made.
"We don't have 'bath salts' no more," an employee of Addiction NYC who answered the phone said Wednesday. He said he wished to remain anonymous. "I see this [bust] more as advertizing than anything. We don't have bath salts but we have everything else people want."
Bath salts first surfaced in the United States two years ago. The expert who first saw that bath salts were emerging as a major public health threat was Louisiana Poison Control Center Director Dr. Mark Ryan.
"They're selling time bombs," Ryan said in an interview for "20/20." "We've had some people show up who are complaining of chest pains so severe that they think they're having a heart attack. They think they're dying... They have extreme paranoia. They're having hallucinations. They see things, they hear things, monsters, demons, aliens."
ABC News interviewed the parents of 21-year-old Dickie Sanders of Louisiana, who took his life in November 2010, after snorting a packet of Cloud 9 bath salts. Dickie experienced waves of hallucinations lasting days, his father, Rick Sanders, said, and eventually shot himself with a rifle.
The New York criminal complaint named four synthetic chemicals found in bath salts, MDPV, mephedrone, methylone, and 4-MEC, all said to mimic the "highs" produced by powerful Schedule 1 drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine. Three of the four chemicals, Mephedrone, methylone and 4-MEC are "controlled substance analogs" under the Controlled Substances Act, meaning they are designer drugs that resemble a controlled substance.
Authorities were able to charge the alleged drug ring under the Federal Analog Act, which allows any chemical that is "substantially similar" to a controlled substance to be treated as a controlled substance. Spokesman Rusty Payne said the DEA had invoked the Analog Act "for other drugs," but the new case marks the first time it's ever been done with bath salts.
There is no federal ban on all bath salt products, but more than 35 states have banned at least some of the chemicals commonly found in the drugs. Louisiana put an emergency ban on the drugs immediately after Dickie Sanders' death. In late April New Jersey banned the manufacture, sale or possession of bath salts, and in May New York followed suit.