Despite being linked to multiple deaths, powerful synthetic drugs -- from cocaine-like "bath salts" to what kids call "legal marijuana" -- are sold to teenagers legally in stores and online with little oversight, an ABC News investigation found. The investigation airs tonight on "World News with Diane Sawyer" and "20/20."
The so-called legal highs first appeared on the European club scene in the mid-2000s and can be used to mimic the effects of illegal drugs. But according to experts, the side effects of the substitute chemicals are unpredictable and can be disastrous for those that take them.
"They're selling time bombs," Louisiana Poison Control Center Director Dr. Mark Ryan told ABC News of bath salts, which have nothing to do with the products long used in bathing. "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."
It's a scene that the horrified parents of one Louisiana teen witnessed firsthand just hours before their 21-year-old son took his own life in November.
After purchasing a packet of bath salts called Cloud Nine, BMX rider Dickie Sanders snorted the powder inside the packet and soon experienced waves of hallucinations lasting days, his father, Rick Sanders, said. Dickie was convinced there were dozens of police cars and helicopters just outside the home, even though there were none. Then, suddenly, he grabbed a knife and sliced at his throat from ear to ear.
He survived the knife wound and told his mother he had had enough.
"He actually looked at me and said, 'I can't handle what this drug has done to me. I'm never going to touch anything again,'" Julie Sanders said.
But hours later and without warning, Dickie had another psychotic episode and shot himself with a rifle.
"His eyes were fixed and dilated," his father Rick said. "I reached down, felt some pulses... his hands were just totally bloodied. And I said, 'Baby, he's dead. We've lost him. He's gone.'
"He took his life because he was just scared out of his mind. This drug destroyed him," he said.
BMX star Terry Adams, who rode often with Dickie, said Dickie had been one of the happiest people he'd ever known.
"I loved Dickie like a brother," he said. "I can't see how such a happy kid could take his own life. I will never understand it."
In addition to Dickie's death, bath salts drugs have been connected to a string of bizarre, violent episodes this year alone, including the death of a 23-year-old Florida man in early April, a murder-suicide in Washington state just days later and the slaying of a goat in West Virginia in May.