Following bans in Florida, Louisiana and North Dakota, and a warning from White House Drug czar Gil Kerlikowske, New York Sen. Charles Schumer has proposed a bill that would add bath salts to a list of federally controlled substances.
"These so-called bath salts contain ingredients that are nothing more than legally sanctioned narcotics, and they are being sold cheaply to all comers, with no questions asked, at store counters around the country," Schumer said in a Feb. 1 statement.
The synthetic drugs sold online, in convenience stores and in smoke shops can affect the body in ways similar to cocaine and methamphetamines.
"The longer we wait to ban the substance, the greater risk we put our kids in," Schumer said. "These so-called bath salts are dangerous drugs masquerading as a harmless product. They offer a cheap and deadly high, and we need to move immediately to get them off the shelves."
Schumer has also asked New York State Health Commissioner Dr. Nirav Shah to ban the chemicals statewide. Other states, such as Idaho, are following suit. The United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and Israel have already banned the chemicals.
The recent flurry of legislation stems from mounting reports of bath salts, plant food and incense made with methylenedioxypyrovalerone and mephedrone causing hallucinations, paranoia, suicidal thoughts, even some deaths.
By almost any measure, Jarrod Moody had gotten his life together. By the middle of last year, Moody, 29, had successfully kicked an addiction to the prescription painkiller Dilaudid, gotten a steady job and had prepared to move in to a new place. In August 2010, his last random drug test came back negative.
Then in September, it was as if someone "flipped a switch," said his father, John. Jarrod complained of insomnia and, when he could sleep, horrible nightmares. He began talking to himself and would have "bursts of superhuman energy" minutes after complaining of crippling stomach pains. In less than two weeks he'd be dead.
"I said, 'This looks like drug use all over again,' but we didn't see any track marks on his arm and we didn't find anything," said John. A concerned friend of Jarrod's told his dad he was using a new street drug called "Ivory Wave."
When Jarrod showed up at the house looking more gaunt and haunted than he ever did on painkillers, his father urged his son to get counseling. "I said let me take you for help," John tells ABC News, choking back tears. "He sat there for a minute and said, 'I love you, Dad,' and walked out the door."
In the early hours of the following morning Jarrod Moody shot himself in the head with a pistol he'd taken from a friend. He died almost instantly. The hospital's toxicology report came back clean -- no illegal drugs were in his system.
In the weeks that followed, John would discover that Ivory Wave, the drug that had been causing his son such mental and physical turmoil, is legally sold as bath salts. The drug is part of a new trend of phony products -- usually bath salts, plant food and insect repellant -- designed with the express purpose of giving a cheap, legal high.
In 2010 there were 233 reports calls to U.S. poison centers for the ingestion of the chemicals most commonly found in these products, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers.
In the first ten days of 2011, that number had already hit 69.
"It's truly scary," said Mark Ryan of Louisiana Poison Control. "This stuff has literally consumed my work days since the middle of October. We need to do something. It's out of hand."
Not For Human Consumption
The fake products are usually manufactured in parts of Europe, China and India and sold in individual bags -- about $20 for a 2-gram pouch -- on the Internet, in convenience stores and on the street. They come branded with names like Ivory Wave, Ocean, Charge +, White Lightning, Scarface, Hurricane Charlie, Red Dove, Cloud-9 and White Dove.
The active agent is usually the stimulant mephedrone, which comes in the form of tablets or a powder that users can swallow, snort or inject, producing similar effects to MDMA, amphetamines and cocaine. The packaging usually contains a winking disclaimer that the product is not for human consumption.
The powders cause intense cravings for more even though they can trigger extreme paranoia, hallucinations, delusions, hypertension and, as in the case of Jarrod Moody, suicidal thoughts, said Ryan. "Guys are showing up with bizarre symptoms," he tells ABC News.
"Anxiety off the charts, blood pressure high enough to blow an aorta," he said. "Some were combative, some were extremely paranoid -- monsters and demons and talking to God and aliens coming to get their family. But the cravings are similar to crack, so they keep doing it."
The long-term effects of the drug are still unknown -- no testing has ever been done on humans -- but unlike cocaine or even chrystal meth, these phony bath salts do not metabolize in just a few hours. "It truly looks like a psychotic break," said Ryan.
Last week six chemicals most commonly found in the products were outlawed by emergency order in Louisiana, where the majority of the cases are ocurring. Anyone convicted of selling them will face penalties equivalent to the selling of heroin, said Gov. Bobby Jindal in an announcement.
But knockoff stimulants such as these are only the latest problem to vex authorities. In November the Drug Enforcement Agency published a notice of intent to outlaw five chemicals most commonly found in a range of "synthetic marijuana blends," or synthetic cannabinoids. The outlaw has not yet taken effect nationally, but 16 states have so far banned the drugs.
Cleverly marketed as incense (with product names like K2, Spice, K4 Cush, Mr. Nice Guy and others), these drug gained popularity recently as an alternative to marijuana that does not show up in tests. It may also cause anxiety, vomiting or seizures. In all of 2009 there were 14 cases of synthetic marijuana reported to U.S. poison centers. In 2010 that number was 2,863.
"It's like a game of Russian Roulette. You don't know how people are going to react to it," said Tony Scalzo of the Missouri Poison Center, who remains wary of the DEA's plan to ban five chemicals most common drug. "There are hundreds of different canabinoids. So the DEA bans five of them, there are 50 of them that they could replace them with."
Indeed, savvy pushers and chemists are often able to stay one step ahead of the law, said Barbara Carreno, a spokeswoman for the DEA. By altering the molecular structure of a banned chemical, they can create a new compound that does more or less the same thing and isn't covered by a ban.
"We are aware that there are other chemicals that do similar things. We picked five because we don't have the resources to study 200. This is a first step," said Carreno. "There is a mindset that if something is legal, it's safe. It's not."
But not everyone agrees that the outright banning of these new drugs is the best way to proceed. If anything, the proliferation of these quasi-legal drugs is proof to some that the federal drug laws are failing.
"I would not recommend that anyone be taking Spice or K2, but one of the primary reasons people take this stuff is because they don't want to be caught in a drug test," said Ethan Nadelmann, director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a non-profit that works to change federal drug laws.
"People aren't taking it because it gives a better high than marijuana," he said. "Does banning it make it more unavailable? This is a failure to think through the consequences of criminalization of marijuana rather than rely on sensible regulation and education."
Education seems to be what the DEA has in mind for now, at the risk of creating new demand. "It's better, I feel, for the information that's out there to be accurate," said Carreno.
The Moodys couldn't agree more.
"If we can keep someone from having to go through this, we're happy to talk about it," said Jarrod's father John. "If it saves even one person, we feel like we owed it to Jarrod to tell people about it."