'Bath Salts': Cracking Down on a Dangerous Legal High


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," says 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," says 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, says 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," says 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," says 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 says. "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," says 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," says Jarrod's father John. "If it saves even one person, we feel like we owed it to Jarrod to tell people about it."

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