'Imitation Cocaine' Killed Florida Man, Say Authorities

'Bath salts' ruled cause of Tampa man's death two days after governor signs ban.

ByABC News
June 2, 2011, 3:39 PM

June 2, 2011 — -- An autopsy has determined that a Florida man died after ingesting "bath salts," just two days after Gov. Rick Scott signed a state law banning the synthetic drugs, which had been sold legally in stores and on the internet.

A toxicologist with the medical examiner's office of Hillsborough County, Florida said that Jairious McGhee, 23, died from an overdose of methylone, one of the chemicals sold as bath salts and used as a form of imitation cocaine. Julia Pearson said methylone was found in McGhee's blood after tests for other better known drugs were negative.

An ABC News investigation to air on "20/20" Friday found that "legal drugs" like bath salts, "K2" and "spice" that mimic the effects of cocaine and marijuana were widely available on the internet and in suburban malls and convenience stores. Bath salts. which have nothing in common with the products long used in bathing, are legally sold in more than 30 states, and there is no federal ban on them. The Florida law banning six different chemicals sold as bath salts was signed Tuesday, but an emergency rule issued in January by the state's attorney general had already made it a felony to possess or distribute them.

McGhee died in Tampa on April 3 after an April 2 altercation with police. Officers described him as behaving erratically, walking in traffic, and beating on cars. He was initially diagnosed with viral meningitis, and when he died his body temperature had risen to more than 105 degrees. Though McGhee, who had been fighting with officers, had been tased, the medical examiner's office said the prongs never touched his skin and the tasing did not contribute to his death.

Bath salts have been linked to 2,500 calls to poison control centers nationwide, and can produce paranoia, hallucinations and rapid increase in heart rate and body. Washington state authorities are investigating whether a soldier who shot and killed his wife and then himself during a high-speed car chase in April was using bath salts. In May, when 19-year-old Mark Thompson of West Virginia was found wearing women's underwear and standing over a goat's dead body, he told police he had been using bath salts.

"I hesitate to even hold some of this stuff in my hands for fear that it could cause a problem," said Dr. Mark Ryan, director of the Louisiana Poison Control Center. Louisiana has been an epicenter of bath salt abuse, with 221 calls to the state's Poison Control Center since Dr. Ryan saw his first case last September. "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."

Congress is currently weighing a federal ban on bath salts, which are still sold legally in most states and via the web. "Our teens and young adults need to understand that just because something's legal doesn't mean it's safe," said Drug Enforcement Administration special agent Gary Boggs. "Our parents need to -- to pay attention to what our kids are -- are ordering over the internet."

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