June 5, 2012 -- A Delaware senator praised pending legislation proposing a nationwide ban on "bath salts," a dangerous synthetic drug that's on the rise in the United States and might have led to the recent attack in Miami where a man allegedly ate off 80 percent of a homeless man's face.
"Dangerous drugs like bath salts are terrorizing our communities and destroying lives," Democratic Sen. Chris Coons said in a statement Monday. "Stricter measures must be taken to stem the growing prevalence of bath salts and other new designer drugs."
The number of calls to poison centers concerning "bath salts" rose 6,138 in 2011 from 304 in 2010, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers. More than 1,000 calls have been made so far this year.
These so-called bath salts, not to be confused with cleansing products, are an inexpensive, synthetic, super-charged form of speed. The drug consists of a potpourri of constantly changing chemicals, three of which -- mephedrone, MDPV and methylone -- were banned last year by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.
Bath salts are still easily available online, though, and come in brand names such as "Purple Wave," "Zoom" or "Cloud Nine." A 50-milligram packet sells for $25 to $50.
The drugs create a condition police have come to call an "excited delirium" that makes users paranoid, violent and unpredictable. Miami police last month shot and killed a man who was allegedly feasting on the face of another homeless man in a daylight attack on a busy highway. Police are investigating whether the drugs found in bath salts were in the alleged attacker's system.
This case is not the first time police have had to respond to people high on the drug committing illegal acts or exhibiting dangerous behavior.
In July 2010, Carey Shane Padgett of Roanoke County, Va., allegedly beat his friend Cara Marie Holley to death. He later claims that he had ingested both bath salts and synthetic marijuana, or spice.
In April 2011, investigators determine that Army Sgt. David Stewart was under the influence of bath salts when he killed himself, his wife Kristy and their 5-year-old son in Spanaway, Wash.
Bay County Sheriff Frank McKeithen said he was disturbed by the affects that the drug had on the unidentified Florida teen who he witnessed high on bath salts in the back of a squad car.
"It's pretty devastating to think this kid was a normal kid walking around maybe the week before," McKeithen said.
In most cases, the active ingredient found in bath salts is a chemical known as metheylenedioxypyrovalerone, or MDPV for short. As far as the effects they have, bath salts are a central nervous system stimulant that acts something like a mix of methamphetamine and cocaine.
They dramatically increase the dopamine and norepinephrine levels in the human brain in two dangerous ways: by pouring more dopamine in as methamphetamine does, and at the same time, like cocaine, trapping both of these chemicals in the brain, so the user doesn't come down.
It's a dangerous situation, leading to a high that some drug abuse experts describe as up to 13 times more potent than cocaine. The altered mental status it brings can lead to panic attacks, agitation, paranoia, hallucinations and violent behavior.
"We certainly heard about people with extraordinary strength and you know we have seen that with PCP in the past," said Rusty Payne, spokesman for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
The combination can create desperation, and sometimes lead to naked ramblings and users hurting themselves, or others.
Louis J. De Felice, vice chairman of the Department of Physiology and Biophysics at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, said, "I can easily imagine how this can lead to a sensation, many different sensations. One would be you would like to tear your skin out, or ripping your clothes."
The number of calls to poison centers concerning "bath salts" rose 6,138 in 2011 from 304 in 2010, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers, More than 1,000 calls have been made so far this year.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency says that the affects of the drug are unknown, and can be dangerous. In June 2011, the DEA arrested 10 members of an alleged bath salts ring in a sting in New York.
"This is so new to us," DEA spokesman Rusty Payne said after the major bust. "In the last year it's just taken off in the U.S. We've never seen anything like it."
The Senate passed legislation last month to make the sale of bath salts illegal, and Coons, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, urged "the House-Senate conference committee to preserve the measure during its negotiations this month."
Dr. Sheila Reddy of the University of Texas at Houston contributed to this story.