Rogelio V. Solis, File, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — People are inventing so many new, legal ways to get high that lawmakers can't seem to keep up.
Over the past two years, the U.S. has seen a surge in the use of synthetic drugs made of legal chemicals that mimic the dangerous effects of cocaine, amphetamines and other illegal stimulants.
The drugs are often sold at small, independent stores in misleading packaging that suggests common household items like bath salts, incense and plant food. But the substances inside are powerful, mind-altering drugs that have been linked to bizarre and violent behavior across the country. Law enforcement officials refer to the drugs collectively as "bath salts," though they have nothing in common with the fragrant toiletries used to moisturize skin.
President Barack Obama signed a bill into law earlier this month that bans the sale, production and possession of more than two dozen of the most common bath salt drugs. But health professionals say that there are so many different varieties of the drugs that U.S. lawmakers are merely playing catch up.
"The moment you start to regulate one of them, they'll come out with a variant that sometimes is even more potent," said Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
There are no back alleys or crack houses in America's latest drug epidemic. The problem involves potent substances that amateur chemists make, package and sell in stores under brands like "Ivory Wave," ''Vanilla Sky" and "Bliss" for as little as $15. Emergencies related to the drugs have surged: The American Association of Poison Control Centers received more than 6,100 calls about bath salt drugs in 2011 — up from just 304 the year before — and more than 1,700 calls in the first half of 2012.
The problem for lawmakers is that it's difficult to crack down on the drugs. U.S. laws prohibit the sale or possession of all substances that mimic illegal drugs, but only if federal prosecutors can show that they are intended for human use. People who make bath salts and similar drugs work around this by printing "not for human consumption" on virtually every packet.
Barbara Carreno, a spokeswoman for the Drug Enforcement Agency, said the intended use for bath salts is clear.
"Everyone knows these are drugs to get high, including the sellers," she said.
Many states have banned some of the most common bath salts, which are typically sold by small businesses like convenience stores, tobacco shops and adult book stores. For instance, West Virginia legislators banned the bath salt drug MDPV last year, making it a misdemeanor to sell, buy or possess the synthetic drug. Conviction means up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.
Stephanie Mitchell, assistant manager of The Den, a tobacco and paraphernalia shop in Morgantown, W.Va., said the store hasn't sold bath salts in the six months that she's worked there. But strung-out users still come in and ask for them.
"They're pretty ... cracked out, I guess would be a good word," said Mitchell, 21, a student at West Virginia University. "They're just kind of not all there. They're kind of sketchy people."
Mitchell says she wouldn't sell bath salts even if she had them, "because it's horrible, and I could get in trouble for it."
Despite the bans, bath salts producers are constantly tweaking their recipes to come up with new drugs that aren't covered by local laws. In fact, Mark Ryan, director of the Louisiana Poison Center, says there are so many different drugs out there that it's almost impossible to know what people have ingested, or how long the effects will last.
"Cocaine is cocaine and meth is meth. We know what these things do," he said. "But with these new drugs, every time the chemist alters the chemical structure, all bets are off."
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