In their search for new and legal ways to get high, people are increasingly ingesting an addictive substance sold in stores as bath salts, say police and health officials.
So far this month, the Missouri Poison Center at Cardinal Glennon Children's Medical Center has received 12 calls about teenagers and young adults abusing the chemicals, compared with eight calls for all of 2010. The powders sold as "Ivory Snow," "Bliss," "Vanilla Sky" and other brand names are not common bath salts and contain the ingredients MDPV or mephedrone, stimulants that can cause rapid heart rates, seizures and hallucinations.
Truck stops, tattoo parlors and tobacco shops sell the substances in 50-milligram packets for $25 to $50 each, according to an alert issued last month by the U.S. Department of Justice.
"I know not anyone who spends $50 for that amount of bath salts, but we're supposed to believe that's what it's for," said Cmdr. Jim Connors of the St. Joseph Police Department.
The powders described as "fake cocaine" have appeared in the last year in stores that previously sold the now-illegal synthetic marijuana products known as K2 and Spice, law enforcement officials said.
With the new drugs, "the highs are so high and the lows are so low" that they contributed to the October suicide of a 29-year-old St. Joseph man, Connors said.
Since the man's death, Connors' department has been working with Missouri legislators to seek a ban with more generic wording for artificial stimulants.
The packets are often labeled "not for consumption," a loophole that allows manufacturers to evade scrutiny from food and drug officials.
"As soon as they attract attention and attract heat, they change the labeling," Connors said. "They can change it faster than we can define it."
Illinois poison control officials have seen a slower increase in activity linked to phony bath salts. There were nine calls to poison centers statewide in 2010 and three this year to date.
Last month, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration placed the bath salt ingredient MDPV on its "drugs and chemicals of concern" list.
The "designer drug" can produce the same feelings of euphoria experienced by users of cocaine and amphetamines, and at higher doses can cause panic attacks and psychosis. The drug is not specifically banned but could fall under controlled substances laws for prosecution, according to the DEA report.
More than half of the reported side effects from using the drugs, including two suicides, have come from Louisiana, where Gov. Bobby Jindal outlawed the chemicals earlier this month.
Louisiana Poison Control received 165 reports in the last few months of people who snorted, smoked or injected the substances and experienced various symptoms, including chest pain, high blood pressure, paranoid episodes, agitation or suicidal thoughts.
Poison control officers have "never seen a phenomenon like the one Louisiana is experiencing today," said state health secretary Bruce Greenstein in a statement. "At least one psychiatric unit in the state is reporting to us that half of its patients in any given week in December were related to this drug."
Florida hospitals also report dozens of emergency room visits for abuse of the drugs.
"We're seeing teenagers experiment with this," said Dr. Nabil El Sanadi, chief of emergency medicine for Broward Health, a public health care system based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "They will do stuff that they wouldn't normally do, like dive from a third-story window into a pool. It's very, very dangerous."
Kristin Weiser, 43, said she paid $25 for a half-gram bottle of a bath salt product at a Fort Lauderdale gas station in November. She was looking for an energy boost, she said, and it kept her awake for days. The effect was so strong that it scared her, and she has left the rest of the bottle untouched.
"It's very dangerous. It needs to go off the market," she said. "I haven't touched it. I just won't."
Wire services contributed to this report.