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Dangerous trips from deadly designer drugs

Dr. James F. Hammel says there are plenty of ways to party, but smoking, snorting or shooting "bath salts" shouldn't be one of them.

"I'm not advocating any sort of drug use, but there are gateway drugs like marijuana that we at least understand how it affects the body," Hammel said. "Bath salts aren't a gateway drug, they are a tombstone drug."

Hammel, a psychiatrist who graduated from Harvard Medical School, said he has treated a steady stream of people suffering the effects of bath salts since he arrived at Rogue Valley Medical Center last year.

"Bath salts" is the term for a designer drug that has become increasingly popular over the past few years. News stories from across the country have reported the bizarre and sometimes dangerous behavior exhibited by bath-salts users.

To understand bath salts is to know that they are not, in fact, bath salts.

"You wouldn't use this drug in your bath, unless you just wanted to waste money," Hammel said.

The "bath salts" label is a marketing ploy to make the drug seem harmless. Hammel said the drug is easy to obtain on the Internet and that parents who find a package of it in their kids' bedroom might be duped into thinking it's harmless.

"If parents see 'bath salts' on the label, they probably won't think anything of it," Hammel said. "It doesn't raise any flags. This drug is marketed in a malicious way."

The drug packaging is deceptive. It often shows a soothing picture of a rainforest or a meadow and carries names such as Ivory Wave, Vanilla Sky or Soft Essence.

The drug can feature images of hard-partying celebrities such as Lindsay Lohan and Charlie Sheen, neither of whom endorse the product.

However, the effect of bath salts on some users is anything but relaxing, Hammel said.

"I have seen patients in extreme levels of agitation and paranoia," he said.

These patients are often referred to Hammel after they are treated in the emergency room. The most popular way to ingest bath salts is to smoke or snort the crystals.

Some patients have to be sedated or placed in a psychiatric ward until their symptoms subside enough to where they are no longer a danger to themselves or others, Hammel said.

The Internet is packed with bath-salts horror stories, most from the past two years.

Last spring, a West Virginia man was found wandering the woods in women's underwear, covered in the blood of a goat he had slaughtered in his bedroom. The man had been high on bath salts for three days, according to the Charleston Gazette.

In New Orleans last week, a woman lost her arm to a flesh-eating bacteria after injecting bath salts, according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

Medford police Deputy Chief Tim Doney said Jackson County has not seen these problems associated with the drug, and Medford police have yet to arrest someone for possessing bath salts.

"We know it's out there and people are using it," Doney said.

The Oregon Pharmacy Board declared bath salts an illegal drug last April.

Until then, the drug was available at various stores throughout the state. It was most common in businesses that sold pipes and assorted marijuana glassware. It also was found in truck stops and other roadside businesses. A package of bath salts sells for around $40.

"We recently visited a number of pipe shops and other businesses that have been known to sell the bath salts," Doney said. "We didn't find any businesses with them on hand."

Bath salts remain readily available despite the state ban, Hammel said.

"You can easily get them off the Internet," he said.

Most bath salts are created by chemists in India and China and retailed on websites based overseas.

The drug is often referred to as "legal Ecstasy" in user reviews on these websites. The effects are commonly listed as euphoria and mild hallucinations.

Hammel said the chemists are able to generate complex chemical compounds that leave medical doctors scratching their heads.

"We have no clue what's in this," Hammel said. "The further they change the chemical compounds, the further they get into territory in which we don't know how the substance affects the brain."

Prior to the state bans, these chemists would slightly alter the chemical compounds to remain one step ahead of regulators.

"If a state would ban a certain compound, the chemists would go in and change one molecule to create a different chemical altogether," Hammel said.

Hammel said the drug can contain hundreds of different chemicals, from pesticides to fungus.

"There's really no way for us to treat it because we don't know exactly how these compounds affect the brain," Hammel said. "We can't test for it. We don't know how long it stays in the system or whether it's addicting. That's what makes this so scary. It's the unknown."

The Oregon Poison Center has not reported a death linked to bath salts in the state. But central Ohio reported 16 deaths linked to bath salts use last year, according to the Dayton Daily News.

Bath-salts use is highest in rural areas in the South and Midwest, Hammel said, where marijuana and other drugs are tougher to obtain.

The rise in bath-salts use has coincided with the growing popularity of synthetic marijuana, also known as "spice."

Spice is a legal herbal supplement that mimics the effects of marijuana.

Hammel said spice is a concern for physicians for similar reasons as bath salts.

"We just don't know what is in these drugs," Hammel said. "Therein lies the danger."

A man contacted by the Mail Tribune, who wished to remain anonymous, said he ordered spice off the Internet and smoked it with his brother recently.

"It was easy to get," the man said. "We were just curious about it. My friend did it because it doesn't show up on drug tests for work."

The man said spice has similar effects as marijuana, though the high did not last as long. He and his brother have not used it since, out of concern that the package was not labeled with ingredients.

"We didn't know what was in it," the man said. "It could have been anything, I guess."

Hammel said spice has been known to contain mold, pesticide and other contaminants that could cause permanent brain damage. The DEA declared spice illegal last year.

In the end, Hammel believes bath salts and spice are more dangerous than methamphetamine or cocaine.

"You can't just walk into a head shop or buy meth online," he said.

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 541-776-4471 or email cconrad@mailtribune.com.

Dr. James F. Hammel talks about the dangers of “bath salts” at the Rogue Valley Medical Center Thursday. Hammel says the designer drug is particularly alarming because doctors don't know what's in it or how it affects the brain, and therefore don't know how to treat patients suffering its effects.