Local residents learn about bath salts

“If you married methamphetamine with cocaine and took all the bad traits each of these drugs have, the baby would look like bath salts,” Cathy Coontz told an audience of local residents recently at the Woodford Memorial Methodist Church.

“Bath salts are not good news, folks,” she said.

Coontz is a senior behavioral specialist with the state Bureau for Behavioral Health and Health Facilities, which is under the umbrella of the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources. At the request of the Randolph County Family Resource Network and America’s Promise Coalition, Coontz delivered a presentation May 30 intended to educate the public about what bath salts are, how they’re marketed and the effects they have on users.

Bath salts are especially bad news for West Virginia, Coontz said, noting the Mountain State has the worst bath salts problem in the country. And within the state, Harrison County has the highest incidence of bath salts use, followed by Kanawha County and then Logan County.

“It’s kind of indicative of what kind of trials and tribulations our state is going through – the high unemployment, we’re an aging state and we have a lot of poverty so we’re really fertile ground for a lot of these issues,” Coontz said.

Bath salts are synthetic stimulant drugs that are dangerous, addictive and potentially lethal: they’re about 10 times more potent than cocaine, Coontz said.

The two main ingredients in them are methylenedioxypyrovalerone, or MDPV, and mephedrone. Bath salts usually come in the form of crystallized powder that’s either white, brown or speckled and packaged in colorful packets about the size of a tea bag.

“There’s absolutely nothing organic about this substance,” she said. “It was created solely to get high off of, and I want to make one thing absolutely clear: it doesn’t contain anything related to soaps and oils. That’s just the way it’s marketed.”

Makers of bath salts have developed numerous names designed to appeal to users, who are typically in their early 20s to 50s. Some include Bliss, Cloud Nine, Ocean Snow, Sextacy, Tranquility, Stardust, White Lightning and Zoom.

“They like to keep people in a constant state of confusion with their marketing,” Coontz said. “The names of bath salts can be the same as the name of the company. They might also be called ‘plant food.'”

In fact, manufacturers of actual fragrant bath products are using new words to describe and differentiate their wares, such as “bath soak” or “bath enhancer,” Coontz said.

Bath salts are appealing to users because they may induce euphoria, increased sociability and music appreciation, sexual arousal and pleasant hallucinations. However, users also frequently experience extremely unpleasant side effects such as paranoia, profuse sweating, delusions, intense thirst, vomiting, violent or psychotic behavior and self-mutilation, Coontz said.

One of the only ways health care providers are able to treat such symptoms is through the administration of large amounts of benzodiazepines, or anti-anxiety drugs, such as Ativan and Versed, Coontz said, emphasizing that she does not endorse this method.

The good news? Bath salts use appears to be declining. While the National Poison Control Center fielded 6,138 bath salts-related calls in 2011, it answered just 2,656 in 2012. The chief reason for the turnaround, Coontz said, is probably legislation passed both locally and nationally that criminalizes the use of synthetic stimulants. On July 9, 2012, President Barack Obama signed a bill into law that makes it a federal crime to sell, buy or possess synthetic drugs in the United States.

West Virginia took action even earlier, when the House and Senate passed a bill in April 2011 adding synthetic stimulants, hallucinogens and cannabinoids to the Schedule I list of controlled substances. Under the Controlled Substances Act, Schedule I controlled substances carry a high potential for abuse and currently have no accepted medical use in the country, meaning doctors may not write prescriptions for them. It is now a misdemeanor to buy, sell or possess synthetic drugs in the Mountain State.

Interestingly, bath salts originated from scientists’ failed attempts to formulate a medicine that would treat sleep apnea, narcolepsy and other sleep disorders, Coontz said.

“They scrapped the recipe because it was killing all the lab rats,” she said, “and it pretty much got leaked out and now we have a problem with bath salts.”

Contact Katie Kuba by email at kkuba@theintermountain.com.