PHOENIX – Earlier this year, Arizona banned a synthetic substance nicknamed spice sold as incense but often smoked as an alternative to marijuana.
Now authorities are turning their attention to so-called bath salts, synthetic stimulants that some smoke shops and convenience stores sell legally as bath salts. People often smoke, inhale, swallow or inject the stimulant to obtain a high similar to cocaine.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration issued a one-year ban on possessing and selling three chemicals commonly used to produce bath salts. During that time federal officials will study whether the chemicals should be permanently banned.
Bath salts can cause chest pains, increased blood pressure, a racing heartbeat, agitation, hallucinations, paranoia and delusions, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Overdoses can be fatal and are difficult to prevent because the strength of the stimulant can vary by brand and even by batch.
The stimulant, offered as a fine white or off-white powder, is labeled “not for human consumption” and sold under brand names including Ivory Wave, Blue Silk, White Dove or Ocean Burst.
Many states have passed laws against bath salts or enacted emergency bans, but a bill that would have had Arizona followed suit died during this year’s legislative session.
“It’s important to pass legislation regarding bath salts, or synthetic stimulants, to remove these from the shelves of the places marketing them because they represent a very dangerous substance, a clear public health and safety threat,” said Rep. Matt Heinz, D-Tucson, an emergency room physician who authored the legislation.
The Banner Good Samaritan Poison and Drug Information Center has seen reports on use of bath salts spike in Maricopa County during the past year, with 150 cases through Aug. 31 compared to just one case in all of 2010.
“They should be banned because they can lead to deaths if taken in excess or unknown quantities,” said Frank LoVecchio, the center’s co-medical director.
He said some patients are so out of control that staff and security guards have to restrain them.
The substances subject to the temporary ban issued Wednesday are mephedrone, 3-4 methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDVP) and methylone.
Ramona Sanchez, a spokeswoman for the DEA’s Phoenix office, said the agency welcomes when states ban synthetic stimulants, like bath salts.
“We don’t want this to explode even further,” she said.
A check of five smoke shops in Phoenix and the southeast suburbs found three that sell bath salts, offering packages of between 200 milligrams and 400 milligrams for prices ranging from $10 to $20.
However, Celest Leal, manager of Downtown Smoke Shop in downtown Phoenix, said she refuses to sell bath salts even though customers ask for the produce almost every day.
“We just don’t want to be responsible for something that can cause deaths,” Leal said.
Rachel Jimenez is a reporter for Cronkite News Service