Faced with a mounting death and hospitalization toll, states are racing to pass laws to combat the latest synthetic drug. Last week, Delaware Governor Jack Markell signed a bill making permanent a fourth-month-old ban on "bath salts," the common name for chemical compounds that mimic the potentially euphoric effects of meth or LSD.
The new menace is a powdery substance that users inject, snort or smoke. While not all users experience negative side effects, bath salts have been reported to cause extremely violent paranoia which has resulted in users shooting themselves or dying from spikes in temperature and cardiac arrest.
"People under the influence of these bath salts are so out-of-control and violent that they've injured nurses and EMS providers, making it difficult to provide the necessary treatment," Delaware state Representative Rebecca Walker said in a statement . Walker is also a practicing nurse. "My biggest concern is for members of the community who may be violently attacked. Permanently banning this dangerous designer drug is an important step in protecting Delawareans."
So far this year, lawmakers in 26 states have introduced bills relating to bath salts, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. They are discussing whether to add bath salts to the lists of controlled substances and create penalties for possession and distribution.
Not to be confused with legitimate bathing salts used for relaxing showers and baths, these synthetic compounds arrived on the scene in late 2010. Legislators have struggled to keep up with the ever-changing chemical makeup of these drugs, which are manufactured both in home and professional laboratories with packaging labeled "not for human consumption" to get around regulatory requirements.
"The first round of laws that we saw were states banning the substances we knew were in the drugs, but then the manufacturers changed them," says Alison Lawrence, a policy for NCSL's criminal justice program. "The later rounds of laws are a more generic type of ban. The language has been developed by legislatures consulting with health boards and law enforcement to come up with language which captures all of the bad substances, without limiting chemicals that scientists need." Last year, 31 states enacted some type of restrictions on bath salts and their most common ingredients, according to NCSL.
Bath salts are just one of many synthetic drugs that have come to states' attention in the last few years. Another group is synthetic cannabinoids, called "K2" or "spice." According to NCSL, at least 40 states have banned the drugs, which are often compared with marijuana but have much more dangerous side effects. The federal Drug Enforcement Agency banned five chemicals used to make K2 last year.