The synthetic drugs misleadingly labeled as bath salts or plant food were legal to use and legal to sell in Maine until July, when the state classified possession and distribution of the drug as illegal.

But the penalties for possession and selling the designer drug were very light and did little to act as a deterrent, since an increasing number of bath salts users started turning up in Maine with violent and psychotic behavior that led them to jail or the hospital, or both. The quick high provided by the drugs tends to be followed by long bouts of paranoia and hallucinations that often lead to violent behavior that is extremely difficult to control.

The growing use of the drugs, which include Mephedrone, MDPV and Methylone, prompted federal action. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency classified bath salts ingredients as Schedule 1 drugs on October 21 under an emergency action. The action will remain in place for 12 to 18 months and allow a formal review to determine if the drugs should be permanently banned.

Schedule 1 drugs, the most restricted under the Controlled Substances Act, have a high potential for abuse, no currently accepted use for treatment in the United States, and no accepted safe use under medical supervision. The distribution of bath salts drugs now carries a federal penalty of up to 20 years in prison for a first offense.

Marketed under names such as "Ivory Wave," "Purple Wave," "Vanilla Sky" and "Rave On," so-called bath salts mimic the effects, to varying degrees, of cocaine, LSD and methamphetamine.

"It was basically being sold as a substitute for cocaine," said Rockland Police Chief Bruce Boucher. "Yes, it's a stimulant like cocaine, but I think people didn't know about the other effects."

Rockland Police came across their first bath salts case last April. Since then, they have had 126 cases in the city of Rockland, or a case every day and a half, according to Boucher.

"After it became illegal in Maine in July, use went down," said Boucher. In July, Rockland Police logged five bath salts incidents.

"In the past couple of months, it's been up quite a bit," said Boucher.

Rockland Police registered 38 incidents involving bath salts in September.

"That could be, in part, because we are better educated about it now. We recognize the signs. In April, we hadn't even heard of it," said Boucher.

Knox County Sheriff Donna Dennison also reports increased use.

"Users are so unpredictable," said Dennison. "We are very cautious."

Dennison said users coming off bath salts in the county jail are an around-the-clock problem. "They can come in calm and rational and then flip out," she said. "They do not remember what they have done ... there is too much not known about this new drug."

The sheriff urged the public to call the detective division if they are concerned about someone using bath salts.

It is not just users who are at risk.

A bath salts user who was admitted to Pen Bay Medical Center in Rockport on October 25 had a violent and apparently drug-related response two days later on October 27, breaking plate glass windows and damaging electrical equipment and a cardiac monitor in an intensive-care room at the hospital. Pen Bay Healthcare spokesperson Megan Williams said the damage is estimated to be up to $50,000 and that it will take up to four weeks to repair the room.

Williams said Pen Bay Healthcare staff and law enforcement have been meeting to put together an appropriate security plan in order to protect patients, staff and visitors to the hospital. Pen Bay is also working with other hospitals in the state and with local partners to finalize those changes.
Rockland Police Chief Boucher predicts the DEA emergency ruling will take a little time to make its way down to the street, since local stockpiles of bath salts drugs may still be available.

"Then it will go on the black market, probably, and the price will probably go up," he said.

Some drug users were attracted to bath salts because it was cheap, legal and promoted as having a stimulant effect like cocaine - a high that appears to be fleeting and quickly followed by paranoia. Increasing prices and higher penalties for dealing bath salts combined with the unwanted side effects may make it less popular. That is what happened in Louisiana after the drug was made illegal and severe penalties for using and dealing were handed down.

Congressman Mike Michaud has co-sponsored a bill, the Synthetic Drug Control Act, that would permanently ban bath salts at the national level. The bill, if it becomes law, would ban the chemical compounds used to make bath salts in all 50 states. It would also make a number of other compounds that have potential to be used as ingredients in bath salts, and have no medicinal purpose, illegal.

As an aside, Chief Boucher noted that even as the incidence of bath salts use has gone up and gained media attention, the prescription drug abuse problem in Rockland has not dropped.

"It's huge," he said. "Oxycontin, oxycodone. A lot of the burglaries around, the only thing missing are the drugs in the drug cabinet."

This year, Mainers turned over more than 24,000 pounds of unwanted prescription drugs to law enforcement during two Drug Take Back Days, according to Roy McKinney, director of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency. It is the largest per capita amount in the nation, he said.

The most recent Drug Take Back Day was October 29.

McKinney said the high amount of unwanted prescription drugs turned over in Maine is due to several factors, including more prescriptions being written, an older than average population, and because Mainers are aware of the need to safely dispose of unwanted medicine. Maine began taking back unwanted drugs in 2007 after legislation was passed allowing people to mail in their unwanted prescription medicines.

"There is an environmental awareness in Maine, too," said McKinney. "People know that if they flush drugs they could end up in the waterways."

Maine Attorney General William Schneider hosted a statewide meeting on prescription drug abuse at Point Lookout in Northport on October 25. Leaders in the fields of prevention, treatment, education, enforcement and public policy were there to launch an effort to develop a statewide action plan on drug abuse prevention.