New Street Drug Hits Rockland Full Force
by Christine Parrish
“We saw our first case in mid-April,” said Sergeant Don Finnegan of the Rockland Police Department. The user, a woman on the St. George peninsula, was trying to use a knife to remove her teeth because she thought they were embedded with ticks.
“We didn’t exactly know what it was. Initially, we thought we were dealing with a mental health incident,” said Finnegan.
Users compare it to speed, or crystal meth, or cocaine — a revved-up, heart-racing super high. That’s for the first couple of feel-good hours. Then the paranoid delusions set in. Psychotic episodes with demons and killers. Like being in the middle of a 3-D Freddy Krueger movie. Not for everyone, but often enough to send dozens of people to Pen Bay Medical Center in the past few weeks.
One delusional user told Maine law enforcement he thought someone had shoved the barrel of a gun under the door to explain why he had ripped the sink and toilet from the walls to try to get away. Last Wednesday night, another user had to be talked down from the roof of a four-story Rockland building.
They were high on so-called “bath salts.” Not the stuff for sale at TJ Maxx, but a designer drug made of any number of compounds that have nothing to do with a calm, relaxing soak. Marketed on the Internet as a legal alternative to cocaine or crystal meth, users are injecting it, according to Rockland law enforcement, though the more common method is to snort it.
Just another kind of high? Not really. This drug has real public safety implications that go way beyond the users.
Delusional paranoia a common side effect
The Rockland Police Department and the Knox County Sheriff’s Office have been on a quick learning curve in the past 10 weeks. In Knox County, they have seen over 50 cases of bath salts abuse; 39 of which were in Rockland. Most were young adults in their 20s and 30s and most had a prior history of drug use, according to Finnegan.
Users who end up at the emergency department at Pen Bay Medical Center are often restrained because they are a danger to themselves and medical staff, thrashing to get off the ambulance gurneys, hitting wildly.
“What we are seeing is severe paranoia, delusional paranoia, not just hallucinations,” said Finnegan. “There is elevated pulse, high blood pressure and a real belief that someone is out to get them. They will do anything to get away. We had one male user who was on a motorcycle and he got off his motorcycle on Route 17 and started chasing cars with a chunk of wood to hit them because they were following him.”
Bangor has been the epicenter of the abuse of the designer drugs, which typically contain one to six kinds of chemicals at wildly unpredictable strengths. According to state toxicologist Karen Simone, who is also the director of the Poison Control Center in Portland, Rockland is now right behind Bangor in the number of users.
The label or brand — whether it is Rave On, Ivory Wave, Vanilla Sky, Charley Sheene, or any number of other brand names — means absolutely nothing, either in terms of the contents or the potency, according to Louisiana State Toxicologist Mark Ryan, who was one of the first in the country to see the new substance.
Ryan is also the director of the Louisiana Drug and Poison Control Center.
“They are sold as bath salts or plant food or pond cleaner,” said Ryan. But their only use is as a drug.
The products typically contain Methylone, MDPV, Mephedrone or other chemicals from a related family of substances known as synthetic cathinones. In Yemen and Somalia, men chew the leaves of the khat shrub, which contains a natural cathinone that is a mild stimulant, and addictive. Synthetic cathinones were developed in the lab, but rejected as a drug, according to Roy McKinney, director of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency.
Probably they had too many side effects, said McKinney. They were rejected and never brought to the pharmaceutical market, he said.
A packet costs $25 to $40 on the street
It is the street users who have become the guinea pigs in an uncontrolled clinical trial. The lab rats, Ryan calls them.
These man-made substances have no other purpose than providing a high; the supposed uses of cleaning, feeding plants, or bathing are simply cover for selling and allows the product to escape being controlled by the Food and Drug Administration.
In Maine, they are being bought in quantity over the Internet and sold on the street in small plastic bags that are stapled inside a small cardboard folder, much like a matchbook. A packet is about a gram and is selling on the street for $25 to $40. Rave On, a brand common in Rockland, has a photo of a sexy body on the front cover and a misleading picture of a bathtub on the back.
It is likely that another fake use will pop up soon that will be yet another marketing ploy. Ryan said he just found out that the so-called bath salts substances are now being marketed as toilet bowl cleaner.
“The thing to look for on the labeling is the statement that it is not for human consumption,” said Ryan. “That’s the tip-off that you are looking at MDPV or one of the cathinones.”
Ryan started seeing the effects of the designer drugs show up last fall and called around to see what other states had found.
“I called New York. They hadn’t seen it. I called California. They hadn’t seen it,” he said, realizing there was no background information out there. Then he found the substances had been banned in parts of Europe.
“I’ve been doing this job 19 years and I’ll tell you, this is the worst thing I’ve ever seen,” said Ryan. “Worse than crystal meth, worse than cocaine, much, much worse than LSD or ecstasy. With LSD you see sounds and hear colors. With PCP, you’re Superman. With meth, it’s a wide open stimulant.”
“This is something entirely different,” said Ryan. The effect is severe and entirely unpredictable.
“Often, there is extreme paranoia,” he said. “Monsters and demons, hearing voices in the walls. We’ve had people shooting at the walls.”
Cooked up in Europe initially and now coming out of China and India, the contents of each package vary widely.
Lab tests of the contents of one package contained 100 percent anesthetic, said Ryan. Another had the synthetic cathinone family of substances. Some packages were weak. Others were overdose levels. They all looked the same. One user could shoot up half a packet of Rave On and have a buzzed-up time cleaning out their closets with a little mild paranoia over whether they should color-match their socks, maybe, and his buddy sitting on the couch next to him could shoot up a half a packet of Rave On and end up busting toilets and kicking nurses before ending up in critical care with kidney failure.
Just a matter of time before someone dies or gets killed
“They are a very serious problem here in the midcoast,” said Knox County Sheriff Donna Dennison.
The county jail has had several cases of intoxicated people, some of whom have had to be transferred to Pen Bay’s emergency room. Inmates have been calm and normal one minute, then raving the next.
“It’s just a matter of time before someone dies,” said Dennison.
Some already have.
Dickie Sanders, 21, took one package of a product marketed as Cloud 9 and became psychotic for days. His father, a physician, was standing next to Sanders when the young man said he saw 28 police cars out in the driveway. There were none, but Sanders took a butcher knife and cut his throat ear to ear.
“The cut wasn’t that deep and they took him to the hospital and did a toxicity screen and a psychiatric evaluation,” said Ryan, who related the incident, which happened in Louisiana late last fall. Sanders’ toxicity screen showed nothing — bath salts were not illegal and didn’t show up on drug screens, making them popular among those on probation — and he wasn’t suicidal.
“Dad brings him home, falls asleep with his arm around him and wakes up to the sound of a gunshot,” said Ryan. Sanders had shot himself in the head.
Then Ryan ticks off the bath salts deaths: the boyfriend who killed his girlfriend at Rutgers, the veteran who ran out into the interstate in Missouri, the one who cut himself up with a mechanical pencil to remove his own liver.
Ryan pushed the Louisiana Legislature to make the synthetic cathinones illegal. In an emergency rule that went into effect in January, they did. The Louisiana law became permanent in June and classifies the substances found in bath salts as drugs that can bring a criminal sentence of five to 30 years’ hard labor and up to a $50,000 fine for possession or distribution.
The effect was immediate.
“We had 109 calls about bath salts to the poison center in December,” said Ryan. The majority of the calls to the poison center were from health care providers trying to figure out what it was they were dealing with at emergency rooms. After bath salts were criminalized in January, the calls dropped precipitously.
“In February, we had six calls,” said Ryan. In April, there were three.
Maine Legislature passes lightweight law on bath salts
Maine is another story.
Congressman Seth Berry of Bowdoinham introduced a bill in the Maine Legislature this spring that would have made selling bath salts a criminal offense on the scale of selling cocaine, methamphetamines and oxycodone. The bill was significantly watered down in the final days of the session.
On June 29, legislators passed an emergency bill that imposes civil penalties of $350 for using the so-called bath salts and up to $500 for a second offense. The governor plans to sign it into law this week, according to his office staff.
Under the new law, sellers will face up to six months’ jail time and up to a $1,000 fine.
Those who are packing a gun and sharing some bath salts with friends could face up to one year in jail and up to $2,000 in fines.
“It’s kind of like a parking ticket,” said Simone. “It’s not much of a deterrent.”
“I think the Legislature recognized the seriousness of the problem, but it was all about the money,” said Simone.
The cost of enforcing criminal penalties nudged the Legislature towards lighter penalties that are less expensive to enforce.
“Legislators dropped the ball on this,” said Bangor Police Department Patrol Lieutenant Thomas Reagan, who works the night shift. Reagan said he has seen the effect of bath salts nightly in Bangor since April.
“The penalties are as low as pot,” said Reagan, referring to the emergency legislation. Reagan said it won’t deter users who would rather face a civil violation for bath salts than a criminal one for cocaine, meth or oxycodone.
“This legislation will have no impact. None. There are no presumptive levels. You buy a half pound on the Internet and it’s a civil violation, not criminal,” he said.
This is not a party drug for teens, said Reagan. It appeals to experienced drug users looking for a legal high.
“Last night we had three people,” he said. “We’ve had seven in a 10-hour shift. Every night, we are seeing them. It’s odd not to.”
“This is a fight-or-flight drug,” he said. “This is not like other hallucinogens like LSD or mushrooms, where users enjoy the experience. Paranoia dominates the hallucinations. People really believe something is out to get them.”
“I’m scared to death an officer is going to walk into a hallucinogenic situation and the user will be armed, agitated and ready to fight,” he said. “The officer could think it was someone who is mentally ill, not someone on bath salts. The same thing could happen to the public.”
Pen Bay ER doctor kicked in head by raving user
Dr. Chris Michalakes, an emergency medicine doctor at Pen Bay, said the emergency department has seen a handful of bath salts patients that are sleepy, confused and a little paranoid.
“But most are hyperdynamic, revved up, speeding and sweaty, with chest pains,” said Michalakes. “They’re aggressive, paranoid, completely out of control and a danger to themselves and others.”
“We’re seeing severe chest pain and astronomical blood pressure above 200, heart rates of 120 to 150,” he said.
The emergency room staff try to sedate the patients with valium to calm them down, but even that is challenging. Sometimes they have to hold them down.
Over the past two weeks Pen Bay has reviewed their security policy, trained staff in restraint techniques, increased the number of people available to the emergency department and, just last weekend, added security staff.
“You think once they are in custody, it’s over,” said Corporal Bradley Woll, a shift supervisor at the Knox County jail. “It’s not.”
One inmate reported that a week after coming off the bath salts, and participating in a crime spree that she can’t recall, she still sees people out of the corner of her eye that she knows are not there.
“There is just no sense of reality,” said Woll. “So, yeah, I’m scared of them. I’m scared of them more than anything else I’ve seen. I’m scared for my officers. It’s dangerous for us and for the inmates.”
Simone said looking at the cost of pursuing criminal penalties and deciding it is too expensive is missing the point.
“It wouldn’t hurt to see a full cost accounting,” she said, noting that it is not just the cost to the justice system that should be considered, but to law enforcement, hospitals and, ultimately, the public.