Following bans on salvia and synthetic marijuana, Illinois lawmakers are now trying to curb the latest store-bought choice of people looking to get high: bath salts.
These are not the Epsom salts that Aunt Ethel used to sprinkle in a warm tub, nor are they the soothing, fragrant bottles you pick up at the aromatherapy store.
Carrying comforting names like "Blue Silk" and "Ivory Wave" — and labeled "not for human consumption" — these small packets sell for $40 to $60 a gram. They're marketed as bath salts but contain the synthetic drug methylenedioxypyrovalerone, or MDPV.
Users usually smoke or snort the substance, and the high is described as similar to feelings from methamphetamine or Ecstasy. The packets are sold legally over the counter at some liquor stores, tobacco shops and novelty stores from Chicago to rural towns across the state.
The push to prevent such sales accelerated last month after the drug caused what authorities say is its first suspected death in Illinois. A 28-year-old woman in Alton apparently overdosed on it, prompting that city to pass an emergency ban.
At the Capitol, both the House and Senate have approved separate measures outlawing MDPV and its derivatives. Sponsoring Sen. Jacqueline Collins said the Alton death shows the need to quickly get her bill to Gov. Pat Quinn's desk.
"These designer drugs are causing deaths," said Collins, D-Chicago. "Unfortunately, the young lady in Alton had to lose her life."
The powerful synthetic popped up on the drug scene late last year. The Illinois Poison Center began getting calls in December from people who had taken the bath salts, which experts say can cause severe hallucinations, paranoia and psychotic episodes.
The drug has been linked to deaths around the country, including a Washington state soldier authorities said appeared to have been using bath salts before he shot and killed his wife and himself last month.
On Thursday, Indiana State Police said a 42-year-old woman they believe was high on bath salts trashed a hotel room. Police said when they arrived Wednesday at a hotel near Rensselaer, Tammy Winter, of Demotte, was sitting on a bed, rambling about evil spirits and needing to write on the walls of the room to protect her from the spirits. A relative who was present told police that Winter was an abuser of bath salts.
At this point, 10 states, including Michigan, Kentucky, Florida and Louisiana, have passed legislation or used executive orders to outlaw the synthetic substances used to make the bath salts. Illinois and 24 other states, including Missouri, Ohio and Kansas, have similar bans working their way through the legislative process. The American Association of Poison Control Centers reported 298 calls last year and about 1,800 this year from 47 states and the District of Columbia.
Illinois' poison center has received more than 100 calls this year, according to Carol DesLauriers, the agency's operations director. Six were from Cook County, including two from Chicago. Some city and suburban law enforcement officials said so far they haven't encountered cases of people taking bath salts to get high.
Collins worked with the poison control officials and introduced legislation to make the product illegal by classifying it as a controlled substance similar to cocaine or heroin.
Manufacturers didn't testify at committee hearings in Springfield. One responded to an email from the Tribune but declined to go on the record, saying he feared getting hassled by government officials.
Rep. Wayne Rosenthal, R-Morrisonville, said he introduced his legislation in the House after being approached by law enforcement in his district south of Springfield.
Montgomery County Sheriff Jim Vazzi said he's watched nine people admitted to local hospitals for overdoses. "Since they're legal we have our hands tied. We're unable to stop the sales," Vazzi said.
Alton Police Chief David Hayes said his department began looking into the sale of bath salts in early March as his department was making sure stores in the city were no longer selling synthetic marijuana, known as K2 and K4. Hayes said although the bath salts are still legal, his officers warned shopkeepers of the dangers and asked the stores to stop selling them.
On April 27, the same day Tonia Whitehead died of a suspected overdose, the city of Alton passed a ban on the product.
The case struck a chord with Sen. Bill Haine, D-Alton, a former state's attorney. He wants a ban in place making it more difficult to sell or buy the drug, which he believes will help curb its use.
"It puzzles me why people find their lives such a wasteland that they do this to themselves. That's just sad," Haine said. "The law at some point has to step in and do what it can."
State lawmakers routinely pass get-tough bills that generate headlines, but enforcement is key. The Tribune reported Sunday that recently outlawed novelty lighters are still being sold despite the danger to children who may mistake them for toys. The state fire marshal said his office needs stronger enforcement authority.
Tribune reporter Gerry Smith contributed.
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