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Bath salts saturate Bangor area

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 'I was such a mess. I lost 40 pounds in three weeks. I usually weigh about 145 pounds but I was down to 105. I knew very well that I was close to death. According to the police report, I thanked the officer for arresting me. I told him I was an addict and couldn't get clean and he was probably saving my life.' - Jesse, 27 of Bangor. Recovering bath salts user.

Until fairly recently, the synthetic drug commonly referred to as bath salts was available in some Maine smoke shops, convenience stores and stores that specialize in drug paraphernalia. It was sold under names like Cloud 9, Ivory Wave, Kush Blitz, White Lightening, White Ivory, White Rush, Whack, Kryptonite and Monkey Dust. Often sold as plant food or plant fertilizer, the packaging usually featured the words 'not for human consumption' - essentially a loophole designed to get around the law and sell the drug.

In July 2011, legislation was enacted in Maine making it illegal to possess or sell any of the 21 different drugs or stimulants marketed as bath salts with a possession charge classified as a civil offense punishable by a fine of $350 for the first offense. A trafficking charge, absent other factors that would enhance the offense, is a class E misdemeanor, the least serious of the misdemeanor offenses. Steps are being taken to draft a bill to make possession a felony in Maine. The drug has yet to be classified as a controlled substance by the FDA.

Where did bath salts come from and why does Bangor seem to be ground zero for bath salts-related incidents and arrests?

'I wish I had a good answer for that,' Bangor Police Chief Ron Gastia said. 'I've spoken with other people across the country and some of them have seen bath salts popping up in clusters in rural towns. We don't know how it was initially introduced here but once it was, it took hold and spread like wildfire.'

The Bangor Police Department began seeing incidents related to the drug in Jan. 2011 and it has since turned into a daily living nightmare for police, medical and psychiatric personnel, the general population and in many cases, the user. Some of those users may never be the same.

Gastia says the Bangor Police Department has been accused of overreacting to the problem. 'Some people believe this drug is not dangerous,' he said. 'They think it affects only the user and is a victimless crime. That is not correct. It couldn't be further from the truth.'

The unpredictable nature of the drug is one the biggest problems related to it. Chief Gastia says some users have had immediate adverse reactions. 'In some cases, it's hours or even a day or two later that some people have had these types of episodes. That's what makes this drug so dangerous, in my opinion. There have been incidents where people have been treated and medically cleared. They left the hospital and then had a psychotic episode.'

Users of bath salts have sought medical and psychological assistance to alleviate some of the drug's side effects including extreme paranoia, hallucinations, delusions, panic attacks, psychosis, severe loss of sleep, severe agitation, renal failure, trouble breathing, discoloration of extremities and even alterations in the bone structure of the user's head. Some users have also described a feeling of 'being on fire' when under the influence of bath salts. In some instances, users have also taken another drug or alcohol to alleviate those side effects, in essence making things worse.

Shawn Yardley, director of Bangor's Health and Community Services Department, says there are underlying issues that should be addressed when talking about bath salts.

'We need to ask what is leading people to do something that could have such negative consequences on their life,' Yardley said. 'You have the younger person who says, I'm immortal, and it's not going to happen to me,' and then you have people who are significantly impaired by addiction issues. This is just another experience they are going to try to see if they can achieve that elusive high that an addict is always seeking no matter what their drug of choice is.'

Part of the problem lies in the drug's ease of availability and the deceptive names used to sell it. When a user looks for drugs, they are often finding bath salts first because it is so prevalent and relatively cheap in comparison with other drugs. They may not realize that 'Vanilla Wave' is just another name for bath salts - until it's too late.

According to Yardley, 'The stakes are so high with this particular chemical that people don't get second chances. As I understand it, it really is playing Russian roulette with most of the chambers of the gun filled. With this drug, you go from zero to a hundred in terms of the risks.'

Jamie Comstock is Health Promotion Program Manager for the City of Bangor and says that the city's resources are being squeezed by problems associated with people using bath salts. 'The cases we're seeing require so many resources to deal with. If we don't get ahead of it, it has the potential to get a lot worse' she said. 'Our problems with bath salts show how vulnerable a community can be.'

Chief Gastia shares Comstock's view. 'The money paid out in medical costs and resources for the police department and our social workers trying to combat this problem is huge' he said. 'Money will continue to be spent until we can get our arms around this.'

It is not uncommon for users to remain sleepless for two or more days after using bath salts for the first time. Assuming some of the other side effects do not deter them from 'dosing' again after the initial come down, users attempt to keep the high going with another snort, smoke, hit or pill. This repeat use speeds up the process of addiction to the point where the sole focus for the user is on acquiring more of the drug. Comstock says that expedited addiction is one of bath salts' most deceptive and deadly traits. 'Users need to know that it's hugely addictive and the cravings are very strong,' she said. 'Even if you know you stand a chance of having a very bad experience, your body is telling you that it wants more.'

Dr. Anthony Ng, medical director of Emergency Psychiatric Services at the Acadia Hospital of Bangor, agrees. 'The high that people get from it is almost like crack, only it's a faster hit and therefore people become quickly addicted to it,' Dr. Ng told me. 'They will do it and then do another one just to keep the high going.'

The 'high' initial users describe getting from bath salts isn't exactly like any single drug but a combination of drugs, Dr. Ng says. 'The effects seem to be a combination of what they would get from combining ecstasy, LSD, cocaine and stimulants. That initial feeling is what lures some people to use bath salts. The problem is, it doesn't last long and they quickly look for the second, third and fourth round to keep it going. That's where addiction happens.'

As for fighting the Bangor area's bath salts problem, everyone interviewed for this article told me that awareness and education are key components. Dr. Ng suggests a multi-pronged strategy. 'Educating people at risk such as those prone to substance abuse or mental health issues is very important,' Ng said. 'We also need to get the message to people in school whether it's college, high school or even elementary school.'

Even with awareness of bath salts' dangers, Shawn Yardley says some people will still make bad choices. 'That's why our posters and information include information for innocent bystanders on what to do if we encounter someone we believe is under the influence of bath salts,' Yardley said.

The public warning poster Yardley refers to is now appearing throughout the city, including area buses. The poster states that if you contact someone you believe is under the influence of bath salts, do not approach them. Do not engage in confrontation and call 911.

Chief Gastia says that last piece of advice is very important. 'Some of these people can speak rationally to you, but they are still delusional,' he said. 'They believe things are happening and you could become part of their delusion. Call the police department and let us handle it.'

Jesse is 27. He used illegal drugs for 10 years. Opiates were his primary drug.

'I was addicted to them for years and took them just to keep from being sick. It was just maintenance after that,' he told me. When some personal problems seemed insurmountable, he began looking for any possible high, including cocaine and methamphetamine.

This past May, Jesse went looking for any kind of available stimulant and found bath salts to be the most readily available drug. 'They were new at the time, he said. 'But they were here. A block in either direction and somebody had some. Since that's what I could get at the moment, I did it and began doing it every day.' He took them for three weeks. 'In that three weeks, there was more destruction in my mind and body than in the previous 10 years combined.'

When I met with Jesse, he was nearing the end of his stay at a local treatment facility. He agreed to speak openly about his experience with bath salts to reach people who may consider walking down the same path.

Dow: 'How would you describe the effect the drug had on your mind and body in that 21 days?'

Jesse: 'I had been abusing my body for a long time and I had never been brought so close to death so quickly by something. It destroyed me.'

Dow: 'In what way did bath salts bring you close to death?'

Jesse: 'I was emaciated. I lost 40 pounds in those three weeks. I wasn't eating. I wasn't sleeping. I went 12 days without sleeping. I was only focused on getting high all the time. That stuff was bringing me further and further from reality. I was literally out of my mind.'

Dow: 'What made you stop?'

Jesse: 'An arrest. I was outside, standing against a wall sound asleep when a police officer found me. When I was in the thick of it, I didn't have the presence of mind to be able to stop. It took being arrested to save me. I don't think I could have broken free from it. Being forced to be sober allowed me to look at it for what it was and see the ridiculousness of how I was acting, how my mind was working and to also see the profound physical effects is was having on me. If I hadn't been arrested, I probably wouldn't have stopped. I probably wouldn't be here right now.'

Dow: 'Tell me about your arrest. '

Jesse: 'The officer was pretty easy on me. He wasn't mean or cruel to me at all. I don't remember every detail, but I do have the police report they sent to me afterwards. It says I thanked him for placing me under arrest. I told him I was an addict who couldn't get clean and that he was saving my life. I believe in my heart that if I had continued taking it, I would be dead.'

Dow: 'When you were in the thick of it, did you have the extreme paranoia we hear about?'

Jesse: 'Oh yeah. The characteristics you think of when you think of a crackhead. Peeking out windows, thinking people were after me, barricading doors. It takes a crack addict some time to build up to that amount of paranoia. I had it from the very first time I used bath salts. And it only gets worse from there. When I look back on it, nothing about the high was enjoyable. It's hard to explain to myself what kept bringing me back to it.'

Dow: 'Did you do bath salts with other people or alone?'

Jesse: 'At first, I did them with others until I became such a mess, nobody wanted to be around me. I had a good connection for the stuff and suddenly I had friends' who were around - but only long enough to get what they wanted.'

Dow: 'What do you think happened to those people?'

Jesse: 'I saw one of them the other day and it was sad. I wish I had pictures of my recovery. Every day, I've gotten a little better. But looking at him and realizing that I looked as bad as he does, it was definitely a reminder of how far I've come and how badly I don't want to go back.'

Dow: 'Do you have a message for anyone who might encounter someone on bath salts?'

Jesse: 'Just be careful. Nothing is too far' for someone on bath salts. I've seen normally peaceful people become so violent. Gentle people are capable of things that they would never otherwise do. Handle with caution and give these people a wide berth. They don't know what they're doing.'

Dow: 'I've seen before and after photos of bath salt users. It's scary.'

Jesse: 'Personal hygiene is the first thing to go. You don't take the time or effort to take care of yourself at all. You're so focused on finding money, finding the drug and getting high. Dirty, unkempt, clothed in rags. Walk down Main St. right now and you'll see what I'm describing. In the monkey dust circles, people talk about how it changes the chemical balance of your body. There is something about bath salts that literally changes the physiology of your body. I believe that with all stimulants, you see some of that. The bones in your face show more, your cheeks hollow out. With monkey dust, it seems to be much more dramatic. I seriously think something shifted in the bone structure of my face. There are lines on my face that were never that way before. I think the term monkey dust' comes from the fact that users start to take on the appearance of monkeys after they've been on it for a certain period of time. The ears stick out more, the cheeks, the bones, the hair. You literally start to look like a chimpanzee.'

Dow: 'Tell me about your kids.'

Jesse: 'I have 3-year-old twin boys and a 9-month-old daughter.'

Dow: 'It's believed that bath salts are not going to go away - like other drugs they're going to be part of the landscape though hopefully not as huge as they are right now. If your kids are someday approached by someone who wants them to try it, what do you hope they'll say?'

Jesse: 'I hope they enjoy the use of their brain enough to stay away from the stuff. There is no quicker way to lose touch with reality and be totally out of control than to do bath salts. I would tell them if you want to live, stay away from it. I've never seen a drug so destructive.'

Dow: 'How has your life changed since your recovery began?'

Jesse: 'Man. I've gotten aspects of my personality back that I forgot even existed. As things come back, I realize, Oh yeah, that's me!' When you're on drugs, you're not even aware that you're gone. Even my musical ability is back. Just so much better overall. If something sad or disappointing comes up, I'm so much better equipped now to handle it. I've also gained back the 40 pounds I lost plus five more. I just feel better about everything. I've managed to rebuild quite a lot. It's amazing how fast it happens once you're willing to face it.'

On Wednesday, Sept. 14 at 7 p.m., there will be a town meeting on Bangor's bath salts epidemic at Gracie Theatre at Husson University. Moderated by Mike and Mike of Kiss 94.5, panelists will include Bangor Chief of Police Ron Gastia; Dr. Anthony Ng, medical director, Emergency Psychiatric Services at the Acadia Hospital; and Dr. Jonnathan Busko, ER doctor at Eastern Maine Medical Center. A question and answer period with the audience will follow. This information session is free and open to the public. The event will stream live at www.WLBZ2.com.

On Thursday, Sept. 15, WABI TV 5 will present a one hour special on the bath salts epidemic. Hosted by Carolyn Callahan, the program will feature interviews from local experts including Penobscot County Sheriff's Department Chief Deputy Troy Morton, Bangor Chief of Police Ron Gastia and experts from the medical community. This program will examine the local impact and issues associated with bath salts.

September is National Recovery Month. The fourth annual Summit on Addiction Recovery will be held at the Brewer Auditorium on Sept. 7 from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sponsored by Bangor Area Recovering Community Coalition. For more information, call 941-1612, ext 204 or visit www.BangorRecovery.org.

Mike Dow is part of The Mike and Mike Show' airing each morning on Kiss 94.5. Check him out at www.facebook.com/mikeandmike and www.mikedow.net.

Last modified on Friday, 09 September 2011 12:31

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