The Bath Salts Scourge
Tom Reagan, Bangor’s drug recognition expert, has a mission: To educate Mainers about the extreme dangers of bath salts.
By Gillian Frisch
Tom Reagan is not a tall man. He’s of average height, about five-foot-eight, with a slight belly protruding over his belt. A head of hair that once resembled raven feathers is now salt and pepper. Were it not for his uniform, he might be mistaken for a college professor.
The Bangor Police Department’s drug recognition expert (DRE), Lieutenant Reagan has devoted his career to fighting substance abuse. “I started out with a sergeant on the University of Maine campus who was interested in the same stuff I was — getting drivers under the influence off the street,” he says. “It gave me a great feeling; if you get one drunk driver off the road, you could be saving over fifty lives. But I realized drivers weren’t the only problem. I needed to inform people about the dangers of what alcohol and drugs can do before they got started.”
After receiving his DRE certification from the Maine Bureau of Highway Safety in 1991, he joined the Bangor police force a few years before the prescription drug epidemic exploded around the state. These days he travels throughout Maine and into Canada, spreading the word about another dangerous new drug, bath salts. “I’m doing lectures, getting the word out, so that when this enters another community, they’re ready to deal with it,” he says. “We got caught off guard here. When I started reading about this stuff hitting the South two years ago, I expected it to be a club drug. Boy, was I wrong. When it came to Bangor, it was only ten dollars for a night’s worth of drugs.”
Bangor has been the epicenter of Maine’s bath salts epidemic, with Penobscot County accounting for almost half of all reported cases. Cheap, easily accessible, and, until last year, sold legally in the United States at head shops and on the Internet, bath salts are primarily attractive to individuals with previous drug addictions. “We have a lot of addicts in Bangor,” Reagan says. “We have three methadone clinics, 1,700 doses of methadone going out every day.”
Notorious for their dangerous and long-lasting effects, bath salts, which have no connection to the crystals you sprinkle into a warm tub, first appeared as a recreational drug in 2007 in Germany, where its key ingredient, the stimulant MPDV (3, 4-methylenedioxypyrovalerone), had been developed decades earlier by a pharmaceutical company for treatment of chronic fatigue. The drug spread to Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Australia, and the United Kingdom before surfacing in the United States in 2010. Louisiana, Alabama, and Florida were the first states to feel the impact, and Maine legislators braced for the drug’s migration northward. “I noticed that it seemed to be happening in states that are a little bit like Maine — rural, lower-income states,” says Seth Berry, a state representative from Bowdoinham whose bill banning bath salts in Maine was passed by the state legislature in June 2011. “I thought that with the economy the way it is and certain drugs becoming less available for hardcore addicts in Maine, it was probably just a matter of time before bath salts got here.”
Maine’s first cases were reported in early 2011. By the end of the year, 152 overdoses had been reported, according to a Bangor Daily News article citing data collected by the Northern New England Poison Control Center in Portland. Recalling the first bath salts overdose victim he witnessed, Reagan says, “He looked completely alone. Not physically — there were people around him, watching him. But he was alone in his mind. He was terrified. They’re all usually terrified after using. Yet they keep on using.”
It is night in the city of Bangor, and Jamie Fanning, a young police officer under Tom Reagan’s command, is driving her regular patrol route when she spots a young man who had been present at two calls answered by Reagan earlier in the evening. The first call came from a store manager, who wanted the man removed from his store because he was being disruptive. On the second call, Reagan found the man under the fire escape at his residence, crying and screaming that his girlfriend had left him. Now, when Fanning asks where he is headed, the man launches into a heart-wrenching story about his girlfriend, bath salts, and a trip to the emergency room. He is walking to St. Joseph Hospital, he says, hoping to find her. His speech is slurred, and as he talks, he spins in a circle and flails his arms back and forth. Fanning tells him to keep to his route, and she’ll come back to give him a ride.
When she returns, however, the man is nowhere to be found. “I thought this might happen,” Fanning says. “He probably got turned around somewhere. Bath salts users are out of their minds when they’re high.” She searches more than fifteen blocks before she finds him outside a convenience store on a payphone, wailing about finding his girlfriend sprawled on the bathroom floor, a packet of bath salts in her hands. “I doubt his story is true,” she says, “but look at him, he’s obviously upset. He believes it’s true.” It takes Fanning nearly half an hour to get him off the phone, but when she searches him, she finds no drugs. She drops him off within a block of St. Joseph Hospital, where he instantly turns and starts walking in the opposite direction.
The man is barely out of sight when Fanning responds to a call to assist her fellow officers with another suspected bath salts user at St. Joseph. When she arrives at the emergency room entrance, two policemen are trying to restrain a boy in a wheelchair. The boy, who looks about sixteen, writhes in the chair, arching his back. He swings his head back and forth as a nurse tries to apply a gauze wrap to a quarter-sized gash on his chin, apparently sustained when he began smashing his face against the sidewalk after getting into a fight at a party.
The three officers manage to push the boy through the doorway and into a room, where they load him face down on a bed. With the help of a broad-shouldered paramedic, they flip him over and restrain his flailing limbs with Velcro straps. Over his screams, the nurses question him about the substances he may have taken. He admits to drinking whiskey, then to smoking marijuana. “Look kid, you’re going to get tested,” the skeptical head nurse tells him, “so you might as well just confess. Just tell us what you’ve taken!” At last, the boy admits to taking bath salts — days beforehand.
“The effects of this stuff can last anywhere from three to six days,” Reagan explains after the incident. “It’s not like most drugs that wear off after a while. This gets worse. Most of them want off the stuff as soon as they’re high. When they call us, they just want help. They’re so lost.”
Highly addictive both physically and psychologically, MPDV is largely responsible for bath salts’ effects, which include insomnia, paranoia, hallucinations, muscle spasms, high blood pressure and high heart rate, and kidney failure. Mephedrone, an amphetamine, another bath salts ingredient, provides the euphoria users seek. A third ingredient, methylone, a relative of ecstasy, adds to the feelings of paranoia, hallucinations, and anxiety.
Sold in baggies or small jars under names like Ivory Wave, Rave On, and Monkey Dust, bath salts are typically snorted, eaten, injected, or smoked. They come as crystals or powders in a variety of colors, notably white, brown, and yellow.
Attempts to deter the sale and possession of the stimulant drug have been stymied by drug makers who vary the ingredients to make new legal varieties. Initially, manufacturers skirted the federal Analog Act, under which any substance “substantially similar” to a banned drug is deemed illegal if it is intended for consumption, by labeling the packages “not for human consumption.”
“The law had so many loopholes,” Seth Berry says. “Drug traffickers and their chemists took full advantage of this. It took some time to build a new law, one that would restrict changing these dangerous chemicals.” Last October, the United States Drug Enforcement Agency took emergency action and made possessing and selling the chemicals in bath salts — MPDV, mephedrone, and methylone — illegal.
In the meantime, Maine legislators have passed a series of bills banning bath salts. Berry’s original bill banning the possession or sale of the synthetic materials in bath salts was watered down by legislators, who were concerned about the cost to the state of jailing offenders and processing them through the courts. Passed in June 2011, it made possession of bath salts a civil offense punishable by a $350 fine, but no jail time. They followed up in September with a new law, drafted by Governor Paul LePage and his staff, that makes possession of bath salts a crime and trafficking a felony. But that law, too, became difficult to enforce as drug makers adjusted ingredients to make new legal variants of the stimulant. This past April, LePage signed into law yet another bill, which bans five more cathinone derivative substances found in the drugs.
Time will tell what impact the laws will have on the bath salts scourge. “They aren’t going away anytime soon,” Reagan believes. “Now when I go to different communities, I do three different talks. One for the parents, one for the paramedics, police officers, fire department, and one for the school administrators. And I’ve recently added border patrol to that list.” The drugs have found their way into Canada, he explains, and he worries about drug cartels setting up in northern Maine. “If Canadians latch on to this stuff, drug traffickers and producers will want to provide the product,” he says. “It’s a never ending battle.”