The new drug hit Batavia’s youth like the plague.
A piercing artist at Affliction Tattoo shop, Eric Betz, had seen his fair share of stoned, high and tripping substance abusers.
But nothing like the girl he saw in the park next to his house smashing her head into a cement wall.
“Ever see Batman?” he asked. “They act like the Joker: Psychotic. Aggressive. Paranoid.”
The culprit was “bath salts,” the increasingly popular narcotic associated with violent acts and paranoia. Bath salts were sold legally in head shops and corner stores across New York State up until two weeks ago, when Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced a crackdown on synthetic drugs sweeping the nation. The governor unveiled new state Health Department regulations making it illegal to buy or sell these synthetic drugs, with violators facing up to $500 in fines and up to 15 days in jail.
Experts say that while making the drugs illegal may cut down on the number of cases reported, it will likely not annihilate the drug.
“We banned marijuana, cocaine and heroin, but they’re still out there,” said Senior Detective Alan Rozansky, head of the Erie County Sheriff’s Office Narcotics Squad.
The drug isn’t related to regular bath salts used in bathing, which are made of actual salt and added fragrances. But the narcotics were sometimes sold under that label.
The drug is in fact synthesized from various methamphetamine-like chemicals, allowing it to be inhaled, swallowed or injected.
As a new drug, its effects have yet to be fully understood, though research indicates it’s highly addictive.
Its use nationwide spiked in the past year. In 2010, poison control centers reported receiving 304 phone calls related to bath salts. Last year, that number shot up to 6,138, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers.
The powdery substances were previously sold in small packets at head shops or corner stores – and often most accessible over the Internet.
Prices ranged from $25 to $50 for a 50-milligram packet.
Though generically referred to as “bath salts,” they’ve been sold under names such as Ivory Wave, Purple Wave, Red Dove, White Dove, Blue Silk and Zoom. Sometimes they were labeled as plant food.
The bath salts have been manufactured with legal chemicals, allowing distributors to sell them without criminal penalty.
While “bath salts” aren’t methamphetamine or cocaine, experts say they could be more threatening because they were only recently made illegal, and because the community has yet to build up the same fear that surrounds other drugs.
Last year, after several minors showed up at hospitals with bath salt-related symptoms – hallucinations, suicidal thoughts and rapid heart rates – U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. authorized search warrants for the drug sellers and several arrests were made, including that of a Williamsville man accused of selling synthetic marijuana from two shops in Tonawanda, where authorities also seized bath salts.
While the drug itself was still legal at the time of the raids, Hochul said the sales were illegal under the Federal Analog Act because the bath salts had the same effect as a regulated drug, such as methamphetamine and that the seller sold the drug for purposes of human consumption.
Authorities said the sellers would tell undercover officers something like, “It gives you a good high.”
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office filed lawsuits in 12 counties last month, accusing 16 stores of violating state labeling laws, after investigators found head shops selling bath salts, among other synthetic drugs, in packages that failed to list ingredients.
Pavilion International, which operates shops at 3234 Main St. in Buffalo and 4225 Transit Road in Amherst, was among those sued.
While Genesee County had more highly publicized episodes and greater community involvement in protesting the drug’s use, Hochul said a similar number of cases are seen in Buffalo. They are just overshadowed by a wide range of other crimes that get more publicity, he said.
In Batavia, the use of bath salts declined since police shut down the 420 Emporium, a major market for the drug, said Detective Rich Schauf of the Batavia Police Department.
The fact that bath salts are now illegal should also decrease their use, he said.But he is concerned that, because the drug was once legal, people will believe it isn’t harmful and make them curious to try it.
“Up until now, you could walk into the store and buy it,” he said.
Because of the new regulations and educational programs, Schauf said he believes people are starting to understand that the drug was never intended for recreational use and is dangerous.
“It’s a common misconception that ‘legal’ equals ‘safe,’ ” he said. “That’s not the case at all.”
Bath salts have increased the workload at Batavia’s United Memorial Medical Center’s emergency room, according to Chief Medical Officer Michael Merrill.
“At one point, we had patients coming in every day,” he said.
Merrill describes bath salts as “designer drugs meant to be effective,” and particularly dangerous due to their link with violent acts.
The new drug, though, has been especially troubling to Betz, the tattoo shop employee, who said he knows about 15 people who use it.
He and his co-workers have created a Facebook page, Let’s Beat Bath Salts, where people in the area have shared stories of what they’ve witnessed in order to stir their crusade against the drug’s use.
“I’ve watched them destroy their lives, lose their money and their self-respect,” he said.
The new drug hit Batavia’s youth like the plague.