Designer drugs commonly known as “bath salts” are a growing problem in Vermont, according to Vermont Department of Health officials.
At a press conference on Friday, Gov. Peter Shumlin oversaw the signing of a new emergency rule that outlaws the sale, use, processing or manufacture of products containing 86 different substances that have proven dangerous to users.
The latest ban follows the state’s attempt last August to block the sale of 12 chemicals used in similar drugs. Last year’s emergency rule, Shumlin said, wasn’t enough because new drugs are coming out all the time that are similarly hazardous.
The drugs can have wide-ranging health effects, according to Dr. Mark Depman, head of Central Vermont Medical Center’s emergency room.
“There’s a real spectrum of both physical and mental effects,” Depman said. “That spectrum goes from people that are mildly hallucinating, having mild delusions about the environment around them … to full blown toxic side effects which include rapid heart rate, high blood pressure, raised temperature, a shaking of the body that can break down muscle tissue, it can provoke kidney failure.”
Depman said it is unclear how long the effects can last.
The press conference took place in Barre’s City Hall Park, where Republican Mayor Thom Lauzon stood by the governor, a Democrat, and others to condemn the drugs.
“Quite frankly, this is chemical roulette,” he said.
Chittenden County State’s Attorney TJ Donovan, the Democratic primary challenger for Vermont Attorney General, was there to chime in, too. “If the drug is anywhere in the state it’s going to spread,” Donovan said.
The issue in part, Depman said, is that “bath salts,” which are available in stores currently, are unpredictable in their chemical makeup and potency. Users are primarily people in their 20s looking for what he said people have been seeking for hundreds of years.
“It’s a stimulant, it’s a high, it’s a way to escape,” Depman said.
Shumlin said the chemical compounds in the newly-banned drugs are dangerous, in large part, because they’re synthetic. He drew the comparison to marijuana, which he painted as a safer drug.
“These are chemicals that are not made for human ingestion,” Shumlin said. “We’re not talking about a plant that is grown, like marijuana. We’re not talking about a natural substance. This junk will kill you.”
The ban comes after an apparent increase in use across the state. Sarah Vose, the state toxicologist, said Vermont’s poison control center received 13 calls from residents and local hospitals about the drugs in 2011. So far this year the center has received 16 calls.
It’s unclear how widespread bath salt use is because the state doesn’t keep track the use of the drug compounds, which are constantly being chemically modified to skirt the law. Before today (Friday) the latest bath salt compounds were widely available in stores, and were legal to purchase as long as they were labeled “not for human consumption.”
Though Depman said the “poison control [center is] a good barometer for what’s happening in the state,” there is no plan to track the use, sale or possession of the drugs.
With 98 “bath salt” related drugs now banned in Vermont, the state is working on language that will keep the state from continuously circling back to the issue, said Sue Allen, a spokeswoman for the governor.
Allen said a rule in the works to go into effect in August will be “more generic and broader,” and is being designed to encompass all currently banned variants on “bath salts” drugs as well as new variants that are introduced later. New dangerous drugs will fall into the list of banned substances.
Emergency bans on the drugs are not under the direct control of the governor. According to Human Services Secretary Doug Racine, bans are initially suggested by the Department of Health, then must pass through three separate boards: the board of health, the board of pharmacy and the board of medical practice, before they can be signed by Racine and put into effect.