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Drug Dilemma: Area law enforcement struggles to combat 'bath salts'

June 23, 2011

A drug sold at area stores as “bath salts” are really a highly addictive synthetic hallucinative drug. The drug is causing problems for law enforcement officers.

When reflecting on the past couple of months, Wapakoneta Police Chief Russ Hunlock offers this simple maxim about people intending to experiment with “bath salts” — “don’t do it, don’t do it, don’t do it.”
Bath salts, which are a product with no real practical use, are a synthetic hallucinative drug, which can be snorted, injected, ingested or smoked and are legal in Ohio — for now. An amendment to the state’s biennial operations budget bill would make them illegal with its passage.
Wapakoneta city officials also are developing legislation to make “bath salts” illegal to sell, distribute and use — following the lead of the city of Lima and the village of New Bremen.
But in the meantime, local law enforcement officers treat those on the chemically created drug in a two-fold manner. They look out for the health and welfare of the user, but they also look for any crimes they may commit while on the drug so they can be arrested to keep them from harming themselves or others.
“Our hands are tied with how to deal with it,” Hunlock said. “Obviously every situation is different as far as the effects on the person itself. We try to make due with what we have to deal with.
“This is a rapid epidemic to say the least,” the police chief said. “You have to approach each incident differently.”
Unofficially approximately 30 cases have been identified in Auglaize County this year. Hunlock said at least 20 of those have occurred in Wapakoneta and the number is growing.
Hunlock recently told Wapakoneta City Council Health and Safety Committee members police officers are dealing with two to three cases of people using “bath salts” each week.
Sheriff Al Solomon said he tells law enforcement officers to look for any criminal offense taking place if suspects are under the influence of the “bath salts” so the individual can be taken into custody and provided with the necessary treatment.
“If they are violent, then we have to take control of them,” Solomon said. “If they are delusional, we have to work with them just like we would if the person had mental issues — that means if they are non-violent then we will take our time with them.
Sheriff’s Deputy Mike Vorhees explained another dilemma. Officers and deputies cannot pre-determine how they will approach a suspect because the “bath salts” affect each person differently. If a person had previous mental issues, the drug tends to heighten those issues.
The issue is made even more difficult because law enforcement agents cannot rely on the Ohio Revised Code (ORC).
“Approaching a situation where a person is on ‘bath salts’ is tough,” Vorhees said. “When you don’t have the ORC or any laws to back you regarding this type of drug, it’s tough because you can’t just arrest them for drug use.
“You just try to deal with it on a case-by-case basis,” he said. “When you go there, the law enforcement officers have to look to see if there are any underlying offense.”
If a person is suspected of being on bath salts, Hunlock noted a police officer will then request back-up from members of the local emergency management service (EMS), and if EMS personnel are called then they request law enforcement officers to the scene. EMS personnel typically deal with the symptoms, while law enforcement officers deal with a user if they became unmanageable.
Auglaize County Children’s Services Director Pat Knippen now has caseworkers call for law enforcement help if they suspect parents or guardians of children are using bath salts when they do a home visit. This is the first time in the past 20 years or so, Knippen said, she has had to issue this directive.
In a recent two-week period, she said contact was made with nine families where bath salts were involved. Six of those were adults, so it is not just teens or young adults experimenting.
Wapakoneta Fire Chief Kendall Krites said law enforcement officers and EMS personnel have to evaluate each situation based on what condition the person is in, but they also have to realize how quickly the situation can change.
Medically speaking, Krites said these bath salts cause a person’s heart rate and blood pressure to elevate and it depletes the amount of oxygen in their blood. He explained they become delusional and paranoid.
Use of the drug can cause renal failure, acute myocardial infractions (heart attacks) and strokes.
A troubling side effect, Krites noted, is people often develop a craving for the drug that prompts them to go on days-long binges.
Bath salts contain the active ingredients methylenedioxpyrovalerone (MDPV), a synthetic psychoactive drug with stimulant properties that have been likened to ectsasy. Mephedrone is a synthetic stimulant with amphetamine-like or cocaine-like effects.
Common street names include “Ivory Wave,” “Bliss,” “White Lightning” and “Vanilla Sky.” Some describe the effects like cocaine, others like LSD. In other parts of the country, a gram is typically sold for $20 to $40. It is sold in small clear plastic containers, some look like lip balm containers. Locally, one-tenth of a gram is selling for $20 to $30.
In the first few months of reports on the drug, four people died and the number is climbing. Use of bath salts also is blamed for one death in Ohio.
The problem crosses cultures. While drug users may try it, some are staying away from it because they do not know the long-term effects. Since it is legal and can be purchased at stores, people who are typically not in any kind of legal trouble are using it.
There is one case where a middle class family was split up because the parents used the drug.
The cases can often involve firearms and weapons, which increases the need for manpower.
A case in Wapakoneta involved a couple where the man was using an ax under a house trailer. He said he was trying to get to people who were living in the 3-inch floor space of their trailer. A case in Celina involved a man shooting at objects in his home. He eventually shot his wife in the hand.
The cost of dealing with the problem is rising for law enforcement, Solomon said, especially at the Auglaize County Jail. They had one instance where seven corrections officers were needed to restrain an inmate, but it was right at shift change so there was enough personnel on site.
“It could cause us increases in cost of providing our services, especially in corrections but law enforcement, too,” Solomon said.
If the city of Wapakoneta adopts its own ordinance, Hunlock said the costs to his department would rise because of the added expense in housing the suspect and prosecuting the case. At this time he doesn’t anticipate any more costs associated with policing the streets.
The scary thing for Knippen, Krites, Hunlock, Solomon and Vorhees is medical professionals and law enforcement officers have no idea of the long-term effects of the drug since it is so new.
Hunlock said they all are more concerned about the costs related to a person’s livelihood.
“People will say that we are saying all this because we are the police chief or the sheriff and it is our obligation to uphold the law and to tell people this is a dangerous drug,” Hunlock said. “But we are also saying this as concerned individuals that these drugs are highly addictive and dangerous to use — so I would tell them one simple rule — don’t do it, don’t do it, don’t do it.”

This is the first story in a three-part series on bath salts, a chemically made hallucinogenic drug.

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