Legislature considering ‘bath salts’ ban; synthetic drug a growing problem in Bangor area

Posted June 17, 2011, at 8:40 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — An alarming number of people living in the Bangor area are snorting, injecting or smoking a designer drug known on the streets as “bath salts” — a type of which, dubbed “monkey dust,” has become prevalent in the Queen City, authorities say.

Local officials are worried and state legislators are working to ban the chemicals used to create the synthetic stimulant and hallucinogenic substance, which has been linked to at least two out-of-state killings and was mentioned in the police affidavit about the Thursday, June 9 slaying on Fourth Street.

“People come in thinking they are on fire. People come in thinking [other] people are shooting at them and it goes on for hours and hours,” Dr. Andrew Ehrhard, an emergency room doctor at Eastern Maine Medical Center, said Friday about those who use monkey dust. “People are going on binges where they are using it for four or five days and then they come in overdosing, saying they haven’t slept.”

Emergency room staff and law enforcement officers from around the state have contacted the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency about “bath salts,” said Darrell Crandall, the MDEA’s Division 2 commander.

Consumers are experiencing “a lot of paranoia, hallucinations — things of that nature — and volatile, violent behavior,” he said. “Our agents have encountered a number of people on the drug and they are displaying psychological effects similar to chronic methamphetamine use and in some cases similar to extended PCP use.”

The fake bath salts usually contain mephedrone or Methylenedioxypyrovalerone, also known as MDPV, man-made chemicals that block neurotransmitters in the brain and can stop it from making dopamine, which controls the brain’s reward and pleasure centers.

It can also cause liver failure, Ehrhard said.

“It’s new here. It’s only been here a couple months,” Ehrhard said. But even so, he is seeing a monkey dust overdose every week or two. “And that’s just me, not every ER doctor” in Bangor.

On June 10, the Maine House of Representatives endorsed LD 1562, an “Act to Prohibit the Sale or Possession of So-called Bath Salts Containing Dangerous Synthetic Drugs,” which would make it a felony to possess or sell any of 21 different hallucinogenic drugs or stimulants or any combination of them. The Senate forwarded the bill to the Appropriations Committee last week and it will be reviewed by that committee this coming Thursday. The Senate will vote on the bill June 28, and, if approved, it will be sent to the governor. Since LD 1562 has an emergency preamble, if it is endorsed, the bill will become law immediately.

That’s not soon enough, said Karen Simone, a toxicologist and director of the New England Poison Control Center, located in Portland. She said that since the drug first arrived in Maine several months ago, calls about accidental poisonings associated with it “have exploded.”

“One of the problems is that [emergency room doctors have] had a very difficult time to sedate them enough to make them safe,” she said of patients who have overdosed. “They are a danger to themselves and a danger to others” — and have “really terrible hallucinations.”

Police across the country — and in Bangor starting back in February — have reported signs of paranoia, hallucinations, convulsions and psychotic episodes in users of the lab-made crystal powder.

“Bangor has been heavily hit,” said Simone, who testified before the Legislature in support of banning the substances. “If you had asked me the biggest problem area, Bangor would be it.”

Waterville and Rumford also have high poison reports relating to bath salts, and Simone said she is seeing more reports in coastal communities, as well. “Interestingly, Portland hasn’t been hit as of yet,” she said.

Louisiana and Florida already have banned mephedrone, MDPV and similar synthetic drugs, and at least seven other states, including Maine, are working to make them illegal. The United Kingdom, Ireland and other European countries also have banned the substances.

The man who was arrested Thursday and charged with murder in connection with the Fourth Street death told Bangor police that the person he later admitted to strangling and throwing out a window “had some sort of psychotic incident and he should be checked for ‘monkey dust.’”

William Hall, 29, at first told police that Melvin Abreu, 28, jumped from the window, but later changed his story and admitted that “he had ‘choked the [expletive]’ out of Abreu and then threw him out of the window,” the police affidavit states.

Requests for information about whether Bangor police collected evidence that monkey dust was in use before the killing were not answered Friday by detectives, but Deputy Police Chief Peter Arno said bath salts, including monkey dust, are in the area.

Police reports show the drugs have “similar psychotic effects on people,” he said. “It’s scary. People put things in their bodies that they wouldn’t think about putting in their cars.”

In Bangor, police have found the synthetic stimulant and hallucinogenic drug most often individually packaged into 1-inch plastic bags — just like cocaine and other illicit drugs — and sometimes marked with symbols.

The extreme paranoia brought on by the drug has led consumers to do some crazy things, Bangor police officers Doug Smith and Jason Stuart said in March when they first warned residents about the drug in a Bangor Daily News article. They told stories they have heard about a woman in Florida who overdosed and tried to cut off her 71-year-old mother’s head with a machete, thinking she was out to get her, and one from Louisiana, where a 21-year-old man who took the stimulant “slit his throat in front of his father and then shot himself,” Smith said.

Assistant Bangor Fire Chief Rick Cheverie did a quick survey of the department’s paramedics and emergency medical technicians on Friday and said crews are just starting to see calls involving monkey dust or other bath salts.

“We’ve had … six to 10 calls over the last three to six weeks,” he said. “It truly messes up an individual. It’s not a pretty sight, and it can be permanent.”

With the rapid increase of monkey dust use in Maine and especially in the Bangor area, people should be wary of trying it, police and other emergency responders say.

“People really need to be warned to avoid it and kids need to be scared to keep away from it,” Cheverie said. “The possibility of having permanent damage should help scare people away. I can’t think of too many people who would want to put themselves into that type of situation.”

The Northern New England Poison Center can be reached 24 hours a day toll-free at 800-222-1222.

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