Bangor police chief says bath salts creating crisis

Bangor Police Chief Ron Gastia in September 2009.
Bangor Police Chief Ron Gastia in September 2009.
Posted Aug. 01, 2011, at 10:33 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Saying Maine in general and the Bangor area in particular will see things get worse before they get better, Police Chief Ron Gastia said bath salts problems are rapidly approaching epidemic levels.

“Over the last two months, it has gotten out of control quickly and as bad as anything I can recall in my nearly 29 years in law enforcement,” Gastia told assembled city officials, emergency workers and politicians at a special workshop assembled at the Bangor City Council chambers Monday night. “This issue has reached close to epidemic proportions and certainly, at least to me personally, is a crisis.”

Gastia and medical professionals said bath salts incidents, which Bangor Councilor Geoffrey Gratwick said should be called “bath poisons,” have increased almost exponentially.

“We haven’t seen anything of this epidemic proportion advance this rapidly,” Gastia told the council. “This problem will not be going away, and it’s my strong belief this will get worse before it plateaus.”

Among those invited to speak at the workshop, which all nine Bangor councilors attended along with City Manager Cathy Conlow, were Bangor police Lt. Tom Reagan; LifeFlight of Maine medical director Norm Dinerman; Dr. Anthony Ng, medical director of Acadia Hospital’s Psychiatric Observation Unit; state Sen. Nichi Farnham, R-Bangor; state Rep. Adam Goode, D-Bangor; and Mark Moran, licensed clinical social worker at Eastern Maine Medical Center.

“I’m scared to death, quite honestly,” said Councilor Cary Weston.

Ng said the increase in the frequency of bath salts’ use is alarming.

“This started hitting Bangor this spring and we went from seeing one bath salts user every few days to at least one and sometimes a few almost daily,” said Ng. “The challenging thing with bath salts is it’s relatively new in terms of what we know about it.

“What we are seeing now is these lead to a variety of psychological and mental problems. People may get severely agitated, but also the opposite where they don’t really do much.”

It’s that uncertainty, and the lack of many certainties when it comes to the effects and complications of bath salts, that is most disturbing to those dealing with it.

“It’s the unpredictability of those using it,” said Dinerman. “One moment they’re compliant, cooperative and almost sedated and the next they explode.”

Both Ng and Reagan, who is the Bangor Police Department’s night commander, compare bath salts — a synthetic cathinone that produces a brief high lasting 20 minutes to three hours and can induce manic behavior, delusions, paranoia, hallucinations, hyperactivity, nightmares, violence and suicidal depression — to cocaine.

“Typical user is hyperactive, hallucinogenic, incoherent, and we are entering one of their hallucinations,” said Reagan, who recalled encounters he and his officers have had with bath salt users brandishing weapons ranging from box cutters to AR-15 assault rifles. “My officers are in quite a bit of danger.”

Reagan and Gastia talked about how the Penobscot County Sheriff’s Office no longer will accept transfer of prisoners showing signs of bath salt use until they are medically cleared.

Gastia said his department, which has dealt with as many as seven bath salt-related incidents a day, has been told by friends who are officers in other states that Bangor is well ahead in that regard.

“They’re telling me Bangor is the focal point and that they’re not seeing the number of incidents that we are in Maine,” he said.

Ng and other medical professionals say the dangers of bath salts far outweigh the attractions.

“The good effects are very short-lived, which contributes to users’ desire to want to take it again,” Ng explained. “And although the initial hit’s high is short-lived, there’s a secondary effect that can last days and lead to psychosis.”

With so many adverse reactions and side effects to bath salts, why are they so popular?

“Like cocaine, which used to be an ingredient in Coca-Cola, it was initially thought of as safe, cheap, and easily available,” said Reagan. “Also the penalties are not as severe as it is a Class E crime to sell it. People still look at this drug as one worth taking the chance to use because there is little chance of jail time if you get caught.”

Bath salts users or sellers face a penalty as small as a $350 fine or just a summons.

“The two main questions are how do we protect the public and what do we do to better protect the public as we move into the future,” Gastia said.

“The best we can do is try to keep it from getting worse — much like we’ve done with cocaine.”

Councilors pledged their support and affirmed their concern for the near-epidemic, but few had answers or solutions as Farnham summed it up succinctly.

“I have a lot of questions, but I don’t have an answer,” she said.

Still, there was reason for optimism among the participants.

“I was actually really enthused about the cooperative spirit of this, the non-hysteric approach, the use of critical thought, and a regional approach to the issues,” Dinerman said. “That was not only pleasing in this area of public policy but refreshing.”

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