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Bath salts epidemic focus of forum at Husson

Kevin Bennett | BDN
Kevin Bennett | BDN
Dr. Anthony Ng, medical director of Acadia Hospital’'s psychiatric emergency services speaks to a packed house at the Gracie Theatre on the Husson University campus on Wednesday, September 14, 2011. Ng was one of four guest speakers at a bath salts forum hosted by Mike Dow (left) and Mike Elliot (center) of the Mike and Mike show on Kiss 94.5 FM.
By Dawn Gagnon, BDN Staff

BANGOR, Maine — The more than 500 people who attended a public forum on the area bath salts epidemic Wednesday night heard disturbing things about the designer drug from four experts who have been battling its effects since this spring.

But they also heard some encouraging things about initiatives those experts say could serve as strong deterrents to bath salts users and traffickers.

Issues surrounding the drug, including some of the physical, mental and legal aspects, were the focus of a public forum Wednesday night that more than filled Husson University’s 500-seat Gracie Theatre, forcing some attendees to stand or sit on the floor.

Panelists were Bangor Police Chief Ron Gastia and Bangor police Lt. Tom Reagan, a drug recognition expert who has conducted training throughout Maine; Dr. Anthony T. Ng, medical director of psychiatric emergency services at The Acadia Hospital in Bangor; and Dr. Jonnathan Busko, a representative of Eastern Maine Medical Center’s Emergency Department.

During the forum, the panelists painted a disturbing picture of bath salts’ effects. Gastia and Reagan said police have been called out more and more frequently to deal with users they describe as severely agitated, paranoid, anxious and unpredictable.

But an effort is now in the works to toughen state law pertaining to bath salts and to ban its components at the federal level. In Maine, possession now is a civil violation while trafficking is a misdemeanor at most.

And another mechanism kicked in quietly this week: As of Monday, Busko said, Affiliated Labs, which handles much of the region’s drug screenings, has added methylenedioxypyrovalerone, or MDPV, to the list of substances it routinely tests for.

Word that screening for bath salts now is available drew applause from the audience.

Among those in Maine who are subject to drug testing are those who hold special licenses, such as commercial driver and pilot licenses, people enrolled in drug treatment programs, drivers involved in serious or suspicious motor vehicle crashes, and recipients of several types of government benefits.

Bangor was the first community in Maine to be hit by what authorities called a bath salts epidemic. The drugs began to affect the city in a big way around February of this year, Gastia said.

Though the median age of users in Maine has been 35, Gastia and Bangor police officials say that they recently have been seeing incidents involving people as young as 19.

In the short time the drug has been here, the number of serious incidents linked to bath salts not only has grown exponentially, it also is spreading.

In recent months use has spread to other Maine locales including Fairfield, Lincoln and Waterville.

The seriousness of bath salts-related incidents, including deaths linked to the drug and users who have become so agitated and paranoid that they have wielded such weapons as knives and an assault rifle, are becoming increasing alarming to police, medical professionals and the community at large.

Gastia and Reagan said some reasons they believe its use became so widespread were that it is relatively inexpensive compared to some other street drugs, there was no test to screen for it, until recently it was legal, and it was easy to find in stores and over the Internet.

Among the attendees were three area women, none of whom identified herself, who aired their frustration over how difficult it is to get help for loved ones who are abusing the drug.

One of the women said her nephew was pronounced dead in the emergency room of a local hospital three weeks ago. His death occurred after two earlier trips to the hospital for treatment of some of the effects of bath salts. She wanted to know why he wasn’t referred to a facility for detoxification.

The other two were the mother of a young man who has been injecting bath salts and the loved one of another young man experiencing adverse side effects whom police would not arrest, despite the pleas of those who called 911.

Gastia, Ng and Busko all said that police and medical professionals are limited in what they can do when it comes to bath salts users. The conditions and criteria required for arrests and involuntary commitment are narrow, and with the exception of opiates, Maine’s health care network isn’t equipped to handle detoxification for other substances.

The 90-minute forum, organized by Mike Dow and Mike Elliot of the “Mike & Mike” show on Kiss 94.5 FM, drew a varied audience that included concerned parents, high school and college students, educators, law enforcement officials and current and future medical and mental health professionals, to name a few.

The event also included the showing of a two-minute video in which Jesse, a 27-year-old former user now on the road to recovery, told how bath salts wrecked his life in only three weeks.

During the binge, he said, he remained awake for 12 days straight and lost about 40 pounds. He credits his arrest by Bangor police with saving his life.

Known by street names including Monkey Dust, Kryptonite, Ivory Wave, Lunar Wave and Vanilla Sky, bath salts are an illegal hallucinogenic drug that typically contains MDPV, a stimulant that doctors say acts similar to Ecstasy.

It can be fatal or cause physical damage such as increased blood pressure and heart rate, seizures and kidney damage. It also can lead to severe psychosis marked by delusions, pronounced paranoia and hallucinations. Extreme depression and suicidal thoughts also can occur, as can agitation and aggressive behavior.

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