BANGOR, Maine — School leaders across the state are educating themselves about the dangers of the lab-made drug bath salts, a synthetic stimulant that has taken Maine by storm this year.
Education, they say, is key to stopping students from even trying the drug, which has caused some users to become extremely paranoid, irrational and sometimes suicidal. It has been linked to more than one death in the state.
Bangor Police Chief Ron Gastia said Thursday that whenever drug problems occur with adults, it’s only a matter of time before experimenting youths follow suit, a sentiment echoed by Portland Superintendent of Schools Jim Morse Sr.
“Schools are microcosms, so we’d be delusional to expect anything less,” Morse said Friday.
For an unknown reason, the eye of the bath salts storm is over Bangor — with a large number of the state’s bath salts incidents occurring in or around the Queen City since February.
Bangor-area police have dealt with numerous people who believed others were out to kill them, a man who attempted to grab an officer’s gun, a woman with a knife who followed a couple in downtown Bangor and a man who attempted suicide by cop — all after consuming the dangerous drug.
Bath salts are a dangerous synthetic stimulant that looks like cocaine and has similar effects but also can cause hallucinations, convulsions and psychotic episodes. Users of the drug also experience increased heart rates, agitation, anxiety, a diminished requirement for sleep and lack of appetite, local police and doctors have said.
The drug, which still can be ordered online in some states, became illegal in Maine in July. It usually contains mephedrone or methylenedioxypyrovalerone, known as MDPV, which soon will be outlawed by the federal government. The Legislature also is working to stiffen bath salts penalties.
“When this substance was beginning to show up on the streets last spring, we wanted to be trained on the identification — what the substance looks like, what are the names of the substance — what the substance does to the body and what to do if we come into contact with someone on this substance,” Bangor Schools Superintendent Betsy Webb said Friday.
Teachers and administrators in Bangor already have been through three bath salts training sessions given by Bangor police Lt. Tom Reagan, the department’s drug expert, and the curriculum has been changed to educate students, she said.
“Health and science classes throughout the middle school and high school [now feature] lessons on the dangers of bath salts,” Webb said.
Pupils in the lower grade levels are being taught how to say no to drugs and not to pick up things and put them in their mouths, she said. The children also are urged to let adults know when they feel there is a problem, she added.
“A common theme K-through-12 is about making good choices,” Webb said.
Other schools across Maine are following in Bangor’s footsteps, thanks in part to Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen’s health alert in mid-August “asking school administrators, nurses, teachers, and others to become aware of the dangers and symptoms of bath salts.”
Hampden Academy and the school district in Presque Isle are two others that already have worked bath salts into their curriculums, and the Calais and Lewiston school systems have held training sessions for teachers.
“We’re well aware of the situation and we have sent a letter home to every parent in the school district … defining what it is and the danger,” SAD 1 Superintendent Gehrig Johnson said Friday of bath salts. SAD 1 includes the communities of Castle Hill, Chapman, Mapleton, Presque Isle and Westfield.
A community forum also was held recently at the Presque Isle Middle School to educate the general public about bath salts. The police chief, hospital staff members, and city and school officials were on the panel, Johnson said.
Even before the bath salts epidemic, the Portland school district’s curriculum stressed saying no to drugs and encouraged negative peer pressure, according to Morse.
“Bath salts fits into that,” Morse said.
Users mostly snort the drug, but it also can be smoked, eaten or injected. It is not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration because it is not marketed for human consumption, and just like the methamphetamines they are designed to mimic, bath salts produce cravings that are very strong, Gastia said.
“They start to use those for the same reason they use any drug: They want to get a high,” the Bangor chief said. They continue to use it because “it has very addictive qualities.”
The good news for school departments is that, so far, the average statewide age of users is about 35, according to the New England Poison Control Center in Portland. The bad news, however, is the average is dropping, said director Karen Simone, a toxicologist.
“It started out being much older people [using], but we have to be concerned because anytime anything is in the community, it reaches down to younger ages,” she said. “I would hate to see this get into schools. It’s bad.”
The number of people calling poison control centers around the country after consuming bath salts has more than doubled in the last year. In 2009, there were no reported cases in the United States.
The first bath salts poisoning in Maine occurred in 2010, but this year the number already has reached 120, Simone said. Half of the reported poisonings fall into the 20-29 age group and the youngest user was an 18-year-old male. But a 3-year-old boy also was poisoned when he got into his parents’ stash, Simone said.
Gastia said that “we’re primarily seeing people using who already were drug users.”
Using the drug is not a victimless crime, he said. “These drugs are a danger to everyone.”
While there are no reports of students in the state using bath salts, that doesn’t mean the drug hasn’t reached schools. A man who may have been on the drug was on the campus of Bangor’s Downeast School this week acting strangely before school started and a note was sent home to parents on Friday.
“We called for assistance and the person was escorted off the property,” Webb said.
The side effects of the drug are so scary that Webb said the best thing people can do is educate themselves. She had a message for students and for their parents.
“Please talk to your children about the dangers of this substance and if you need assistance call the school and we’ll help,” she said to parents. “It’s so important to talk about it.”
Her message to students was for them to do homework.
“This is not something you want to become part of — it will absolutely ruin you body and your life,” Webb said. “If you’re even contemplating it, do the research and you’ll see it’s not worth it.”