BANGOR, Maine — Police Chief Ron Gastia says he has ordered newly available test kits to help his officers immediately identify the synthetic drug bath salts when they encounter it on the streets.
The test kits should arrive in the next two weeks and will detect mephedrone and methylenedioxypyrovalerone, known as MDPV, two of the common components of the lab-made drug found in the Queen City.
Gastia said he ordered 150 kits to detect MDPV and 30 to detect mephedrone.
A suspected sample is placed in a plastic pouch containing a solution. The test is positive for MDPV if the officer shakes the pouch and the solution turns green or yellow. It is positive for mephedrone if it turns purple.
It was only recently that forensic product companies such as Sirchie in Youngsville, N.C., began making portable bath salts drug test kits that police can use on their patrols.
Before then, officers had to “base their probable cause on signs and symptoms of use, statements from suspects and witnesses, their knowledge of typical drug packaging, and their viewing of the drugs,” Gastia said. In addition, police have had to send samples away for testing, a process that can takes weeks or months.
Bath salts, which look like cocaine, can cause users to become agitated, delusional and paranoid. Bath salts users in the Bangor area have gnawed at their own skin trying to get at invisible bugs, armed themselves with weapons and climbed into ceilings fearing people were after them, according to police.
The drug surfaced in Maine on the streets of Bangor, where it is also called “monkey dust,” earlier this year. It remains a daily problem in the Queen City and use has quickly spread throughout the state, hitting the Rockland area — where it is known as “Rave on” — especially hard in the past couple of months.
Bath salts incidents in Bangor alone have increased from three reports in May to more than 100 in September, even though possession was outlawed in July and penalties were upgraded in September to make possession a misdemeanor and trafficking a felony.
Gastia has said he expects the year-end totals of bath salts calls for Bangor police to exceed 700.
“Presumptive tests will significantly bolster our ability to establish probable cause for charging a suspect with possession and/or trafficking in the substances,” the police chief said. “In some, if not many cases, this will enable us to charge someone at the time that we find the drugs, rather than waiting for a lab test of the substance, which will hopefully reduce the availability of the drugs by expediting arrests and obtaining bail conditions.”
Messages left with Sirchie officials to find out which other communities in the United States are ordering the bath salts test kits were not returned Friday.
Both of the bath salts components the new tests can detect, as well as methylone, were outlawed by the federal government in October.
A U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration ban will be in effect for at least one year while the DEA and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services study whether these chemicals should be permanently controlled.
While the agencies study the drugs, Congress is working to permanently ban mephedrone and MDPV.
Bangor police have other presumptive tests that officers use on the streets to detect cocaine, heroin, LSD and other drugs, Gastia said.
“These tests are only a tool to help establish probable cause,” the police chief said. “Lab tests will still need to be performed prior to prosecution.”
Bangor police have a zero tolerance policy regarding bath salts, so “if you’ve got the stuff, you’re going to jail,” Bangor police Lt. Tom Reagan has said.