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Informants: Stronger bath salts strain surfaces in Maine

Posted Jan. 12, 2013, at 12:34 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 13, 2013, at 10:59 a.m.

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Sgt. Paul Edwards of the Bangor Police Department discusses the status of bath salts in the community.
Linda Coan O'Kresik
Sgt. Paul Edwards of the Bangor Police Department discusses the status of bath salts in the community.

There is a new strain of bath salts selling on the streets in Maine that is killing users and causing others to act in bizarre ways, according to police and hospital officials.

Alpha-PVP, a derivative of one of the two bath salts strains that surfaced in Maine in 2011, is behind a recent increase in police calls in the state’s hardest-hit regions, law enforcement officials say.

Click here to see a graph of bath salt overdoses as reported to the New England Poison Center.

“That is primarily what is being seen in all of the three big bath salts areas — the midcoast, Bangor and Aroostook County,” Darrell Crandall, the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency’s Division II commander, who covers from Kennebec and Somerset counties north, said Friday.

When Alpha-PVP first arrived in Bangor in August it had a deadly effect on users, police Lt. Tom Reagan said Friday.

“We had a string of excited delirium and agitation [among users] and two overdose deaths,” the lieutenant said.

Bangor users opened their drug packages expecting mephedrone or MDPV and instead found Alpha-PVP, a derivative of MDPV and pyrovalerone, Reagan said.

“It’s not the batch you got the last time,” Bangor police Sgt. Paul Edwards said this week, warning bath salts users about the deadly bath salts strain.

“The problem is you don’t know what is in that bag,” Reagan said of the powdery crystal, which looks like cocaine. “There is no quality control.”

“You’re just basically choosing death because you never know what’s in it,” Edwards said.

While Alpha-PVP is derived from MDPV, which along with mephedrone emerged for the first time in Maine on the streets of Bangor and Rockland in early 2011, “it’s a different substance altogether,” Rockland police Sgt. Don Finnegan said Friday.

“It’s another stimulant that is producing the delusional effects,” Finnegan said, adding his department has responded to “hundreds upon hundreds” of bath salts-related incidents in the last year.

Alpha-PVP arrived in Rockland around September. Within the last two weeks, users of the drug have jumped out second-story windows and into Rockland Harbor and violently fought with responding officers, said Jim Pease, special agent supervisor for the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency’s midcoast regional task force, which serves Waldo, Knox, Lincoln and Sagadahoc counties. One man told police he believes spies have installed hinges in his walls to gain access to him while he sleeps.

“We’re starting to see bizarre behaviors again,” Pease said Friday.

The newest version of bath salts to arrive in Maine has been linked to a May 2012 slaying in Missouri, where a father of three is awaiting trial for allegedly shooting to death his 20-year-old son after taking Alpha-PVP.

“The informants, the people talking to us, are saying it seems to be stronger, more potent than what was available before,” Ken Pike, MDEA’s Division I commander, who covers southern Maine, said Friday.

Bath salts already have a stronghold in Bangor, Rockland and three communities in Aroostook County — Presque Isle, Mars Hill and Caribou, Crandall said.

Reports of bath salts use now are showing up “here and there in York County and Augusta,” Pike said.

The street cost of the drug has jumped from $30 for a gram to between $30 and $40 for one-tenth of a gram, the MDEA commander said.

“It’s more expensive than cocaine but they continue to buy it,” Pike said. “They like it.”

Those arrested are “all over the books,” Pease said.

“We’ve arrested 19-year-olds and guys in their 40s,” he said. “All the people have a knowledge of using drugs.”

They are “longtime chronic users” of illegal drugs and alcohol, Dr. Jonnathan Busko, an emergency room doctor at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, said Friday.

“They have previously used other drugs and have transitioned to bath salts,” he said. “It’s not new [drug] users.”

Many users of bath salts also have mental health problems, Busko said.

EMMC helped developed bath salts protocols that are used all over the country, the emergency room doctor said, adding that the hospital continues to be contacted for advice.

It was mid-April 2012 when Alpha-PVP first arrived in the Bangor area, he said.

The hospital was seeing out-of-control bath salts patients on a regular basis in 2011 and three people died while under the influence of the drug, Busko said. Users of Alpha-PVP are less volatile but are still dangerous, he said.

“We’re still seeing bath salts patients. It’s between one and three a week,” Busko said. “What we’re seeing is patients who are a lot less violent than before. They’re still agitated … but we’re not seeing that explosive violence.”

The number of people in Maine who have died as a result of bath salts consumption in the last two years was not immediately available from the state medical examiner’s office.

Penobscot County, which in 2011 accounted for 47, or about 32 percent, of the state’s 150 bath salts poisonings — or overdoses — saw the biggest drop in numbers in 2012, while Aroostook, Cumberland and York counties all saw increases, according to the Northern New England Poison Control Center in Portland.

York and Penobscot counties each had 12 overdoses in 2012 and Cumberland County had 13, eight more than in 2011. There was only one bath salts overdose in Maine in 2010.

The overdose figures for Cumberland County surprised Sheriff Kevin Joyce, who said Friday that the southern Maine region has thus far seen little of the drug.

“We’ve had seven complaints [involving bath salts] in the last two years, five in 2011 and two in 2012,” he said Friday, adding that bath salts use in those cases has “never been confirmed.”

Joyce said he and other law enforcement officials in his region are preparing by educating themselves about the synthetic drug and its effect on users.

“I want to knock on wood as I’m saying this — We haven’t had the challenges that Bangor has,” York County Deputy Chief William King Jr. said Friday. “We’ve had maybe a couple of incidents that are bath salts-related.”

Even with so few calls, the department is preparing itself for the possibility of the drug’s arrival by educating deputies and had Reagan come from Bangor to give a presentation, King said.

Bath salts — called “monkey dust” in Bangor and “Rave-on” in Rockland — have caused agitation, hallucinations, paranoia and even psychotic episodes in users.

Use of synthetic drug by people in the Bangor region spread like wildfire in mid- to late-2011 — with police responding daily to between one and three bath salts-related incidents, Edwards said this week.

A large amount of public education about the street drug, as well as state and federal laws passed in late 2011 banning it, slowed access to the drug but did not stop its influx, the sergeant said.

“We’re back to dealing with bath salts basically every day,” Edwards said. “It’s still out there and it’s still dangerous.”

Bangor responded to 463 bath salts-related incidents in 2011 and 382 in 2012, the sergeant said.

Deputies with Penobscot County Sheriff’s Office and corrections officers at the Penobscot County Jail were kept busy in 2012 with the illegal hallucinogenic, Sheriff Glenn Ross said this week.

“We had 43 arrested for the offense of bath salts and 13 refusals [at the jail] because they were under the influence of bath salts to the point they needed medical attention,” he said.

“Officers have to deal with the violence associated with it, certainly, and we’re dealing with crimes associated with it,” Ross added. “We’re seeing right now an awful lot of homes burglarized in the region, jewelry thefts and those type of crimes. All of those are hard-core drug-related.”

“Like any drug, they’re supporting their habit by trafficking in it and peddling it and [committing] other crimes — burglary, theft — [to pay for it],” Finnegan said. “Very few of the people using bath salts are employed.”

Several high-profile crimes in Bangor last year — including two deadly stabbings, one on First Street on May 22 and one on Elm Street on Dec. 29 — have been linked to bath salts, according to previous Bangor Daily News stories.

“If you try it, it could kill you, and if it doesn’t, you will never be the same person again,” Edwards said.

The pregnant wife of the man mortally stabbed to death on Elm Street at the end of December said her husband had only been using monkey dust for six days and was already addicted.

Maine health officials in December also issued a warning to users of synthetic bath salts about a serious bacterial illnesses among those who inject the drug that, at its worst, can lead to exposure to much-feared flesh-eating bacteria. At that time, four patients had been sickened by the germ.

The stories of bath salts users gnawing on their own wrists to get invisible bugs burrowing under their skin, others screaming in terror and hiding with weapons to defend against unseen attackers and other horrifying testimonies from bath salts users don’t seem to be having an effect on others who are interested in trying the drug, said Pease.

“Everyone on bath salts says, ‘It’s the worst thing’ and ‘I wish I never started it,’” the drug agent said.

Then those same people are found using the very next day, he said. “It shows you how powerful this drug is.”

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