Friday, Jan. 18, Penobscot County was scarred by bath salts. That day, the synthetic drug was found, police said, for the first time on the University of Maine campus. Also that day, Penobscot County Sheriff’s Office deputies, conducting a bail check at a home in Hermon, arrested four people allegedly found divvying up bath salts with an estimated street value of more than $1 million.
Health, education and law enforcement agencies in the Bangor area have done a lot of good work to address bath salts in the last couple of years. They have urged legislation, disseminated important information, fought the problem on the streets and guided national awareness efforts. But the problem persists because it’s not just defined by the drug; it’s complicated by deeper societal dilemmas.
Use of bath salts is indicative of a larger problem: The drug, which can lead to severe paranoia, seizures, increased heart rate, hallucinations and death, is most often used by people who have an underlying history of substance abuse. So preventing addiction and drug use in general should be part of the response, said Shawn Yardley, director of Bangor Health and Community Services.
Too often, substance abuse later in life stems from a mental illness or emotional problem that could have been addressed sooner. So prevention should start early.
Such efforts should include educational programs in schools that discuss the effects of drugs, but they must include much more. Many of the appropriate preventative responses involve supporting ways to strengthen the financial, emotional and behavioral health of families and children, such as through educational programs for pregnant women and new parents, and access to quality child care. They include training teachers and preschool workers to spot warning signs, as well as expanding options for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault.
On the other end of prevention is intervention. To stop people from risking their lives, and the lives of others, by using bath salts or other drugs, those around them must inform police. That’s how the nonstudent at the University of Maine was caught with bath salts: because students smelled burning marijuana and called campus police, who said they found more than marijuana in a dorm room in Androscoggin Hall. The student bystanders likely prevented the spread of a dangerous substance on their campus.
Which leads to another essential component of intervention: police and first responders. Thank and support them for the work they do.
In 2011, rescuers had to rappel down a cliff to pull a naked Clinton woman, believed to be on bath salts, out of a sewer pipe above the Kennebec River in Waterville. Police in Ellsworth found a woman on bath salts who thought she was a grizzly bear. In Bangor, police found a half-dressed man bleeding at the wrists; he said he had insects under his skin and proceeded to gnaw on his bloody wrists to try to get at them.
The spread of people using bath salts — who can be aggressive and show surges of strength — has changed police work and brought more uncertainty to dangerous situations. It’s now common practice for more than one officer to respond to a complaint that may involve bath salts. Police and medical personnel will continue to see circumstances change.
For instance, bath salts used to be cheap, but the new criminal penalties for possession — in addition to the banning some of the components of the drug — appear to have reduced the supply and increased the cost. Law enforcement and other first responders will need continued support and training to tackle the evolving problem.
Just as law enforcement have seen some successes — such as with reportedly finding the cache of bath salts at the Hermon home — it’s important to emphasize that individuals can see improvement, too. All across Maine, people are leading everyday lives while recovering from addiction. They show that recovery is tough but possible and that, as communities’ responses can always improve, individuals’ decisions can also make a vital difference.