BELFAST, Maine — Less than an hour south of Belfast, a Knox County woman yanked out her fingernails with pliers because she thought they were ticks.
An hour north in Bangor, police and medical officials have been grappling for the last several months with escalating numbers of people with signs of paranoia, hallucinations, convulsions and psychotic behaviors, including one man who reportedly locked himself in a cabinet for four days.
Officials blame it on “bath salts,” the recently banned, synthetic hallucinogenic drug that was first reported in the state in February and has risen to what police are calling epidemic levels in some jurisdictions.
That’s why Kim Spectre, emergency department nurse manager at Waldo County General Hospital, is working to get ready for what she believes will soon become a larger problem in Waldo County.
“We are on the front lines, for sure,” she said Thursday. “Given what’s being seen in Bangor and Rockland, it’s definitely making us want to prepare.”
In July, Gov. Paul LePage signed an emergency measure banning the group of synthetic hallucinogens marketed as “bath salts,” which Maine Public Safety Commissioner John Morris said are among the most dangerous drugs he has seen.
The drugs often are individually packaged in small plastic bags and contain synthetic chemicals which block neurotransmitters in the brain and can stop it from making dopamine, which controls the brain’s reward and pleasure centers.
Spectre said that while she has heard PenBay Medical Center in Rockport has had one or two patients each day who have overdosed on the drug, so far Waldo County General Hospital has avoided the same level of problems. Hospital staffers believe they have had a couple of “pretty confirmed” cases, including a man who came in three weeks ago who was being very difficult and did not make sense. The police were called for help in that incident, she said, adding that it is very hard to test for bath salts, as it is not detectable in urine.
Symptoms of overdoses on the drug include a fast heart rate, breathing problems and delusions, she said, and users can be very dangerous to medical personnel.
Pen Bay Healthcare, in collaboration with the Rockland Police Department, recently developed a safety plan that outlines actions to keep staff and other patients safe from disruptive patients.
Waldo County General Hospital staff soon will hear a presentation on bath salts from Sgt. James Greeley of the Waldo County Sheriff’s Office, who is a drug recognition technician.
Sheriff Scott Story said that at this point, he is working to make sure his officers are educated about the drug.
“We’re just not seeing it at the same epidemic levels that other jurisdictions are,” he said of bath salts in Waldo County. “That doesn’t mean it’s not here.”