ORONO, Maine — Bangor’s struggle to contain the spread of bath salts, a powerful synthetic drug that has sparked a crisis over the summer, has University of Maine officials and campus and Orono police worried about the coming semester.
“This is very scary stuff,” said UMaine Police Chief Roland LaCroix. “It’s unpredictable and hugely dangerous.”
In less than two weeks, about 12,000 students will arrive at the university for the first day of the fall semester. University officials and police in surrounding communities fear that bath salts, which became illegal in Maine in July, might come with some of them.
The university’s strategy is to prevent the drugs from even showing up on campus — and come down hard on anyone who might try to bring them.
“There’s no breach in our walls,” said Robert Dana, vice president of student affairs and dean of students, “and we’ll be pushing back hard.”
Campus officials have been monitoring Bangor’s battle with the substance, and the school’s Alcohol and Drug Prevention Programs will lead an education and prevention effort to be sure students know the dangers of the drug.
When ingested, injected or smoked, bath salts induce manic behavior, delusions, paranoia, hallucinations, hyperactivity, nightmares, violence and suicidal depression. The high has been compared to that of cocaine.
The university will be especially vocal about its zero-tolerance drug policy this year, Dana said.
If students are caught with bath salts or caught dealing the substance, “I would move immediately to expel them from the university and remove them from this community,” he said.
The hope is that this sort of punishment won’t be needed because the drug won’t reach campus, said Alcohol and Drug Prevention Programs director Lauri Sidelko.
“We will not tolerate this here,” she said.
Educating students about drugs and alcohol in general will be the focus of her group throughout the school year, especially in the early months of the semester, Sidelko said.
Resident assistants and directors at dorms will learn the signs of bath salts use and how to respond. University staff will visit first-year student classes, dorms, fraternities and sororities, sports teams and other groups on campus to warn about the drug’s ill effects. Posters tacked up across the university will direct students on whom to call and what to do if they encounter bath salts. University councilors will offer help to students who have used bath salts or who know a user.
“The drug in and of itself is something of huge concern,” Sidelko said. “We should be prepared for it, but it hopefully won’t be an issue because [the university] population isn’t typical of users of these types of drugs.”
The message to students if they cross paths with someone who is under the influence of bath salts: “Don’t get involved. Don’t approach. Don’t be confrontational. Call 911,” Sidelko said.
Police officers on campus and in Orono and Old Town are gauging how to handle bath salts users in case the drug does reach campus.
LaCroix said he plans to meet with Bangor Police Chief Ron Gastia to “learn more about what they’ve been dealing with,” he said.
Officers are doing research and receiving training about the drug, its effects and how to handle individuals who are under the influence.
“These people can demonstrate extreme behavior, and our officers have to be cautious,” LaCroix said.
On Sunday, a man on bath salts was arrested in Bangor and later tried to take an officer’s gun during a scuffle at Eastern Maine Medical Center. The man, who in June also was the first person in Maine to be charged with operating under the influence after using bath salts, was Tasered twice on Sunday as police struggled to subdue him on a Bangor street and later at the hospital.
That sort of combativeness and aggression from users is what most worries officers who might encounter the drug, said Orono police Sgt. Scott Scripture.
“It’s a real scary thing,” Scripture said. “This is such a different type of drug.”
Bath salts users present a difficult problem for law enforcement and hospitals alike, he said — neither one can handle them. Hospitals often don’t have the staff to subdue users if they get out of hand, and jails often can’t provide users the medical and psychological care they need.
LaCroix said he hopes UMaine students will be smart enough to stay away from the synthetic drugs.
“Some rogue scientists are creating these things,” LaCroix said.
Students, faculty and officials will have to look out for one another if the university is going to stem a potential bath salts outbreak, according to Dana.
“We’re a close, tight-knit community, and our students will know that this is a dangerous drug,” he said. “There’s no place for these substances at this university.”