BANGOR, Maine — There has been a big change in just who is using the synthetic drug bath salts in Maine nowadays — and parents should be worried, authorities say.

The Northern New England Poison Control Center in Portland collects data concerning bath salts poisonings — or overdoses — and the year-to-date information indicates bath salts users are getting younger and younger.

“Most are in their 20s,” said Dr. Karen Simone, director of the center and a toxicologist.

That is a significant decrease from this past summer, when the average bath salts user’s age was 35 — and most of them were admitted drug users, Simone said.

Bangor Police Chief Ron Gastia warned parents months ago that the lab-made designer drug would filter its way down to the state’s youth. He said illegal drugs used by adults always work their way down to younger users.

LePage takes action

Gov. Paul LePage also is concerned about young Mainers experimenting with the drug, which he said has been “devastating” to Maine communities. He directed Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen to educate teachers about bath salts. Bowen issued a health alert in mid-August to all Maine school leaders.

Of the state’s 152 bath salts overdoses in 2011, 99, or nearly 70 percent, were men, poison control data collected between January and Dec. 20 show, and 75 fell into the 20-to-29 age group.

The data also include bath salts poisonings involving nine teenagers — six boys and three girls — and one 3-year-old boy.

The child’s parents “had a bunch of drink bottles” in the back of their vehicle, at least one that contained bath salts, and “the child picked up a bottle and drank some,” Simone said of that poisoning incident.

When bath salts first came to Maine in early 2011, users could still purchase it legally over the counter and online, Gastia said.

“Initially, we were at a disadvantage, since there were no laws that banned them, and we were only learning how to deal with the users through our experiences,” the police chief said.

Horror stories about those under the influence of bath salts are many, and range from people seeing things that aren’t there to others who cut themselves to remove invisible insects.

“Some just go nuts and get paranoid,” Bangor police Sgt. Paul Edwards said recently while patrolling the streets of Bangor in a cruiser.

Bath salts are a problem all over the country and several users displaying bizarre behavior have been spotlighted in YouTube videos.

Most states, including Maine, have passed laws outlawing the synthetic drug over the last year, and a federal ban put into place in October carries strict penalties.

LePage said Maine’s first law, passed in July, was watered down. He led a charge to strengthen penalties, which legislators enacted in September, making bath salts possession a crime and trafficking a felony.

“When the Legislature did that they demonstrated the seriousness of the bath salts problem here in Maine,” the governor said in an email last week. “Since then, law enforcement has done a good job of educating the public about the dangers of bath salts.

“We must continue to teach our students, parents and public about the negative impacts of the drug and emphasize that if one chooses to abuse the drug, there will be serious consequences,” he said.

Don’t try it, user warns

The deleterious effects of bath salts on users can be very disturbing to see, according to Troy Morton, chief deputy of the Penobscot County Sheriff’s Office. He has been in law enforcement for 22 years and recently went to check on a man whom he has run into several times over the last two decades.

“I was taken back by how bad a condition — both mentally and physically — this person was in,” the veteran officer said recently. “I was scared for this person.”

“With all the things I’ve seen in my career, I can’t believe people are doing this,” Morton said.

Even those who have consumed the hallucinogenic stimulant are warning people to stay away from it. A 43-year-old Bangor man who has spent half of his life in prison for a variety of crimes, including drug trafficking and assaults, agreed to be interviewed recently just so he could warn others.

“You lose control,” he said. “You lose touch with reality.”

The man, who said he has used every drug in the book “in quantity,” asked not to be identified. He said he has been using bath salts for nearly a year and learned the hard way that the drug is nothing to fool around with. He tried snorting and smoking the drug, but it didn’t get him high enough, so he turned to injecting it.

He described it as a massive adrenaline rush that also can “grab your stomach and make you feel like you’re sick.”

“You can feel it go through your body,” he said. “It warms your body and you can feel the warmth surging through your veins with each heartbeat. When it gets to your heart, it feels like it’s exploding. It’s a crazy drug.”

After a 12-day bath salts binge, “I was right off the hook. I was mad. I was a bear. I was growling.”

His body also was shutting down because had not slept for nearly two weeks.

“Your hands are all clenched and clawed and you’re tired but you can’t go to sleep because the drug is so powerful,” he said.

Users of the drug experience an increased heart rate, agitation, anxiety, a diminished requirement for sleep and lack of appetite, local police and doctors have said.

Once a person’s muscles start to break down, the possibility of kidney failure increases, and they also face other health complications, Simone said.

The faces of longtime bath salts users also appear drawn — hence the “Monkey dust” street name for the drug in the Bangor area, said Morton.

“What is unique about this drug is the different stages,” the chief deputy said. “There is the immediate and the returning effects. [Users will] tell you the hallucinations or paranoia will come back days later.”

For that reason, the Penobscot County Jail started requiring that a medical assessment be done on all suspected bath salts users entering the facility. Delusional inmates are taken to Eastern Maine Medical Center until they are medically cleared.

“We want to know” if they have used, Morton said, so jail officials are not surprised if a recurrence — or flashback — occurs.

Flashbacks can happen up to 72 hours after the user last dosed, said Dr. Jonnathan Busko, an EMMC emergency room doctor.

“The jail has become much more aware of the risks” to users, Busko said. In some cases, “eight hours later, they’ll be delirious and have to come back” to the hospital.

After the drug began to surface in Maine, police, emergency personnel and hospital staff “sat in the same room and had discussions we have never had before,” the doctor said. “This is a global problem and only [a comprehensive] approach is going to work.”

Why Bangor?

There is no good answer to the question of why bath salts arrived in Bangor, Gastia and Morton said.

“It’s the million-dollar question,” Morton said. “I think it’s because it was a novelty drug” that “they could use and pass tests — urine tests.”

Also, “It was cheap. It was marketed as cheap, legal cocaine,” he said.

Local law enforcement officers now have test kits to see if people have bath salts on them, but they are still awaiting tests that will tell them if a person has the drug in his system.

Bangor police, who send two officers to bath salts calls whenever possible, have learned from first-hand experience to always be on guard, Edwards said.

“We know how dangerous and unpredictable they are,” he said last week of bath salts users. “You’re always on high alert.”

The news that bath salts users are getting younger is not surprising, but it is disturbing, especially given the amount of information that is known about the drug, Edwards said.

“It’s horrible,” the sergeant said. “I can’t imagine what those who are close to them are going through.”

Shortly after Gastia’s prediction, a container of bath salts was found at Camden Hills Regional High School in October.

Poison center numbers show only one bath salts overdose in Maine during 2010. That number has grown by leaps and bounds, and Penobscot County is leading the pack with 46.

The county-by-county breakdown for 2011 shows Penobscot County with 30 percent of the bath salts poisonings, followed by Knox County with 24, or 16 percent, and Kennebec County with 20, or 13 percent. Cumberland County was the only other county with double digits, with 10 overdoses reported since April.

“Knox and Kennebec are really vying for some attention,” Simone said. But the year-end data indicate that “the peak is over,” she added.

Because there are numerous bath salts concoctions sold, exactly what people get when they buy the drug differs. And with the recent decrease in availability, drug dealers are adding ingredients that decrease the quality, said Morton and the former user from Bangor.

“They’re cutting it with pancake batter, cornstarch,” the former user said. “The quality is not what is was and you never know what you’re getting these days. I would say it’s a lottery, and with the lottery you’re probably going to lose all the time.”

In addition, even though bath salts started as a club drug in Europe in the mid-2000s, there have been no studies published of its long-term effects on users.

“We don’t know what the long-term changes will be,” Busko said. “I know [that] some PCP users, 15 years out, still have severe cognitive problems.”

Morton asked, “If something is causing you to have reactions 72 hours later, what will happen in seven years?”

There is good news for those on bath salts who want to get off, Busko said. Detoxification is not like getting off painkillers or other drugs such as heroin, he said.

“If you stop, you’ll crave it but you won’t be in withdrawal,” Busko said. “The treatment is getting at the underlying reason that drove them to use the bath salts.”

The Acadia Hospital in Bangor has an intensive outpatient program for anyone with a substance abuse problem.

“The first step in dealing with addiction is admitting you have a problem,” Busko said. “The second step is making the call for help, and the third is showing up for appointments.”

Acadia, which has an average of 70 people enrolled in its outpatient program, can be reached by calling 973-6100.