Symposium: 'Bath salts,' meth, pose new, deadly threats

ATHENS -- With flowery packaging and pastoral names like "Ivory Wave," "Bliss," "Red Dove," and "Vanilla Sky," a new designer drug sold as "bath salts" has gained popularity across America, evidence shows. But the soothing marketing behind the drug belies its sometimes horrific effects on the human psyche.

Experts on the front lines of America's drug war highlighted the dangers of bath salts and the tricky innovations of methamphetamine cookers during a Tuesday symposium at the University of Georgia, a program replete with simulated meth labs and gory photos depicting the underbelly of the country's low-level drug trade.

As for bath salts, the effects of ingesting the pellet-like, often brightly colored product feels like a "speedy high" combination of cocaine and ecstasy, but can cause extreme aggression, homicidal hallucinations and suicidal tendencies, said Robert Evans, Field Intelligence Manager with the Drug Enforcement Administration's Atlanta Field Division.

Traces of the drug have been found at ghastly murder scenes from New Jersey to Washington state.

First documented a few years ago in Britain's club scene, bath salts can be snorted, smoked, injected, even eaten. Packaged overseas, it's sold online and everywhere from truck stops to herbal shops, with packets available for as little as $20, Evans said.

The DEA invoked its "emergency scheduling authority" to thwart the importation of the drug last month, in hopes of an eventual federal ban. Bath salts are banned in 33 states, including Georgia and most of its Southeastern neighbors.

"This isn't like Epsom salts you put in your bath," Evans told conference attendees. He cited poison center data that showed a skyrocketing number of national cases since March last year. "It's a truly alarming trend if this continues."

Gwinnett police spokesman Cpl. Edwin Ritter said he wasn't privy to any local cases involving medical emergencies or other incidents related to bath salts -- at least not yet.

"I'd say it's a matter of time for us," he said.

The one-day conference, a collaboration between the DEA and UGA's College of Pharmacy, brought judges, teachers, cops, healthcare workers and others under the same auditorium roof to hash out the societal costs of illicit drug use and the details of under-the-radar substances. It's a precursor to Red Ribbon Week in Georgia, the nation's oldest and largest drug prevention program.

Earlier topics centered on a drug more familiar to Gwinnettians -- methamphetamine.

Frank Ledford, a Chattanooga-based DEA special agent, said the hot trend among meth users in metro Atlanta is the "shake and bake" method, which can produce the powerful stimulant with little more than a few pills of Sudafed, some lantern fuel, lithium strips from batteries, lawn fertilizer and three plastic bottles. The contraptions have all but supplanted the clunkier, mobile meth labs of yesteryear, Ledford said.

"We're finding most of our shake and bake labs on the side of the road -- where they've thrown it out the window," he said.

Ledford spotlighted a more alarming trend -- the increasing audacity of meth cookers who are parents. To illustrate his point, Ledford projected a photo of a dead 5-year-old boy, his face burned away by meth vapors.

The boys' parents had been cooking drugs in his bedroom, Ledford said.

"We get kids -- zombies -- whose brain cells are gone because of these vapors," Ledford said. "It seems like every lab lately, there's kids involved."

Gwinnett authorities blamed a meth-lab explosion in a February fire that killed three children in Lilburn, ages 1, 3 and 4. Their mother and her cousin are charged with murder. Authorities reportedly pulled 10 pounds of meth and $200,000 from the house.