On March 24, John Eremus, 46, of Nesquehoning, armed with a high-powered rifle and allegedly hallucinating from the effects of a synthetic stimulant commonly known as "bath salts," held police at bay for two hours before surrendering.
On March 9, Ryan Foley, 25, of West Scranton, suffering from paranoia after ingesting bath salts, allegedly broke into a monastery and assaulted a priest, stabbing him in the hand and the face.
On Feb. 27, 31-year-old Seth Thomas Sanders of Elizabethtown, after inhaling bath salts, became convinced his car was melting and that electricity was chasing him. He allegedly broke into an East Hanover Township home and damaged a marked state police cruiser in his terror.
All three men blamed their actions on the ingestion of bath salts, a currently legal drug that mimics the effects of cocaine and methamphetamine.
These bath salts are not the sweet-scented bath beads one can buy at well-known chain stores. They have no connection at all with Epsom Salts or other skin-softening products.
"Designer drugs like these are created specifically to get around existing drug laws, as in the case of the cannabis substitute Spice, sold as an exotic incense blend. Bath salts are the latest target for this type of exploitation," Jay Ansell of the Personal Care Products Council, which represents the cosmetics and personal care industry, said in a Jan. 27 press release.
"It is unfortunate that recent news reports are confusing the sale of illicit drugs with fake names and the actual bath salts that are safely used and enjoyed by consumers worldwide. Like all personal care products, authentic bath salts should be used only as directed," Ansell said. The "bath salts" being used to get high come in small jars labeled with ironically languid-sounding names – Tranquility, Vanilla Sky, Blue Silk, Ivory Wave. They began filtering into the United States last year from Europe, where they gained popularity as a party drug, and are now turning up on the counters of gas stations, smoke shops, tattoo parlors, and truck stops, often displayed next to rolling papers, "energy" drinks in tiny cans and "relaxation brownies." They are also sold over the Internet.
On March 25, the TIMES NEWS purchased a jar of "Tranquility" bath salts for $40 cash from a Nesquehoning gas station. The jar, about the size of a lip gloss container, held 500 milligrams of the stimulant, about a scant half-teaspoon. The bath salts were not on display; the purchase made by asking a cashier for the product.
Known as "legal cocaine" and "complete crank," the white, powdery bath salts, if inhaled, injected, smoked or eaten, can cause hallucinations, paranoia, surging blood pressure and violent behavior.
Sellers often use words like "euphoria" and "energizing" to describe the effects of "bathing" with the substance. But the sellers are also careful to avoid prosecution by including the words "Not for human consumption" in the ads.
Pennsylvania poised to ban bath salts as early as Monday
State lawmakers on Monday expect to consider including bath salts on the list of controlled substances. The law would go into effect 60 days after it is passed.
"As we witness very serious and tragic events, the popularity of 'bath salts' to be used as a drug is growing, especially in our area. With five states already banning 'bath salts,' I am introducing legislation to make Pennsylvania the sixth state to ban this abused substance. It is my hope that we continue to shed light on this issue to inform those who might not know the dangers of this over-the-counter product," said state Sen. David G. Argall, R-Schuylkill.
Bath salts, which include the stimulants 3,4-Methylenedioxypyrovalerone, or MDPV, and mephedrone, are legal, but not for long. U.S. Senator Charles Schumer, New York, has introduced legislation that would add bath salts to the federal government's list of controlled substances. The federal Drug Enforcement Agency has labeled it a "drug of concern."
"I am deeply concerned about the distribution, sale, and use of synthetic stimulants – especially those that are marketed as legal substances. Although we lack sufficient data to understand exactly how prevalent the use of these stimulants are, we know they pose a serious threat to the health and well-being of young people and anyone who may use them. At a time when drug use in America is increasing, the marketing and sale of these poisons as "bath salts" is both unacceptable and dangerous. As public health officials work to address this emerging threat, I ask that parents and other adult influencers act immediately to discuss with young people the severe harm that can be caused by the use of both legal and illegal drugs and to prevent drug use before it starts," Director of National Drug Control Policy Gil Kerlikowske said in a prepared statement issued Feb. 1.
The stimulant has been made illegal by at least five states, including Florida, Utah, Vermont, Louisiana, Alabama. New Jersey legislators are considering a similar move, and Pennsylvania lawmakers are poised to bar the stuff on Monday.
Three Pennsylvania lawmakers have introduced bills that would make bath salts, along with synthetic marijuana and salvia divinorum, controlled substances in the state.
State Rep. Jerry Knowles, R-Schuylkill/Berks, co-sponsored House Bill 567, introduced by state Rep. Jerry Stern, R-Blair County and House Bill 176, introduced by state Rep. Jennifer Mann, D-Lehigh. He has recently added his name to House Bill 365, introduced by state Rep. RoseMarie Swanger, R-Lebanon.
"I think it's important that it be on the fast track. Discussions I've had with law enforcement indicates that this is a real serious problem, and one that needs to be addressed as soon as possible," Knowles said. "We need to be on top of it and get the situation corrected."
House Chair Ron Marsico, R-Lower Paxton, who is Majority Chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said all three bills to make bath salts, salvia and synthetic marijuana controlled substances in the state, were passed by the House on Feb. 15.
"This is a disturbing new trend where individuals are purchasing bath salts as a replacement for cocaine. They have the same effect as smoking, snorting or injecting cocaine. These bath salts should be outlawed," he said.
"We continue to fight the war on drugs. We need to have penalties for those who sell and those who use," Marsico said. "I've been a longtime advocate for tougher penalties for drug dealers. We need to prosecute and give tougher penalties to those thugs who are poisoning our kids. We hope the Senate acts on these bills quickly."
A recent police report in the Patriot-News of Harrisburg drives home Marsico's point: At least two of three Lower Paxton Township teenagers who were cited with disorderly conduct while at the Colonial Park Mall had been smoking synthetic marijuana. Until the federal and state legislation goes into effect, anyone, regardless of age, is free to buy bath salts, synthetic marijuana or salvia divinorum.
That's worrisome, said Carbon County District Attorney Gary Dobias.
"It's a problem not only in our area but other areas. Some of the adverse affects are delusions, paranoia and panic attacks. As of right now, it's not illegal. It seems young people particularly are being harmed by its use. At this point, they can't be charged for possessing an illegal substance, but they can be charged for any acts committed under its influence," he said.
However, there could be repercussions for a person who is on probation or parole and is caught with any of the substances, he said.
"If there are specific provisions in their probation or parole plan, that would be a problem for them. But possession as of now is not illegal per se," Dobias said.
Bath salts have also been banned in Germany, Australia and Finland.
Police and hospitals are dealing with the consequences of bath salts highs
Debbie Neff, Nurse Director of the Blue Mountain Health System's emergency department, recently saw five people in six days come into to the emergency room at the Gnaden Huetten campus of Blue Mountain Health System suffering the effects of bath salts ingestion.
The people, who admitted to inhaling or smoking the substance, ranged in age from their 20s to middle age, Neff said.
"We're seeing them very paranoid, very delusional, hallucinating, rapid heart rate," she said. The people who came to the emergency room were "out of control, violent, paranoid. "It's very, very scary. It's scary to see, it's scary for the staff, because you feel endangered." Neff said. Each person was brought in by ambulance after another person called for help.
Neff described the experiences of the people as "almost like a schizophrenic break and paranoia. They hear these voices and they see these things and think somebody is out to get them, so they are just lashing out."
The rage and terror induced by the drug is compounded by the host of physical reactions: skyrocketing blood pressure, elevated heart rate, which stresses the heart. "They could have seizures, they could have tremors. It's very, very scary to see. I wish they would be able to see themselves after the fact," she said.
The affects last for about 4-6 hours. "There is no medication you can give to reverse that," Neff said. "The only thing you can do is treat the symptoms." That may include medications to lower blood pressure, slow down the heart, or prevent seizures.
The person may have to have a staff person stay with them if nurses believe he would hurt himself or someone else. "It takes up a lot of resources to care for these people," Neff said.
She said staff began hearing about bath salts last month. Patients had come into the emergency room with symptoms staff now recognize as the affects of the substance. At this point, routine hospital blood testing does not detect bath salts.
"We still don't know what the lasting effects are of doing this drug," Neff said.
The use of bath salts is clearly increasing.
In 2010, the American Association of Poison Control Centers' National Poison Data System logged 292 calls poison centers about bath salt products. As of Feb. 14, the centers had reported 469 calls.
Bath salts don't only endanger users
The incident involving Eremus showed what the stimulant can do.
Police Chief Sean Smith said that as he was dispatched at about 7:30 the morning of March 24 to talk with Eremus at Eremus' apartment at 209 E. Catawissa Street on a drug complaint.
It turned out to be the borough's first bath salts incident.
"He explained to me that he wanted to report a drug violation," Smith said. "He hands me three empty glass jars that say Locomotion, bath salts. He tells me he was buying these bath salts for $40 a jar and using them for the last three days. He told me because he was in the hospital because his heart racing – beating through his chest. He couldn't breathe. He was in the hospital for five hours that morning because of using the salts, and he was starting to see things."
"At 10:55 a.m., police were called by a Daniel Yurchak that his friend, Eremus, was acting strangely," according to an affidavit of probable cause filed with District Judge Casimir Kosciolek of Lansford. Yurchak told police Eremus "is seeing things and thinks someone is in his apartment, trying to harm him."
Yurchak told police Eremus had kicked his back door the night before, thinking that someone was after him. Eremus, Yurchak said, was hanging out of his windows every two minutes, screaming, and that he was armed.
Smith and Officer O'Brien requested back-up from Jim Thorpe police, closed down Route 209 (Catawissa Street) between Allen and School streets and alerted the nearby Panther Valley Elementary School, which officials immediately put on lock down.
Eremus would not answer his cell phone, and when Smith saw him pop his head out of the windows and that he had a rifle, called state police at Lehighton and the state police Community Emergency Response Team.
After Eremus surrendered, police found a rifle, a BB gun, a .22 pistol, a water bong with burnt resin, a bowl, and a bag of pink pills stamped "S," all in plain view in his apartment.
According to the affidavit, Eremus told Smith he had bought the bath salts on March 18 at the Solo gas station in the borough.
"Eremus advised he purchased Locomotion because (store owner) Asad (Bhwaja) advised it is like doing 'PCP'. He was trying to say it was PCP. I explained it was not PCP," Smith said.
PCP, or Phencyclidine, is a drug developed in the 1950s as an anesthetic. It was never used on humans because it caused extreme agitation and hallucinations.
On Friday, March 25, police arrested Eremus, charging him with obstruction administration of law or other governmental functions, terroristic threats, two counts of persistent disorderly conduct, unlawful possession of a controlled substance (a prescription medication not prescribed for Eremus), unlawful possession of drug paraphernalia and one count of harassment.
Eremus was arraigned before Kosciolek and jailed under $50,000 straight cash bail.
Smith said he spoke with a cashier at Solo on March 24 about the impact of the bath salts. He then contacted borough solicitor Robert T. Yurchak. Smith said Yurchak would talk with council about an ordinance governing the substance.
In neighboring Lansford, Officer Brian Horos on Friday morning said police had not seen much of bath salts. All that changed a few hours later, when they received their first call about a man who was high on bath salts.
"He was actually cooperative with police and medical personnel," said Officer Chris Ondrus.
"Although this might have been the first call the department handled, I'm sure it has been occurring for some time," he said. "Look for this to be a growing problem throughout the area."
In light of the sudden popularity of bath salts and the other legal drugs, "Law enforcement agencies are hoping (the legislation) will be acted upon quickly. But its taking some time, and that's frustrating," Carbon District Attorney Dobias said.
Tamaqua Police Chief Dave Mattson can vouch for the urgent need for restrictions, saying that communities are "scrambling to get something on the books."
"Towns and boroughs have to have some sort of control over this. People can get killed," he said. "We haven't had a problem (in Tamaqua) yet. I think most of our shop owners are responsible."
Worried that state lawmakers will move slowly, Mattson has talked with borough council about an ordinance.
"If the state acts in a timely manner," he said, "the communities won't have to."