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Authorities discuss strategies at forum on 'bath salts' epidemic


The panel of experts included Onondaga County Health Commissioner Cynthia Morrow MD; clinical toxicologist Alexander Garrard; medical director for the Central New York regional Emergency Medical Services Dan Olsson, an emergency physician at Upstate; and Brad Finn from the Prevention Network. Moderator was Michele Caliva, far left, the administrative director of the Upstate New York Poison Center. Photo by Richard Whelsky.

Emergency medicine physician Dan Olsson and clinical toxicologist Alexander Garrard of Upstate Medical University were among the experts participating in today's Onondaga County Forum on Bath Salts, held at Onondaga Community College.

The forum, held in response to a growing epidemic of synthetic drug use in Central New York, attracted more than 360 people from various community groups and agencies. Authorities reported that use of "bath salts" and other man-made drugs have climbed from 118 reported incidents in 2011 to 288 so far this year -- and those are just the numbers of people who seek medical care.


Onondaga County Health Commissioner Cynthia Morrow MD speaks while Michele Caliva, administrative director of the Poison Center at Upstate, looks on. Photo by Richard Whelsky.

"The scope of the problem is far greater than those numbers. We know that there are a lot more people out there who are using these drugs," said Onondaga County Health Commissioner Cynthia Morrow MD. "It's not going to be one agency that can solve this problem. It's not going to be legislation, necessarily, that can solve this problem.

"Laws can't keep up with the creativity and the technology of people who have mal intent, and that's the people who are creating these drugs. We need to do more to create a situation where we say, 'our community is not going to tolerate this stuff. So even if you make this stuff, we're not going to sell it, and we're not going to buy it, and we're not going to use it.' That's really what this forum is about, getting together as a community to say 'what can we do to change the environment in which people think they can make a profit on these drugs that are hurting our sons, our brothers, our sisters, the mothers of children, sometimes even children?' We need to work together to say 'no, not in our community, not now, not ever.' "

Officials said most of the "bath salts" users in Central New York are in their 20s, 30s and 40s, though they anticipate a growth in usage among younger populations. "Bath salts" is a slang term for a man-made drug that is not made to use in a bath. Similar products are packaged as "pond cleaner" or "plant food." The packages say "not for human consumption" and do not list ingredients -- of which the three most common are mephedrone, MDVP and methylone. Usually the drugs are in powder form, but they also come in capsules. They're sold on line, at head shops, truck stops, convenience stores and on the streets. People snort or smoke the powder, or inject it.

One woman in the audience garnered applause when she suggested head shops should not be permitted to sell drug paraphernalia.


Alexander Garrard is a clinical toxicologist at Upstate, working in the Poison Center. Photo by Richard Whelsky.

Another audience member from a school asked how quickly people feel the effects of bath salts and for how long the symptoms last. Garrard said the high typically lasts about three to four hours, but often what happens is, "people don't want to come down, so they start using more drug, and so they are compounding the effects," he said. That means the high may last seven or eight hours, or even stretch into days.


Dan Olsson DO is medical director for Central New York regional Emergency Medical Services and a physician in Upstate's emergency department. Photo by Richard Whelsky.

Symptoms of bath salts ingestion include agitation, severe paranoia, hallucinations and violent actions, along with dehydration, chest pain, high blood pressure and rapid heart rate, anxiety and muscle cramps. Someone asked whether the agitation would become worse and worse and peak in a person, or if it would stay at the same level in a person. Olsson answered, "yes." The chemicals, which may be different in each product, have different effects on each person. That makes it impossible to create blanket treatment protocols for emergency medical service providers to follow.

Forum participants broke into five groups to talk about strategies for combating the epidemic, treating patients medically, providing community education, insuring safety of first responders and providing chemical dependency treatment and justice.

Caliva reminded the audience that members of the Upstate New York Poison Center are available to speak about synthetic drugs to parent groups and community organizations.

What are 'bath salts'?

Read Charley Hannagan's coverage in The Post-Standard.

Read Brandon Roth's story on CNYCentral.

Read The New York Times story about bath salts

Watch the beginning of the forum