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Bath salts, like these for sale at the Last Place on Earth in Duluth, are a legal alternative to drugs, but they are reported to cause those who use them to become physically violent, disoriented and ill. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

Duluth police, physician warn of dangers of bath salt abuse

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A supervisor of the Lake Superior Drug and Gang Task Force says bath salts laced with designer drugs may be legal, but they are not safe.

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Duluth Police Sgt. Andy Mickus made the comments Friday echoing the concerns of Dr. David Pipho, who wrote the News Tribune warning of the dangers of bath salts that contain amphetamine-like substances and can act as a dangerous stimulant.

"We're seeing that it causes erratic behavior. Just off the wall," Mickus said. "It's not a mellow kind of high where people just sit around. They get agitated and very excitable and have some violent outbursts."

The bath salts in question are sold online or at head shops and truck stops and contain the synthetic drug mephedrone, an amphetamine. It's a central nervous system stimulant that increases blood pressure and heart rate. It can also create psychological symptoms including delusions and paranoia. Mickus said it is highly addictive.

"You get a big high and then a big crash," he said. "You need to keep that high going just like any other drug or alcohol addiction. The stronger the high and the quicker the crash, the more you want to get back there and, I suspect, the more drastic your measures will be to get there."

Pipho, an emergency room physician with Essentia Health-St. Mary's Medical Center, said the bath salts are marked "not for human consumption," but some people are in fact injecting, ingesting or smoking them.

"Then, when they come into the emergency room, they are agitated and combative," he wrote in a letter to the editor that was published Friday. "They have spit on me and been verbally abusive."

He said he's had to take time away from patients with more serious issues to deal with the patient under the influence of the designer drug. He said the drug-laced bath salts should be banned or their manufacturers should have to pay for their cost to the health-care system.

But the owner of a local head shop who sells the product said he sees nothing wrong with providing the legal substance. And business is booming.

Jim Carlson, owner of the Last Place on Earth in downtown Duluth, said he has a concern for people's health, but he wasn't sympathetic to the emergency room doctor's complaint.

"My advice to them is that they should hire some more help," he said. "We're supposed to be a free country. There's always going to be a percentage of people who abuse the product, who do too much or too often, whether it's food or alcohol or gambling. If somebody is having problems with gambling, they don't shut the casinos down. If somebody is having trouble with alcohol, we don't stop selling liquor. ... The bottom line is everybody likes to do different things."

Carlson sells four different kinds of bath salts under the names Pixie Dust, Eclipse, Lunar Eclipse and Plant Food. They sell for $25 to $39.98 for a half-gram to a gram.

"It's unbelievable. It's almost up there with my incense (sales), which is over $1 million a year," Carlson said. "The other day I had four guys come in with business suits and ties. I thought I was being raided by the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration). ... One says, 'I'll take an Eclipse,' another one said, 'Pixie Dust,' and another one said, 'I want Pixie Dust, too.'"

Mickus said police have encountered situations where bath salts have played a role in a disturbance, but there haven't been many reported criminal cases tied directly to the drug.

In February, police responded to a Superior Street restaurant on the report of a man who was intoxicated and harassing others. That man, Thomas Jeffrey Kohler, 27, was found in the bathroom holding an uncapped hypodermic needle and a small jar of a clear liquid attempting to inject himself. When police tried to take Kohler to a detoxification center, he kept banging his head on a barrier. He reportedly told police that he was attempting to inject himself with "legals." He then said it was bath salts.

Kohler was charged with obstructing legal process. He entered a not guilty plea on April 21.

Moose Lake police responded to a disturbance March 27 involving a man who said he snorted an entire 1-gram bag of "synthetic cocaine" he had purchased from the Last Place on Earth. His neighbors called police because he was holding a rifle and yelling and screaming at them. The neighbor said he didn't immediately call police because he considered the man with the rifle "a good kid" and he didn't want to see him get in trouble.

The man who snorted the synthetic cocaine said he remembered going to bed at 6 p.m. and waking up sometime during the night angry. He remembered holding a gun inside the residence, but didn't remember going outside. He told Moose Lake police that he believes he is addicted to the synthetic substance.

Mickus said he believes bath salts are falsely advertised as being a safe, legal alternative to illegal drugs.

"It may be legal, but it's not safe," he said. "It's like describing snuff as a safe alternative to cigarettes because you don't smoke it. We already know that that's not the truth. I think it's pretty clear based on the behaviors that law enforcement is seeing and medical professionals are seeing that this is not a safe alternative to illegal drugs."

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