WATERVILLE — People taking a new drug are entering emergency rooms agitated and psychotic, hallucinating, paranoid and sometimes violent.

They may have an increased heart rate and blood pressure, posing the threat of heart attack or stroke.

In two separate incidents at MaineGeneral Medical Center’s Thayer Campus, men using the drug ended up in the intensive care unit recently.

One patient in his 20s had muscles so broken down that he went into kidney failure, according to Dr. Guy Nuki, chief of operations for the Thayer emergency department.

“One young man who came in could not speak or write, but he could text-message on his phone,” Nuki said.

What the men had in common is that they were using “bath salts” a combination of synthetic drugs in powder form that users typically snort, smoke, ingest or inject, Nuki said.

This is not the bath salts product people typically use for bathing, but a nickname for the synthetic drug. This newspaper has confirmed that at least one shop in the greater Waterville area sells it.

In larger cities, police and health care professionals are dealing with an increasing number of people using bath salts.

Waterville is just beginning to deal with the problem, according to police Chief Joseph Massey.

“A young man broke into the alternative education school on Silver Street who was on bath salts — in the middle of the day,” Massey said. “He didn’t know what he was doing or where he was.”

When police arrived at the school June 1, they found Zachary Morin, 20, in the auditorium, lethargic and saying someone was chasing him with a gun, Massey said.

“He appeared to be under the influence of drugs,” he said. “When the officers asked who was chasing him, he was nonresponsive.”

Morin told police he had been taking bath salts, Massey said. He was arrested and charged with criminal trespass and unlawful possession of drugs because police also found hydrochloride pills on him, Massey said.

Emergency legislation

In Maine, it is perfectly legal to sell, possess and use bath salts — for now, that is.

Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, introduced emergency legislation to ban the sale and possession of bath salts. The bill passed in both the House and Senate and now is before the Appropriations Committee, which will determine — likely in the next few days — whether it gets funding, Berry said Thursday

If funding is approved and Gov. Paul LePage signs the bill into law, it would be enforceable immediately instead of the usual 90-days after a nonemergency bill becomes law, according to Berry.

Berry is adamant that time is of the essence and that that a law be enforceable before more people are hurt — or possibly die.

“It’s (bath salts) being marketed to children and others,” he said. “It escapes the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) because it’s sold as something that’s not a food product and the label supports it as something that it isn’t.”

Berry said bath salts are dangerous, have profound, long-term effects on people and are highly addictive.

“I think that it’s critical that we nip it in the bud here,” he said.

In Bangor, a man viciously attacked a couple of women he did not know, striking one of the women in the face with an ice-fishing trap, according to Berry.

“The reports from southern states where this originated in the U.S. have been much worse,” he said, “with people being attacked with machetes and cutting themselves up with skinning knives — very, very violent episodes.”

A growing health, safety issue

Karen E. Simone, toxicologist and director of the Northern New England Poison Center, based in Portland, said people using bath salts have very scary hallucinations of monsters and aliens.

“The folks involved are not rational at all, and can be a danger to themselves and others,” she said.

Most of the calls the Poison Center receives about bath salts are from hospitals, she said, where hospital officials are having trouble managing wild and out-of-control patients.

“Some hospitals are having trouble giving them enough sedatives to make it safe,” she said. “It’s a handful for the hospitals.”

She said she thinks all areas of the state have been hit with the bath salts problem, with Bangor hit the hardest.

Simone urges anyone with questions about bath salts to contact the poison center at 1-800-222-1222.

Meanwhile, Fairfield police Detective Kingston Paul said his department has dealt with people using bath salts twice in the last four or five months.

Both he and Oakland police Capt. Rick Stubbert say the drug is gaining momentum, and people are becoming aware of it.

“It is gaining popularity with kids,” Stubbert said.

Nancy Findlan, prevention director of Greater Waterville Communities for Children & Youth, said she learned about bath salts while working with staff at Waterville’s alternative high school where the man (Morin) broke through a window, thinking he was being chased by someone with a gun.

“It’s scary stuff,” Findlan said. “It’s just becoming noticed more now than one or two weeks ago.”

Karen Mosher, psychologist and clinical director for Kennebec Behavioral Health, said her staff is informed about bath salts but are not getting a lot of cases yet. Robert Long, administrator for access, substance abuse, and outcome management services for Kennebec Behavioral Health, said officials are starting to look at bath salts and becoming more knowledgeable about the drug.

“This has been increasingly more on the radar screen in the last six months,” he said.

Meanwhile, Nuki, of Thayer’s emergency department, is concerned about people putting themselves at risk by using bath salts, and incredulous that people selling bath salts are able to sleep at night, knowing they hurt people.

“I’m actually quite shocked that the stores selling this continue to sell it,” he said.

Nuki cautions people thinking about using bath salts to realize they have no idea what is going to happen to them — that a single use may be life-threatening.

“If they do get sick from it, we can help them,” he said. “It may be that the help is trying to keep them alive …”

Waterville’s Chief Massey says he notified pharmacists and health care providers as part of his department’s drug diversion program about the introduction of bath salts in the community and he immediately received three responses from people saying they suspect people seeking treatment had used bath salts.

“I’m concerned, obviously, any time that we see a new drug being introduced to the community and people are getting high,” he said. “It’s concerning that it is going to be a drug that is really going to be abused because of its availability and the fact that it’s legal.”

Amy Calder — 861-9247

[email protected]