PORTLAND – Twenty-seven-year-old Kyle Clukey has used lots of different drugs over the past 10 years.
Then, this summer, something new arrived in Bangor, and he gave it a try. It was a strong, synthetic cocaine-like powder sold in stores as bath salts and known on the street as monkey dust.
And he hopes it’s the last drug he ever uses.
“It scared me out of my skin,” said Clukey, who spent hours hiding behind trees and bushes from people who weren’t really there.
Clukey isn’t the only one frightened by the new drug’s effects.
Some users are ending up in hospitals and jails in Maine and other states trapped in paranoid hallucinations, such as being chased by killers or demons or snakes. Last weekend, Bangor police responded to a man who had cut his wrists and was using his teeth to try to remove insects he believed were burrowing under his skin. In some parts of the country, though not in Maine, delusional users have reportedly killed themselves or their family members.
“They are always being chased by something. That’s the hallucination,” said Michael Wardrop, a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent in Portland. “And because it’s so real, that’s where the violence comes in.”
Bangor has been ground zero for bath salts in Maine. It also was the site of a conference last week involving police officials and emergency medical providers who are struggling to keep up with the drug’s effects.
“Last night we had all three of our paramedic rigs tied up” on bath salts calls, Bangor police Lt. Thomas Reagan said Thursday.
There were a total of six bath salts calls between 7:15 p.m. and 11 p.m., he said, including multiple overdoses and “another streaker.”
“Streaker” refers to the tendency of hallucinating users to take off their clothes as the drug raises their body temperature, he said. In this case, the partially dressed woman believed she was being chased by a man with a gun fitted with a silencer.
Emergency room doctors in Bangor have become experts at treating overdose victims with a combination of drugs to counteract the stimulants and hallucinogens in bath salts. Health officials there say there have been a small number of fatal overdoses from the drug. The state Medical Examiner’s Office has begun testing possible victims for the various chemicals in the drug, but could not provide data on fatal overdoses last week.
Officials don’t know why Bangor was hit first in Maine. It may simply be because someone there was the first to discover the drug and tell friends, according to police.
But, they say, it’s clear that bath salts use is gradually spreading out and is certain to move into southern Maine, as well. “It’s coming,” Reagan warned.
Wardrop spoke about the drug to a group of about 40 southern Maine police administrators gathered last month in Cape Elizabeth. If police and others aren’t ready when it arrives, Wardrop warned, “this stuff is just going to devastate your community.”
Exposure reports to the Northern New England Poison Control Center have spread from Bangor to areas around Augusta and Rockland. Police in southern Maine say they have not yet seen widespread abuse, but they are bracing.
“I don’t think there’s an area not at risk to being exposed to it,” said Guy Cousins, director of the Maine Office of Substance Abuse.
Despite its name, the drug doesn’t actually work as bath salts. That was one of the packaging disguises used to distribute and sell the drug while it was still legal, police say. In some states, the synthetic stimulants are sold by retailers as jewelry cleaner or plant food. They’re typically labeled “not for human consumption.”
The real marketing takes place on the Internet and by word of mouth, with dealers and users promoting the powder as a cheap, easy-to-find and powerful way to get high, police say.
Also known as kryptonite, the designer drug is created in a lab with one of several strong stimulants, including methylenedioxypyrovalerone, or MDPV. It is three times more potent than cocaine, police say, and highly addictive.
“They start and they just can’t stop,” said Roy McKinney, director of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency.
Maine banned the sale of the compounds in July, and it added tough new penalties for simply possessing the drug — up to a year in jail for a first offense — in late September. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has banned it for one year starting last Friday, and Congress is now moving to permanently ban it nationwide.
The crackdown has gotten the drug out of retail stores in Maine, but not off the streets or the Internet, police say. It is no longer packaged primarily as commercial bath salts, but is now generally distributed in small, resealable plastic bags with a variety of printed designs, Reagan said.
Police say, even with the new laws, education about the drug and its dangers is the best way to control its spread. “We’re never going to arrest ourselves out of it,” Wardrop said.
Clukey used the drug for about three weeks during the summer, he said. His heart raced and he went days without eating or sleeping. Soon, he started hearing things and seeing things. It gradually made him so paranoid he thought his friends were turning against him and that people were hiding behind the shower curtain in the bathroom.
He eventually roamed his neighborhood for hours, hiding in the woods from people he believed were chasing him.
“I literally couldn’t get out of my own head,” Clukey said.
He thought about suicide but instead told his mother, who helped him get into a detox center and treatment program. He spent the summer in treatment at Serenity House in Portland.
“The bath salts are the scariest thing I ever did,” he said. “That was the last straw for me.”
Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at: