Gov. Peter Shumlin banned the designer drug known as bath salts in Vermont back in December. Monday, President Barack Obama made bath salts illegal on the federal level. But manufacturers have found a loophole in the law. The product is back in Vermont smoke shops and more users than ever are ending up in the emergency room.
Barre thought a statewide ban on bath salts would take care of the problem. But seven months later, something strange is going on at the smoke shop in town.
"At 10 o'clock in the morning there's half a dozen people waiting to get in the door. So that tells me the problem's pretty prevalent," Barre Police Chief Tim Bombardier said.
Bombardier says customers are lining up to get the newest version of what used to be called bath salts. The meth-mimicking designer drug is being blamed for inducing zombie-like behavior in its users, frequently causing hallucinations, paranoia, violent tantrums, cannibalism and kidney failure.
"These are unpredictable drugs," said Dr. Mark Depman, who runs the emergency department at Central Vermont Medical Center.
Depman says it's suddenly one of the bigger problems popping up in the ER.
Central Vermont Medical Center is seeing four to five patients a week high on bath salts. A stark comparison to just six months ago. But how is that possible if the drugs were taken off the shelves? Depman wanted to prove how easy it is to buy. He says with $40 he had no problem getting his hands on something called Final Cut.
"He brought out this packet and said, 'You might like this,'" Depman said.
The powdery substance isn't technically bath salts. The drug's manufacturers simply swapped out two of the banned chemicals for ones not yet on the list. It's a loophole that's frustrating law enforcement.
"It's wrong. It's not illegal," Bombardier said. "We think we're doing something good by banning a substance causing problems in our community and somebody on the other end tweaks it a little bit and the problem never goes away."
But dosages aren't posted on the packaging, making them incredibly dangerous, especially for the casual user.
"The people who are using these compounds are literally guinea pigs in a game that these manufacturers are in to make money at the expense of your health and your addiction," Depman said.
"Stop selling this crap. And it is just that. There's no nice way to say it," Barre Mayor Thom Lauzon said. "We're coming. You might want to stop selling it now because I promise you, you will stop selling it."
Lauzon says legal or not, he's determined to prevent these people from doing business in his city.
"I am going to be all up in their face. I'm going to be everywhere they turn," Lauzon said.
The mayor says he's not above picketing these smoke shops either. He's also working with the City Council to toughen regulations, like requiring smoke shops to be licensed or passing a local ordinance outlawing these new formulations without having to wait for a statewide ban.
The governor issued an emergency ban on bath salts months before the law went into place. That may be an option for these new compounds. Both Mayor Lauzon and hospital officials say they've spoken to the governor about their concerns and he's on board with that emergency ban. No word though on when it might take effect.
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