GREG ALLEN: Mark Ryan says it was in September when he first heard of a new legal drug being sold throughout the southeastern U.S. Ryan, the director of the Louisiana Poison Center, says bath salts is just one way the drug is labeled and sold.
MARK RYAN: We've also seen it as growth stimulator, PH optimizer, pond scum remover, not deodorizer but odorizer - quite a few different things, but they were never intended to be any of those things.
ALLEN: What they are intended to be are legal drugs, snorted or smoked, not unlike cocaine or meth.
In September, Ryan says, his poison center got its first call from an emergency room unsure about what it was dealing with. Soon his center and poison control hotlines in Florida, California and all over the nation were seeing several cases a day. And Ryan says users high on this drug are not easy to deal with.
RYAN: For lack of a better term, they're flipped out. It's almost like a psychotic break. They're extremely anxious and combative. They think, you know, that there's stuff trying to get them. They're paranoid. They're having hallucinations. So the encounters are not pleasant. And we were finding that some of these guys couldn't be sedated with the normal drugs that we would use for other stimulants.
ALLEN: In Panama City, Florida, two incidents alerted authorities to the drugs' serious effects. In one case, several officers were needed to subdue a man who tore a radar unit out of a police car - with his teeth. Really. In another incident, police say a woman attacked her mother with a machete, thinking she was a monster.
Those experiences alarmed the county sheriff, Frank McKeithen. He took his concerns to Florida's attorney general, who filed an emergency rule banning the sale of the bath salts. At a news conference recorded by the County Press in Panama City, McKeithen said the ban will help his department get a handle on what was developing into a significant problem.
FRANK MCKEITHEN: We were all literally just absolutely worried to death about what was going to happen in spring break. And we still may have issues, but it won't be because they're buying it in the local stores
ALLEN: The active ingredient in the bath salts is a chemical called MDPV. Mark Ryan says it's similar to cathinone, a compound found in khat, a plant that produces leaves which are chewed in Africa.
RYAN: It's a stimulant, much like the coca leaves found in Colombia and South America. These substances we're dealing with aren't organic, but they are, you know, designer drugs, synthetic drugs, made-in-the-lab drugs.
ALLEN: The ban was announced in Florida recently, and at least one county has already begun seizing the bath salts from retailers. That makes Randy Heine angry.
RANDY HEINE: These people are out to create crime. This product was legal yesterday. Today it's illegal.
ALLEN: Heine owns a store called Rockin' Cards and Gifts in Pinellas Park, near St. Petersburg. He says he's been forced to take his stock of the bath salts - worth thousands of dollars - off the shelves because of a hasty and in his view wrong decision by Florida's attorney general.
HEINE: There's no one who should have so much power as to be able to outlaw a product without due process.
ALLEN: Heine is working with a group, the Retail Compliance Association, which plans to file a lawsuit challenging the bans in Florida and Louisiana, and which are being considered in several other states. Heine believes many of the stories about the bath salts' effects are exaggerated. But I asked: Are they a hazard?
HEINE: Not more of a hazard than alcohol. How many people every day try to kill themselves doing alcohol? And that's still legal.
ALLEN: For Heine and for law enforcement authorities, this is just the latest round in what's becoming a familiar fight - one that in the past has involved synthetic marijuana, herbal ecstasy, salvia, and other legal highs.
Bath salts, though, have gotten the attention of Washington. The White House drug czar has issued a warning to parents. And in Congress, Senator Charles Schumer says he's introducing a bill that would impose a nationwide ban.
Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.