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Across the country, communities are fighting the spread of a dangerous new drug. It goes by the name bath salts, but they're different from the soothing crystals you might pour into the tub. They are synthetic stimulants that cause paranoid, psychotic, often violent behavior in users. Despite that, bath salts can still be purchased legally in some states and in some cases over the Internet.

Maine Public Radio's Jay Field reports that in Maine, use of the drug has reached epidemic proportions and is straining police departments and emergency rooms.

JAY FIELD, BYLINE: Shane Heathers says opiates like OxyContin and heroin have been his drugs of choice. But he's done his share of cocaine and other stimulants, too. I meet Heathers, who's 34, on a rainy night at his family's home in the southern Maine woods. Heathers says the same scenario plays out again and again in his life as an addict. He gets arrested or ends up in treatment, calms down for a bit, then returns to hard drugs. That's what happened after a recent stint in rehab when a friend told him about a great new drug called bath salts.

SHANE HEATHERS: I was warned about its dangers kind of, too, but I guess, you know, doing what I do, I wanted to try it. And when I tried it, I just put a very little bit, just a few specks in a spoon and I injected it.

FIELD: Heathers injected it day and night for nearly a week. He ended up at the hospital where police were called in with tasers after he tried to break out to smoke a cigarette. Several more bath salts binges followed. The last one took place here at the house in September.

HEATHERS: Watch your step coming up here.

FIELD: We climb a steep ladder to a lofted bedroom. Plastic sheeting covers the room's three windows.

HEATHERS: I punched those out. I was in war with a bunch of projections, basically. I ended up - that skylight was busted out. I had a pole and I was jamming at it.

FIELD: Heathers' parents showed up with sheriff's deputies and an ambulance. They took him to an emergency room not unlike this trauma unit at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, where Dr. Jonnathan Busko sees as many as eight patients a day on bath salts, often behaving just like Shane Heathers.

JONNATHAN BUSKO: And so you'll have this group of patients screaming and yelling, swearing.

FIELD: A typical patient, says Busko, requires the care of one doctor and one nurse, but a bath salts patient like Shane Heathers...

BUSKO: They take three to four nurses, our techs, our security staff and a physician to care for them and that's just for each of them. So, if we're seeing four to five of those, that's a tremendous use of our resources and it really draws us away from our other patients.

FIELD: At the beginning of the year, hardly anyone in Maine had even heard of the drug, but by the end of September, Bangor's police department had responded to as many as 400 bath salts-related incidents.

LIEUTENANT THOMAS REGAN: Our practice is to send at least two officers to every call.

FIELD: Lieutenant Thomas Regan is the night commander at the Bangor Police Department.

REGAN: So if we have a domestic violence case on one side of town and a bath salt or two on the other side of town, I have no people free.

FIELD: Paranoid bath salts users have been picked up armed with knives and guns. Until recently, the drug could be purchased legally in most states, but that's begun to change as the dangers posed by bath salts have become more widely understood.

Late last month, Maine enacted tougher laws that make both possession and distribution of the drug felonies. Other states are fast-tracking laws banning the drug and a temporary federal ban will soon take effect outlawing the main ingredients in bath salts, as well as bath salts made with those ingredients.

Shane Heathers, though, doubts whether all the new restrictions will make much difference.

HEATHERS: They're going to come out with alternatives to it. You know, there's more in the laboratory that they're trying to synthesize.

FIELD: And, as Heathers notes, you can still do what he did last month when bath salts possession in Maine was still a civil infraction punishable by a fine. Order up some bath salts on the Internet and wait for the mailman to deliver them.

For NPR News, I'm Jay Field.

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