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Shumlin moves to ban designer drug

August 5, 2011
Staff Writer
BENNINGTON — The Shumlin administration is moving aggressively to crack down on a new designer drug that has already infiltrated neighboring states, causing problems for law enforcement and medical personnel.

Gov. Peter Shumlin announced the emergency ban of “bath salts” Wednesday, hoping to head off the type of problems occurring in neighboring and nearby states. Bangor, Maine, has been impacted particularly hard by the concoction of over-the-counter chemicals combined to create the drug widely referred to as bath salts, according to Shumlin.

“These extraordinarily dangerous chemicals and substances are increasingly being modified, like meth, to create a high that is extremely dangerous. In addition to all kinds of immediate health effects, this particular combination of poison creates extraordinary tendencies for suicide,” Shumlin said in a telephone interview on Thursday. “This is not anything that we can tolerate in Vermont and we need to get a message to our young people and drug abusers that this is against the law and absolutely won’t be tolerated.”

Dr. Harry Chen, the state’s commissioner of health, said the compounds contained in the drugs have serious negative consequences on the body.

“Basically, bath salts generically refer to a series of chemical substances that essentially have stimulant properties,” he said. “They have properties that are fairly potent. It has significant effects on humans. They elevate your blood pressure. They increase your pulse. Ultimately, it can lead to death.”

Health and public safety officials have watched as the drug took hold in other states. Shumlin said he wanted to act now, even though it has yet to become a problem in Vermont.

“We talk with our neighbors about the challenges they face fighting drugs. We have found that in many of our neighboring states these bath salts … are becoming a challenge,” he said. “We’re seeing it in Massachusetts and New York. We want to get ahead of the curve and join the other 32 states in outlawing these dangerous chemicals.”

According to Chen, four cases of bath salts use has been reported in Vermont this year. Although that is “fairly minimal,” officials chose to adopt the emergency rule which institutes an immediate ban.

“Clearly, what I’m trying to do is prevent this from happening in Vermont,” Chen said.

Bennington Police Detective Peter Urbanowicz said local police are aware of the drug, but have not yet seen it. It has been seen in Troy, N.Y., however.

He said the emergency ban is welcome because the drug has been rapidly spreading from the South and Midwest. “Naturally, everything flows east,” Urbanowicz said.

The drug is presenting new problems for police, with users often becoming “combative,” according to Urbanowicz.

“It’s like smoking crack when you’re on methamphetamines. It’s a super high,” he said. “What’s happening is people are either snorting it, injecting it or smoking it. The side effects are paranoia, hallucinations, rapid heartbeat and suicidal thoughts.”

The drug’s effects can be confounding for police and medical personnel, as well.

“When these people go to the hospital it’s not showing up on any standard drug screen,” Urbanowicz said. “You roll up on it and you don’t know what you’re dealing with. Your first inclination is drug abuse or some kind of mental health issue.”

State officials have been working since May on the process to add bath salts to the list of regulated substances in Vermont, according to Chen. The new rule was submitted this week, he said, but officials decided to implement the ban immediately using the emergency designation.

“If it’s felt to be a threat to the public health then that’s something that we have the option of employing,” he said. “They’re not drugs that are FDA approved or are approved supplements. They just come off the streets and they’re put in packages that are labeled not for human consumption, but humans are consuming it.”

The emergency rule allows the ban to remain in effect for 120 days, according to Chen. In the meantime, the standard rule process will continue, and legislation is expected to be sough when the Legislature reconvenes in January.

“I believe that in the end there will be some legislation needed to more formally define it and add it to the list,” Chen said.

Bennington County Sen. Dick Sears, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he been speaking with officials about the drug since spring. There was not enough time to seek legislation this year, however.

“We agreed we needed to do something. We need to deal with all of these threats,” Sears said. “Given the governor’s action yesterday, I expect I’ll be talking with some people about putting together some legislation. I’m very pleased that the governor took that action.”

Shumlin said the emergency ban is intended to save lives, and law enforcement officers will aggressively enforce it.

“The message is a simple one — this isn’t your grandmother’s bath salts and this is not your grandfather’s homegrown,” he said. “These are dangerous chemicals that are combined to create a high that can kill you and will damage your health. Now, by rule, I have ordered that they are included in the list of illegal drugs and you will be prosecuted if you use them or sell them.”

Contact Neal P. Goswami at ngoswami@benningtonbanner.com

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