‘Zombie’ drug hits Chico

Manufacturers stay one step ahead of the law

Dragon Tobacco clerk Tyler Cash with several versions of legal “spice” or “incense.”

Dragon Tobacco clerk Tyler Cash with several versions of legal “spice” or “incense.”

Photo By vic cantu

In May, a naked Florida man, Rudy Eugene, was found eating a homeless man’s face along a public roadway. Police ordered him to stop, but shot him to death when the crazed attacker only growled and continued to cannibalize his living victim, even after being shot once.

That horrific story of the “Miami zombie” is what brought the street drug known as “bath salts” into the popular consciousness. Subsequent tests showed only marijuana in the assailant’s system. However, some in the medical community do believe bath salts were the cause, noting that some types of synthetic drugs are undetectable. In any case, the initial suggestion of bath salts established the drug’s reputation as causing extreme violence.

In July, President Obama signed a federal law banning bath salts as well as some other synthetic drugs.

Locally, bath salts became news in Chico on Aug. 7, when James Keith Hall, 22, was arrested on charges of possessing a large quantity of a main bath-salt ingredient, methylone, an illegal, Schedule 1 substance. Based on the amount in his possession—an estimated $6,000 in street value—and the digital scale and packaging materials also confiscated, agents from the Butte Interagency Narcotics Task Force (BINTF) think Hall intended to sell the drugs, which had been mailed to him from China.

Bath salts, an off-white powder that is smoked, snorted or injected and sold under names such as Cloud 9, Vanilla Sky and Ivory White, are not a big problem in Butte County, said District Attorney Mike Ramsey.

“Neither BINTF nor my deputy DAs report it’s much of an issue,” he said. “There are no zombies walking our streets.”

However, both Ramsey and BINTF Commander Jeff Smith say they occasionally hear reports of the drug’s use. “Bath salts are here,” said Smith, “but they’re not entrenched like meth or cocaine, which have been around for years and years.”

Bath-salt use may not be rampant locally, but it’s still something to take seriously.

“Bath salts is the most dangerous drug of abuse ever to hit the streets,” said Dr. Richard Geller, medical director of the California Poison Control System.

Among its harmful effects, which can last up to 24 hours, Geller mentioned attempted suicide, super-human strength, agitated meth-like delirium, and acute psychotic episodes from which some never fully recover.

Geller said he’s heard horror stories: users cutting their bellies open with knives and exposing their intestines, for example.

“One user was put into a mental ward after trying to hang himself,” said Geller, during a recent telephone interview from his office in Madera. “After his release he bought more bath salts and hanged himself again—this time fatally.”

Though the Florida attacker did not test positive for bath salts, both Geller and Smith are among a contingent that suspects he was using a type not yet detectable in tests. The drug first emerged two years ago, and its makers have altered it slightly many times to keep ahead of the law, said Geller.

“When I heard of the Florida face-eating case I immediately thought, ‘That’s bath salts!’” he said.

When legal, bath salts were sold in smoke shops. The drug’s name changed to “glass cleaner” after it became notorious, said Tyler Cash, a clerk at Chico’s Dragon Tobacco smoke shop.

Although bath salts are illegal, there is still a market at smoke shops for legal drugs generically called “spices.” Also known as “incense,” “K-2” and “herbs,” spices are aromatic herbs that contain synthetic cannibinoids to provide a marijuana-like high. But they also rev-up the nervous system à la meth, said Geller.

Sold in foil envelopes with names such as Mad Hatter, Kryp2nite and Space, they can create high anxiety but are not associated with the severe side effects of bath salts, he said.

While some ingredients have been outlawed, the makers of spices continually change their ingredients to stay legal. Many versions are still available at Dragon Tobacco, while several other smoke shops in Chico have voluntarily removed the spices after hearing reports of crackdowns.

Smith cautioned that the ingredients are not controlled by the Food and Drug Administration, since the manufacturer’s packaging labels claim the products are not for human consumption. (One smoke shop clerk, who asked to remain anonymous, reported finding a dead beetle in a package of spices.) The high delivered is also unpredictable since the ingredients are not listed.

Smith said that the addictive or long-term effects of these drugs are not yet known.

“That’s the problem law enforcement has trying to keep up with new drugs,” Smith said. “Studies on them take years, not weeks.”