Schools and municipalities across South Carolina are stepping in to ban the sometimes-deadly hallucinogenic "bath salts" responsible for a rising number of emergency room visits after state lawmakers failed to act.
The state Department of Health and Environmental Control board was prepared Thursday to outlaw the substance immediately, but that action has been delayed until the federal Drug Enforcement Administration signs off on a temporary nationwide prohibition. At least 33 states have taken action to block synthetic substances created to mimic illegal drugs, such as cocaine, LSD and meth.
Teens and young adults are turning up in emergency rooms throughout Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester counties with hallucinations and often violent and psychotic behavior - all caused by a drug that is sold without state or federal restrictions in convenience stores and smoke shops for about $25.
The substance has been blamed for several U.S. deaths. The use appears to vary across the Lowcountry with the emergency departments at Roper St. Francis Healthcare, the Medical University of South Carolina and East Cooper Medical Center reporting just a few cases while doctors at Trident Health System's campuses are treating individuals every week and sometimes every day.
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Scott Hayes, an emergency room physician with Trident, said he can barely go a shift without a case.
"I wish they would take this off the market," Hayes said.
Hayes said the situation got so frustrating recently that a nurse ran out to see how easy it was to buy the bath salts. She was back in less than 10 minutes with a container.
Users snort, smoke and inject the chemically altered crystals or powder, also called Ivory Wave, Purple Wave, Vanilla Sky or Bliss. The product is typically sold in small pill-sized containers, unlike the standard bath salts used to soak in a tub. It got its street name because its consistency is similar to the toiletry's.
Earlier this week, a North Carolina woman was charged with trying to steal a police car in the Upstate while under the influence of bath salts, according to a published report
Attempts to outlaw
Members of the state House rallied behind legislation to outlaw the substance with some 60 co-sponsors, but the bill did not get a vote before the Legislature adjourned in late June. Lawmakers don't return to Columbia until January and the health department can't act on its own until the federal government does first.
Moncks Corner Police Chief Chad Caldwell said the town didn't want to wait.
"A bunch of our little stores were selling this stuff like it was going out of style," he said. "We didn't want our kids addicted to something that was going to destroy their lives and kill them."
After Moncks Corner's Town Council voted Sept. 20 to immediately make it illegal to use or sell the substance, police officers hit the streets and rounded up the products from store shelves, Caldwell said.
Dorchester District 2 also saw an urgency. The school board updated the district's drug and alcohol policy to ban the use of the engineered bath salts and Spice, also known as K2, another popular synthetic chemical that is applied to herbal substances or potpourri and smoked to mimic marijuana.
Mike Turner, the district's security coordinator, said carrying the bath salts or synthetic pot to school will be treated like a tobacco violation, because the products aren't illegal in the state. Using the substances while in class could lead to expulsion or other another disciplinary action, depending on the circumstance, Turner said.
A handful of other municipalities and counties in South Carolina have taken action.
Calvina Fay, executive director of Drug Free America Foundation and Save Our Society From Drugs, or S.O.S., said government has a responsibility to act.
"How many kids have to be harmed from this before it's considered a problem?" Fay said. "It depends on who is answering the question and whose kid gets harmed."
South Carolina can ban the bath salts one of two ways: with a new law that passes the Legislature or with an emergency ruling by the Health and Environmental Control board to classify the substance as an illegal drug.
Earl Hunter, the commissioner for Health and Environmental Control, said the board will call an emergency session within a day or two of the federal government's actions, which could come as early as today.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration announced Sept. 7 that it would halt the sale and possession of the bath salts after 30 days, but it could still be months before the temporary 12- to 18-month ban is effective, a spokeswoman said. A permanent ban will still need to be put in place through other governmental channels.
State Rep. Anne Thayer, R-Belton, said she is sick over the fact that the S.C. Legislature didn't act sooner. Thayer was the lead sponsor of the bill and personally gathered the signatures of fellow legislators to push for its passage.
"I just feel like the blood of these children is on my shoulders because we did not get this passed and we should have," she said.
Thayer said she believes that the legislation may have stalled because she is a freshman legislator without a known track record. Plus, most lawmakers had never heard about the matter when she introduced the bill in March, she said.
Rep. Jim Harrison, a Columbia Republican and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said the bill was filed relatively late in the session, but he pledged it would get priority status in January.