The Emergency Department at St. Mary’s Healthcare in Amsterdam has been swamped in the last month by people suffering medical complications from designer drugs such as “bath salts” and synthetic marijuana, a hospital official said.
“We have had at least two dozen cases in the last month,” said Tricia Green, nurse manager of the department. “We are literally overwhelmed.”
Green said she has never seen this level of activity related to drug overdoses in the seven years she has managed the Emergency Department and in the 20 years she has been a nurse.
Authorities in Fulton County said bath salts may have been a factor in the death of 54-year-old Kathryn M. Jackson, whose bruised and naked body was found June 4 along a dead-end road in the town of Mayfield. Investigators are awaiting toxicology reports to determine the cause of her death. Statewide, several deaths have been attributed to bath salts, according to the Upstate New York Poison Center.
Nathan Littauer Hospital in Fulton County has seen a few patients who have admitted to using bath salts, “but we are not seeing a dramatic increase,” said spokeswoman Cheryl McGrattan. “We are following it closely. This is a new phenomenon,” she said.
Patients are coming to St. Mary’s from throughout the area, and they include adults and youths, male and female, and all socio-economic backgrounds, Green said.
Lt. Tony Agresta of the Amsterdam Fire Department, a first-responder to emergency medical calls in the city, said his department has also seen a spike in the number of people needing treatment for complications from designer drugs. “We went from zero calls to a handful of calls” in the last month,” he said.
Both Green and Agresta attended a seminar Thursday on designer drugs presented by St. Mary’s. Deborah Anguish, an education specialist for the Upstate New York Poison Center, was the keynote speaker.
Green and Agresta said their efforts to treat people is made more difficult because they often do not know anything about the designer drugs that were taken.
“You don’t know what you’re getting when you get it,” Green said. “We have had patients come in and act out of control, who are very violent. They tell us they have been doing bath salts or synthetic marijuana.”
Auguish said there is little clinical data on the effects of bath salts, as it is an emerging toxicant. “There are no controlled studies in toxicology,” she said. The poison center collects anecdotal reports on overdoses from hospitals and other providers as part of efforts to offer advice on how to treat patients.
Designer drugs are chemical compounds synthesized to resemble the active ingredient in often illegal drugs. Bath salts mimic the drug khat, a stimulant. Synthetic marijuana is created by spraying a chemical compound of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, on ordinary plant leaves.
Manufacturers frequently change the designer drug’s chemical composition and its name to stay one step ahead of federal authorities, Anguish said.
“It is another way to sell it,” she said.
The term bath salt, for example, is a nickname of the drug and has nothing to do with bathing. The drug has been sold under the name of “Ivory Wave” one week and under the name of “Lady Bug Attractant” the next. Synthetic marijuana has been sold under the names of “K2,” “Spice” and “Dream.”
The federal government has placed three of the chemicals commonly used in the creation of bath salts on its controlled substance list, criminalizing their use and possession. Still, the government cannot outright ban bath salts because manufacturers can alter the recipe and skirt the law, Anguish said. The drugs are sold online as “herbal therapy” products and are available over the counter in area stores.
“We still don’t know what you are getting with bath salts. The chemical composition varies from package to package,” Anguish said.
One factor for the popularity of bath salts is their low cost, Anguish said. She said a gram of bath salts costs about $18 while a gram of cocaine costs $166.
Bath salts create euphoria, or a high, that is equal to or greater than that of cocaine but also causes a crash that is worse, Anguish said. The crash’s ill-effects often prompt people to binge on bath salts to the point where they consume the drug for days. “They crave it,” she said.
After repeated use, the drug “fries” a person’s brain, draining the chemicals that balance its operations. This sometimes leads to bizarre, often psychotic behavior that has been reported in the media, such as the case of the naked man in Florida who chewed off the face of a homeless man, Anguish said. “The seizures and delusions are incredible,” she said.
Anguish related a story of a person who went to an upstate New York hospital emergency room bruised and bloodied. He told staff the injuries came from stray cats that attacked him all weekend; his girlfriend said there were no stray cats involved and that he was hallucinating from binge use of bath salts.