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New Jersey has banned the sale and manufacture of synthetic drugs known as "bath salts," which are snorted and mimic the effects of cocaine and methamphetamines.
Citing an imminent threat to public safety, State Attorney General Paula Dow on Thursday announced that six chemicals found in the drugs will be classified as controlled dangerous substances. As a result, the manufacture, distribution, sale, or possession of the chemicals will be considered a crime punishable by three to five years in prison and a fine of up to $25,000.
Under state law, officials are allowed to reclassify certain chemicals to restrict their availability. Lawmakers also have a bill pending to outlaw at least one of the known chemicals used in the drugs.
"Shady retailers are playing a deadly game, selling highly dangerous drugs with fake labels like 'bath salts' or 'plant food' to evade the law," Dow said.
"No more," Dow said. "Here in New Jersey the game is over. Today, anyone who sells these drugs is committing a crime. We're taking these drugs off the streets in order to save lives."
Anyone who voluntarily surrenders the bath salts to police by May 8 will not face criminal charges, Dow said.
Not to be confused with Epson salts or other materials that are intended to be added to bath water, authorities say the drugs are falsely labeled as "bath salts" and often carry a label noting that they are "not for human consumption" label.
The drugs, often packaged as bath salts or incense, are sold for as little as $10 at gas stations and smoke shops and over the Internet names that include "Energizing Aromatherapy," "Down2Earth," "Kamikaze," "Vanilla Sky," and many others.
The drugs are known to cause extreme paranoia and hallucinations and have caught the attention of law enforcement following a spike in illnesses and high-profile crimes where people may have been using them.
An analysis recently conducted by the American Association of Poison Control Centers for The Associated Press showed an alarming increase in the number of people seeking medical attention related to synthetic drug use.
At least 2,700 people across the country have fallen ill since January, compared with fewer than 3,200 cases in all of 2010. At that pace, medical emergencies related to synthetic drugs could go up nearly fivefold by the end of the year.
Investigators suspect synthetic products designed to mimic marijuana, cocaine and other illegal drugs factored in at least nine U.S. deaths in the last year.
Bath salts received increased attention in New Jersey after questions surfaced over whether a 22-year-old Cranford man accused of killing his girlfriend had used them. Dianne Parisio said her son's use of the drugs contributed to his erratic behavior in the days leading up to the murder.
Assemblywoman Linda Stender, D-Scotch Plains, has introduced legislation to ban one of the main ingredients in bath salts.
Florida and Louisiana have bans on "bath salts" similar to the one New Jersey is creating.
Last week in Washington state, the Pharmacy Board also moved to ban them after a soldier shot and killed his wife and himself during a high-speed car chase near Olympia.
Authorities said 500 mg of "Lady Bubbles" bath salts were found in Sgt. David Franklyn Stewart's pockets when his body was recovered from his car. After the chase, the couple's 5-year-old son was found dead in their home, suffocated with a plastic bag at least 24 hours earlier.
On Wednesday, a judge in northeastern Pennsylvania issued a permanent injunction banning the sale of "bath salts" after an uptick in violent cases involving the chemicals. The Luzerne County district attorney asked for the injunction after more than 100 people were treated recently at one county hospital.
Dr. Mark Ryan, director of the Louisiana Poison Center, told the AP that many bath salts users describe extreme paranoia and suicidal thoughts.
"The recurring theme is monsters, demons and aliens," he said.