CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A new state law banning the designer drug called 'bath salts' has been in effect since mid-April, yet the drug continues to pose problems in the Kanawha Valley.
The bill (HB 2505) says any person who sells, buys or possesses synthetic drugs such as bath salts is guilty of a misdemeanor, and can be sentenced to up to six months in prison and fined up to $1,000.
Synthetic bath salts are said to increase blood pressure and heart rate, and can cause agitation, hallucinations, extreme paranoia and delusion and often mimic the symptoms of cocaine.
West Virginia State Police Sgt. Michael Baylous said the bill covers not only bath salts, but any "analogs or derivatives" of the drug.
"If someone changes the chemical compound slightly and tries to market it, if we test it and it's the same thing, it's still illegal," Baylous said.
The goal of the bill, which Mike O'Neil, chairman of the West Virginia Controlled Substance Advisory Board and a pharmacy professor at the University of Charleston, helped draft, was to encompass all the designer drugs.
"The laws that are instituted for West Virginia are very thorough and probably the most encompassing of the states out there," he said. "The verbage is such in the bill that if they tweak it just a little bit to make it a different drug, it's still in the same category, so it will be covered."
Where West Virginia will run into a problem, he said, is that it is a small state surrounded by big states. "Ohio is a great example of where the laws are different," he said. "People are going to buy it there and come back here, and they are putting themselves at a great risk."
O'Neil said now that the law is in effect, the state should start seeing changes.
"We'll deal with some of that, of course," he said, "but I think people are moving in the right direction."
In January, Louisiana became the first state to classify bath salts as a Schedule 1 drug, meaning the selling, buying or possessing of the substance would incur the same legal penalties someone would get for selling, buying or possessing heroin.
Since then, Florida, Alabama, Utah and Kentucky have followed suit.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency labeled the product as a "drug of concern."
The state forensic labs are doing "a very good job," of being able to identify all of the chemicals that are in the makeup of bath salts and are cataloguing them and comparing them against known standards for other drugs, O'Neil said.
In the past two years, Dr. Kanwar Ajit Singh Sidhu, a Charleston psychiatrist who specializes in addiction, has seen a significant increase in the number of patients seeking treatment stemming from the use of bath salts.
The synthetic drug is highly addictive and very dangerous, said Sidhu, an assistant professor with the West Virginia Department of Behavioral Medicine and Psychiatry.
The drug first entered the market in the late 1920s in Europe, and has gone in and out fashion in countries around the world, Sidhu said.
To avoid FDA regulations, it's been marketed as plant foot and bath salts, among other items, he said.
Bath salts usually are packaged as a white powder or crystal substance that has a smell of fish, bleach or stale urine, Sidhu said.
There is no definitive research on how and in what dosage these drugs affect the body, but they are extremely harmful, he said.