'Zombie-like' Miami face-eating attack spurs state crackdown on bath salts, synthetic drugs

MIAMI - They can be as easy to buy as aspirin, right over the counter -- if you know where to look. Bath salts, incense, potpourri -- they sound innocent enough. But they're really dangerous drugs that are being sold across store counters, snorted and smoked throughout South Florida.

The state has struggled to control these drugs as manufacturers stay one step ahead of them by changing ingredients to skirt the law.

Frustration reached a fever pitch this week with speculation that the Causeway Cannibal may have been on bath salts when he chewed off most of a man's face in Miami on Saturday.

"The minute they ban a substance, [drug manufacturers] change the formula," said Palm Beach County Sheriff's Lt. Dennis St. Cyr, who works in the narcotics division.

Many so-called "bath salts" are sold in small packets under names including Ivory Wave, Bliss and Vanilla Sky. Most come with labels that say they are not for human consumption and are intended as real bath salts to sooth customers. Others claim to serve as deodorizers and pool and spa cleaners.

In reality, they have contained chemicals such as mephedrone and MDPV that produce a high similar to illegal narcotics such as cocaine and methamphetamines. They come in tiny jars, resemble crystals, and are packaged in quantities small enough to be snorted or swallowed.


Photos: Gruesome attack in Miami (WARNING: Graphic)



Florida banned those chemicals last year, then had to add 92 chemicals to its list of banned ingredients this year to keep up with the manufacturers.

It's exasperating to see stores continue to rake in money from these dangerous drugs, St. Cyr said.  His office gets frequent complaints about stores that keep selling the stuff, he said, but it's hard for police to arrest store owners. First, they have to prove the products are being sold to be snorted, swallowed or smoked, even though they are always labeled "not for human consumption."

Then deputies have to send the drugs to a lab to see if they contain illegal chemicals, which often takes weeks.

"It's aggravating to me to know that people are manufacturing this knowing that it makes kids sick and they don't care," St. Cyr said.

It'll be weeks before anyone knows for sure whether Rudy Eugene was even on drugs — traditional or synthetic — when he mauled Ronald Poppo on the MacArthur Causeway last Saturday.

But some South Florida cities aren't waiting for the coroner's report. Horrified by the attack, they are adding bath salts to their previously announced plans to ban the sale of synthetic marijuana – marketed as "potpourri" and "incense" but packaged in quantities too small and expensive to be taken seriously as those legitimate items.

In Miami-Dade County, the city of Sweetwater announced Wednesday that it will ban the sale of small packages labeled "bath salts" within its limits.

Sweetwater's plan targets disguised usage — if stores are going to label products "bath salts," for example, the city will require the stores to sell in quantities typical of the legitimate product. That would make jars of the synthetic drugs ridiculously expensive while having no effect on real bath salts, potpourri and incense, said city spokeswoman Michelle Hammontree-Garcia.

"Instead of playing catch-up with all the chemicals they're introducing, [we are] attacking the vehicle instead of what's inside the vehicle," she said.

In Broward County, the city of Sunrise also is considering extending its ban on fake marijuana to include bath salts, Mayor Mike Ryan said Wednesday.

"The local and national reports of terrible side effects, and even psychosis and violence, require us to take immediate action to protect our community," Ryan said.

Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler said the Miami attack gave him " chills," but he wants to hold off on banning bath salts until more is known about what drugs Eugene may have been taking that day.

"There is a lot of speculation as to what happened," said Seiler, who is pushing for a citywide ban on fake pot. "We'll wait and see how the facts play out."

Richard Radcliffe, executive director of the Palm Beach County League of Cities, agreed.

"This is very new," he said. "We are in information-gathering mode."

Pembroke Pines Commissioner Angelo Castillo has suggested a citywide ban on fake pot. Like Seiler, he wants to proceed with caution before calling for a ban on bath salts. But he did not rule it out, either.

"The cities are deeply involved [in banning sythetic drugs] because the state can't seem to get on top of it," Castillo said. "We see cities jumping in to handle it, because the state isn't. Otherwise people die and people's faces get chewed off. This is the next horizon in the war on drugs and we need to gear up and deal with it."

Owners and managers of some smoke shops in Broward County said on Wednesday they have abandoned selling anything that resembles "bath salts."

Jerry Moore, of Peace Pipe shop in Oakland Park, said his business went even further

last year by imposing a self-ban on the "incense" that other shops still sell.

"Did it cost us? Quite a bit. Did it cost us the people who came here regularly? Quite a bit," Moore said. "We got together and decided it was not worth it in the long run."

A check of several stores in Oakland Park and Fort Lauderdale on Wednesday turned up nothing except the "incense," which authorities have said is used as "synthetic marijuana." The packages have names like Cloud Nine, Green Buddha, Bizzaro and Guci, and their prices ranged from $15 to $50.

Some head shop owners suggested that some of Broward's smaller convenience stores may still sell "bath salts" or variations of them.

But even if they can't be found in shops, they're readily available for purchase online.

A company called "Am-Hi-Co" posted on its Facebook page on Tuesday — just days after the causeway attack — that all of its "bath salts" are on sale.

On its website, the company boasted "bath salts" with different blends that are legal in certain states.

For instance, a bath salt called Ivory Wave "brings the invigorating waters of Greece's famed hot springs to the comfort of your home."

The company claims the ingredients in the product's "Formula #4" version meets all Florida requirements.

The company states that it is accepting only "direct money transfers" from customers in the United States.  

"We have prepared a little surprise for all of you! Have a great day!" read the company's latest status update.

Staff writer Susannah Bryan contributed to this report.

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