The plastic packets are labeled "bath salts," but don't be fooled.
Marketed with catchy, soft names such as "Ivory Wave" and "Cloud Nine," these faux bath salts contain potent powders that will get you high and could send you into a paranoid, delusional spin that might leave you dead.
"It's kind of like fake cocaine, fake meth, but it's causing symptoms that are nowhere near fake," said Anthony Scalzo, medical director of the Missouri Poison Center at Cardinal Glennon Children's Medical Center in St. Louis.
The so-called "bath salts" are the latest wave of legal highs — similar to the synthetic marijuana K-2 — that states are combating with new laws. It's an emerging problem that has been linked to suicides and addiction.
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Although called bath salts, they're nothing like the legitimate minerals, Epsom salts and fragrances some people pour into the tub at the end of a stressful day.
The powder is more like a cousin to cocaine or methamphetamine. It can be snorted, injected or eaten. And it's legal, at least for now, in Missouri and Kansas.
Legislatures in both states are moving to outlaw the compounds that are mixed with an otherwise harmless powder. Louisiana, Florida and North Dakota already ban such products, and several other states are moving in that direction.
Last December, the U.S. Justice Department sounded the alarm when it warned about the increasing abuse of the drugs. Last month, the White House drug czar said they posed a serious health threat to children.
"The marketing and sale of these poisons as 'bath salts' is both unacceptable and dangerous," said Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
The powders — equal in size to a crushed aspirin — sell for $19 to $50 at convenience stores, gas stations, smoke shops and over the Internet. By comparison, a 20-ounce jar of real bath salts is available at many stores for about $4 to $5.
Efforts to reach the distributors and makers of the products for comment were unsuccessful.
The sellers are "distracting you with the notion that this is a bath salt when it's really not," said Scott Collier, spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration. "They're just trying to draw you in, so they'll call it something that it's not."
Packages of the drugs are even labeled to warn against human consumption, authorities said.
"No one that's buying this is putting it in their bath. They couldn't afford to," said Detective Frank Till, who has investigated the drugs for the St. Joseph, Mo., Police Department.
The substance can get the heart pumping so fast that some users have said it felt like their chests might explode. It can also leave users highly agitated, paranoid, irritable and experiencing hallucinations.
Reported cases of adverse reactions to the synthetic drugs include:
* A 29-year-old St. Joseph, Mo., man who killed himself last fall after using bath salts that caused him to have hallucinogenic conversations.
* A Mississippi man who sliced his face and stomach with a skinning knife after getting high on bath salts.
* A 21-year-old KU student who was killed after he ran onto I-35 near Salina in December. A container of bath salts was found on him. Authorities are awaiting the results of a toxicology report.
* A 22-year-old St. Louis man who injured his hand when he punched holes in the wall of his home after going on a six-day bath salt binge. He reportedly thought someone was watching him from behind the walls.
'Like walking death'
John Moody witnessed first-hand the toll that bath salts can take. His son, Jarrod, fatally shot himself in St. Joseph last October after taking the drugs for more than two weeks. Jarrod had a history of drug addiction, his father said, but he appeared to have beaten it after taking a new job two years ago.
But then everything changed.
Suddenly, Jarrod would start having conversations with nobody. He couldn't sleep and would barely eat.
"Things were just going downhill so fast," his father said.
Days before he died, it appeared as if Jarrod had lost 30 pounds. His cheeks were sunken. He had dark circles under his eyes, and he shook uncontrollably.
"It brought tears to my eyes, he looked so bad," Moody said of his son. "He looked like walking death."
The sister of Elijah Taylor, who was killed on I-35 in Salina, also blamed her brother's death on bath salts.
Brandy Taylor told lawmakers in recent testimony that the drug caused a panic attack in which her brother started screaming and hallucinating. He fought with his best friend and ended up being left on the side of the road.
When he tried to flag down a ride, he was hit by a van.
Calls to poison control centers nationwide also are steadily increasing — more than 600 this year so far connected to bath salts. That's more than double the calls received last year.
There have been at least a dozen calls to KU Hospital's Poison Control Center about the drugs, said Tama Sawyer, the center's director. The Missouri Poison Control Center has received 40 calls so far this year about adverse reactions to the drugs. The center received 18 calls in all of 2010.
Although bath salts appear to be pervasive in Johnson County, it's not translating into a lot of seizures by law enforcement because the substance isn't illegal yet and it's still so new.
With K-2, it took police about six months to realize it was showing up in schools, said Jeremiah Morris, senior forensic scientist at the Johnson County Sheriff's Office.
"With bath salts, it's about the same thing," he said. "It's taken us a while to recognize there's a problem and recognize exactly what they're using. We're starting to pick up on it, and we're working as quickly as we can to figure out ways to address the problem."