Abuse Of Synthetic Drugs Declines Across U.S.

Dec 16, 2014
Originally published on December 17, 2014 1:46 pm
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And a few more results from that Monitoring the Future study. Alcohol use among teens is at its lowest point since the survey began in 1975, and the use of illicit drugs is also declining. Fewer teens report taking ecstasy, synthetic marijuana and hallucinogenic mushrooms than in previous years.

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There's also been a steep drop in the use of drugs known as bath salts. Bath salts are a stimulant. They contain chemicals similar to amphetamines. Bangor, Maine, experienced a serious of spike in the abuse of bath salts a few years ago. Reporter Jay Field has this story on how the city tackled the problem.

JAY FIELD, BYLINE: I meet Lieutenant Tom Reagan outside a bakery to talk about bath salts, 2011 and how crazy things got in Bangor, Maine's second largest city.

TOM REAGAN: I'm monitoring the radio. I was the third one to arrive. Two officers arrived just before I did.

FIELD: Reagan, who's retired now, is the former night commander at the Bangor Police Department. We've walked over to the house where this call took place. As the cruisers pulled up, a woman in her 20s was looking up at the trees, screaming.

REAGAN: Because her boyfriend was up there with about five other women.

FIELD: No one was up in the trees. At the time, officers thought she was psychotic.

REAGAN: This particular girl was addicted early on, and we dealt with her almost nightly. We'd get calls from her boyfriend that, you know, she was paranoid and threatening to kill him.

FIELD: The girl was high on bath salts, a drug that no one knew existed. Tim Shaw is an overdose prevention specialist with Bangor's public health department.

TIM SHAW: It kind of just spread like wildfire.

FIELD: Users would take their clothes off in public and violently threaten police officers, jail guards, emergency room doctors and nurses on a daily basis. Shaw did research in an effort to find out exactly what Bangor was dealing with.

SHAW: I tried to figure out, you know, what's out there for education, what's out there for, you know, just materials to distribute, and there was - couldn't find anything. So really we just had to start from the ground up.

FIELD: Doctors, cops, city leaders, public health workers - they had to start thinking like scientists, graphic designers, even marketing gurus. The city needed an attention-grabbing way to counter the drug's familiar name and the seductive, colorful packets it came in. Jennifer Comstock works with Shaw at the public health department.

JENNIFER COMSTOCK: Tim put together a flyer.

FIELD: Warning - bath salts, read the red and white flyer. This is not a beauty aid. Businesses downtown reeling from encounters with bath salts users displayed the flyer prominently in their storefront windows.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I was emaciated. I'd lost about 40 pounds in those three weeks. I wasn't eating. I wasn't sleeping.

FIELD: This video warning kicked off one of the many public forums held throughout Bangor and beyond. Word began to get out. But one key piece of the strategy was missing.

ROY MCKINNEY: We needed laws.

FIELD: Roy McKinney heads the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency. In early 2011, bath salts, he notes, could be legally purchased in gas stations and head shops. Laws were eventually passed banning the sale and possession of the drug. And slowly, as 2011 gave way to 2012, Bangor was able to get the crisis under control, heading off its biggest fear - that teenagers would start using bath salts in large numbers. Mary Elliott is with Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America.

MARY ELLIOT: When it comes to young people, obviously, perception of harm and risk is a big driver in whether they're going to try a drug.

FIELD: Elliott says media coverage of the shocking behaviors exhibited by bath salts users helped steer teenagers away from the drug. Use of synthetic drugs, including bath salts, started falling nationwide in 2012, a trend that continued this year, according to the University of Michigan's annual Monitoring the Future report. For NPR News, I'm Jay Field. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.