The latest narcotic to burst into the headlines is bath salts -- a powerful synthetic drug that has caused a quasi-public panic over the past year because it seemed to unleash psychotic, violent behavior in users.
But evidence suggests that the tide of people misusing the previously legal drug is receding, according to statistics based on the number of calls to poison control centers in the U.S.
However, it's been difficult to tell that things are getting better. The media has been saturated with real-life horror stories about the strange new substance that has seemed to turn grounded citizens into deranged monsters.
A prison guard allegedly committed battery, burglary and more during a mini crime spree across two southern Illinois towns while possibly intoxicated on the drug. A mom supposedly got high on the ever-evolving formula of chemicals and raised hell in the hospital shortly after giving birth in Pennsylvania as well.
In the granddaddy of all bath salts-induced atrocities, speculation spread wildly that a Miami man, Rudy Eugene, had taken the drug before he gnawed on the face of a homeless man.
This story turned out to be untrue -- tests detected only marijuana in Eugene's body after the attack. But that didn't matter much -- the media had determined the zombie apocalypse was upon us and it was nourished by bath salts.
The number of people who have actually called poison control centers about harmful reactions to the drug has plummeted since last October. That's around the same time the Drug Enforcement Administration banned several of the chemicals in bath salts, which combines the effects of speed and hallucinogens In the last six months of 2011, there were 3,490 bath salts-related calls, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers. Through the first half of this year, that number fell to 1,717
That doesn't mean the fad is over. Though the numbers are down compared to 2011, they're still far higher than 2010, when there were 304 for the entire year. It also doesn't mean bath salts aren't dangerous. It does, however, suggest that the countrywide binge is subsiding.
Frequently sold in gas stations with names like "Eight Ballz" and "Mr. Nice Guy," bath salts were consumed as a legal substitute for stimulants like cocaine or methamphetamine. They packed a psychadelic effect that is supposedly comparable to LSD, which helped heighten its allure.
"The big appeal at the time was that you could get high on something that wouldn't turn up in a drug test," said DEA spokeswoman Barbara Correno. "These were more potent than the drugs they were replacing."
Bath salts appeared in the U.S. after spreading through Europe a few years ago. Active ingredients like methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MPDV), mephedrone and pyrovalerone are imported to the U.S. and manufactured by entrepreneurial drug dealers who package and distribute them. The operations are often run on a small scale, Correno said.
A combination of tightened regulations at the local and federal levels combined with increased awareness of the drugs' risks might explain the sudden drop off seen in the poison control stats.
"We do believe that prevention strategies led to reduced consumption," Dr. Wesley Clark, director of the government's Center for Substance Abuse Treatment told The Huffington Post. "It was never a high frequency event, it was a drug du jour," among people 18 to 25, he said.
"The age group ... is made up of individuals who are willing to take chances, but as they get information, they become aware that they're playing Russian roulette," Clark said.
In July, President Barack Obama signed a law banning many of the chemicals used in bath salts as well as those found in synthetic marijuana. States have enacted stricter controls too. That's expected to make the drugs disappear from the shelves of gas stations and convenience stores around the country.
Also last month, federal agents carried out "Operation Log Jam," which led to 91 arrests and was touted as the first national raid against the synthetic drug industry.
Soon there will be a clearer picture of how many people have had negative experiences with bath salts. The number of people treated in emergency rooms for exposure to the drugs will be tallied by a Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration survey, which will be released in the coming months. Reliable estimates on how many people recreationally use the drugs are not currently available.
Compared to the earlier battles in the war on drugs against crack and crystal meth, the fight against bath salts has seen some swift results.
But bath salts producers are nimble too. They flout laws by tinkering with chemicals to come up with new compounds outside the ban and add warning labels to their packets that say the product isn't intended for human consumption.
The reduced number of poison control calls is encouraging, but experts want to continue studying the drug's effects. In the short-term, bath salts can raise heart rate and blood pressure, and in bad cases, cause extreme paranoia and suicidal thoughts. The long range effects are unknown, though researchers suspect they're addictive.
"You don't know what you're getting on the street," the National Institute on Drug Abuse's Dr. David Shurtleff told HuffPost. "It's very hard to keep up with all the chemicals."
HuffPost Live will be taking a comprehensive look at America’s failed war on drugs Sept. 4 from 12-4 p.m. EDT and 6-10 p.m. EDT. Click here to check it out -- and join the conversation.
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