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."
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FILE - In this Jan. 26, 2011 file photo, containers of bath salts, synthetic stimulants that mimic the effects of traditional drugs like cocaine and speed, sit on a counter at Hemp's Above in Mechanicsburg, Pa. On July 10, 2012, President Obama signed a law banning more than two dozen of the most common chemicals used to make the drugs. Over the past two years health care and law enforcement professionals have seen a surge in use of the drugs, often sold under the guise of bath salts, incense and plant food. (AP Photo/The Patriot-News, Chris Knight) MANDATORY CREDIT
FILE- In this Friday, Jan. 29, 2011, file photo, examples of fake "bath salts," are displayed by Senate Drug Policy Committee chairman Sid Albritton, R-Picayune, at the Capitol in Jackson, Miss. There
FILE - This undated file booking photo made available by the Miami-Dade Police Dept. shows Rudy Eugene, 31, who was shot and killed by Miami-Dade Police after he refused to stop eating another man's face in Miami on May 26, 2012. Lab tests detected only marijuana in the Eugene's system, the medical examiner said Wednesday, June 27, 2012, ruling out other street drugs including the components typically found in the stimulants known as bath salts. (AP Photo/Miami-Dade Police Dept., File)
Law enforcement personnel listen to a discussion on bath salts on Thursday, Aug. 2, 2012 in Montpelier, Vt. Days after a Vermont man's death was attributed to an overdose of designer drugs called bath salts, law enforcement personnel met to discuss the latest drug scourge to hit Vermont. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot)
In this Jan. 18, 2011 photo, Itawamba County inmate Neil Brown describes at the jail in Fulton, Miss., hallucinations he experienced after ingesting a bath salt powder that is being sold at convenience stores and over the Internet. The product, which can be legally purchased, contains stimulants which authorities claim can cause hallucinations, paranoia and suicidal thoughts and are now among the newest substances law enforcement agents are having to deal with in the streets. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
In this Jan. 18, 2011 photo, Itawamba County Sheriff Chris Dickinson holds a packet of what is being sold as bath salts at his office in Fulton, Miss. The product, which can be legally purchased, contain stimulants which authorities claim can cause hallucinations, paranoia and suicidal thoughts and are now among the newest substances law enforcement agents are having to deal with in the streets. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
FILE - This Feb. 15, 2010, file photo shows a package of K2, a concoction of dried herbs sprayed with chemicals. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder on Tuesday, June 19, 2012 signed bills banning so-called synthetic marijuana. The substance, sold under trade names like Spice and K2, has been available in stores as a mix of dried herbs and spices sprayed with chemicals. It has been blamed for health problems and violent behavior, especially among young people. (AP Photo/Kelley McCall, File)
This Tuesday, June 5, 2012 photo provided by the Bossier CIty Police Department shows William Bretherton, a reality TV show star known as Billy The Exterminator in a booking photo after his arrest in Bossier City, La. Bretherton and his wife, Mary, were arrested on drug possession charges in Bossier Parish when they surrendered to police on a warrant charging them with one count each of possession of synthetic marijuana and possession of drug paraphernalia. On Wednesday, the couple each entered pleas of not guilty in state District Court in Bossier Parish. (AP Photo/Bossier City Police Department)