02/10/2011 08:13 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Bath Salts: New Drug, Old Problem

There will always be a designer drug of the moment. Entrepreneurs constantly monitor the trends in street drugs and exploit these demands in order to brand and sell new products.

Four Loko and K2 come to mind as recent examples, and apparently the current drug du jour is "bath salts."

What's it going to be tomorrow? Melting light bulbs? Whenever we cut off supply of a particular substance, young people, through their own creativity, have found new ways to get high. What has made this pattern more noticeable is that we're now seeing more families under pressure and more individuals who use mind-altering drugs.

Recently, there's been a lot of buzz about "bath salts," the newest over-the-counter item teens are using to get high. The synthetic powder -- sold legally online and in drug paraphernalia stores under such names as "Ivory Wave" and "Purple Wave" -- has been linked to an alarming number of ER visits across the country. Although we are less than two months into 2011, the American Association of Poison Control Centers has fielded more calls about "bath salts" overdoses than in all of last year.

"Bath salts" may look innocent, but their effects are powerful. According to ONDCP Director Gil Kerlikowske's office, bath salts mimic the effects of cocaine and LSD, causing extreme paranoia and delusions, hallucinations, and suicidal thoughts, among other symptoms. Furthermore, an overdose on "bath salts" can have tragic consequences, as was the case with 21-year-old Dickie Sanders. Dickie snorted a packet of Cloud 9 "bath salts" and was overcome by terror and delirium -- he killed himself that same night.

Dickie's father, Richard Sanders, met with local law enforcement officials in their Louisiana hometown to discuss preventative measures for other teens and their families. "This stuff is poison," Richard told the judges, who promised to take immediate action against the accessibility of the drug. "You don't get high on it; you go crazy," Richard added. Fortunately, there is now no doubt that "bath salts" are highly dangerous, and several states are moving to ban them.

But we've been here before -- and banning another drug won't be enough to protect our kids unless we parents look at the underlying causes of our teens' substance abuse. When addressing drug accessibility and use, it is important to take supply and demand into account, but the "War on Drugs" has been focusing too much on supply alone. We all know that attempts to simply shut down the world's sources of drugs are not successful; instead we need to start focusing more on the demand, and examine the reasons so many individuals turn to drugs in the first place.

These are not problems we can simply legislate away. Our approach needs to be twofold: addressing substance abuse on both macro and micro levels. On a macro level, we cannot keep treating substance abuse as a legislative/criminal justice issue. Instead, we need to follow President Obama's lead and treat substance abuse as a public health issue. We also need to address addiction for what it is: a chronic health condition that must be individually managed.

On a micro level, much responsibility lies within individual families -- namely, with parents, many of whom may approach teen substance abuse from an unproductive angle. Parents should keep tabs on their kids, instead of just keeping tabs on the latest designer drug news. Instead of spending time learning the pharmacological details of "bath salts," Four Loko, or K2, parents should spend time with their kids and learn the reasons for their drug use. To discover and address these reasons, it's crucial to listen to the teen's point of view and foster ongoing family communication.

We as a society must examine why teens turn to mind-altering substances and we must deal with these root causes of drug use through education, prevention, intervention, and treatment. Only when we address the demand for drugs, not merely the supply, can we hope to safeguard our children.