'Bath Salts': Evil Lurking at Your Corner Store

Lethal yet often legal, drugs known as bath salts are devastating families

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Alexander Ho for TIME

I checked my disguise in the mirror: a ski hat and sunglasses did a good job of concealing my identity, even if I did look absurd. Normally I would have shared a laugh with my staff about this, but what we were doing that day was hardly funny. A few blocks away, at a tobacco shop, I spent $80 to buy several packages of drugs that when snorted have a similar effect as ecstasy but are much more toxic. There was no back-alley drug dealer; there were no lowered voices or code words — just a small-business owner making a sale. I am telling you today, first as a father and then as a doctor, that the ease of that transaction chilled me. Kids everywhere are in danger from this substance, and the threat is legal, cheap and very deadly.

Bath salts (also nicknamed plant food) is slang for a group of products that contain methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV) or mephedrone — stimulant hallucinogens that prevent the reuptake of norepinephrine, dopamine and serotonin. Keeping your brain drenched in these feel-good chemicals can lead to euphoria — but also to seizures, tachycardia, paranoia, hallucinations, violence and death. A precursor to MDPV was developed in the 1960s as an antifatigue medication, but it was too dangerous for widespread use. That didn't stop the formula from leaking — or kitchen chemists from figuring it out themselves. Today packages are sold under such names as Kush Blitz, Lovey Dovey, White Lightning and Euphoria. They are usually marked with the warning NOT FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION, a labeling trick that's meant to sidestep government regulation.

In 2010 there were 302 calls to poison-control centers nationwide about bath salts. In just the first three months of 2011, there were 784. There were also roughly 1,500 bath-salt-related visits to emergency rooms in the first quarter of this year. A common cause of death from the drug is suicide; kids who survive often endure long-term psychiatric symptoms.

After I made my undercover purchase, I sat down with a couple whose son had killed himself while suffering complete psychosis after ingesting a product called Cloud 9. Dickie Sanders, who died in November 2010 at the age of 21, was the son of Richard and Julie Sanders, both Louisiana physicians, who have pushed themselves to speak out against MDPV. "We've got to get rid of it. We can't have another family go through this," says Julie.

Parents of victims are not the only ones waking up to the MDPV risk. Mark Ryan, director of the Louisiana poison-control center, counted 178 emergency-room calls for MDPV overdoses before the state removed bath salts from store shelves in January 2011. Florida, Michigan and Hawaii have imposed similar bans. But so far the federal government has not acted. I wanted to know why and asked the Drug Enforcement Administration. A DEA spokesman responded, "This is a chemical of concern, and we are taking aggressive steps to determine how it can be controlled."

Intellectually, I understand that the DEA must study things before it acts, but as a father, I am outraged that there could be more Dickie Sanderses while we all wait for the new rules to be devised and put into effect. Britain, Finland, Australia, Germany, Denmark and Sweden have all acted to ban or control MDPV. In the U.S., a grocer will incur a severe fine for selling tobacco to a minor but can still freely sell this supercharged instrument of suffering.

As we wait for the federal government to act, however, there are ways to keep kids safe. You can raise awareness by writing to your congressional representative, governor or state legislator. (There's a link for doing so on doctoroz.com. More important, you can talk to your kids and dispel the deadly myth that this poison is safe because it's available over the counter. The tiniest word and the smallest gesture to let teens know they are loved can be the best defense against their need for escape — especially when what they'd be escaping to can be a pharmacological hell.

Mehmet Oz is vice chairman and professor of surgery at the New York Presbyterian Columbia University Medical Center, a best-selling author and the host of the nationally syndicated television talk show The Dr. Oz Show

This article originally appeared in the April 25, 2011 issue of TIME.