Laura Ling contributed to this report.
Why would someone take a drug that can turn you into a psycho or a flesh eating zombie? If you've seen the "man eats face" video on YouTube, then you're probably familiar with bath salts, the drug behind the atrocity depicted there. But for former addicts, like 21 year-old ballet dancer Hannah, bath salts weren't seen as anything worse than an energy drink.
As veteran correspondent Laura Ling uncovers in Wednesday's broadcast of "SoCal Connected," this synthetic stimulant, which has nothing to do with the bath salts we bathe in, can cause violent hallucinations and paranoia. It's cheap and easy to get -- no drug dealer needed.
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Dr. Sean Nordt, director of toxicology at USC Medical Center, said he would expect that nearly every emergency department across the country has had experience with a bath salts patient at some point in the past few years.
"The ones that get picked on by the police are the violent ones, psychotic ones, and that's who usually goes into the hospital," Dr. Nordt said. "Bath salts is not far from meth and cocaine and PCP. Users are not using it because you go crazy; what we see in the videos or hear about, like the 'guy biting face off,' is not the majority of what happens. People use it because of easy access. It's fairly cheap, and so people do it more often and it lasts longer, but over time all these things combined set up the psychosis."
For Hannah, the hook and the psychosis happened fast. "It became my own personalized hell," she said.
Hannah was able to purchase it legally at Colorado gas stations and smoke shops by asking for "Bonsai Fertilizer," one of its dozens of nicknames. After just a few weeks of using the drug daily, Hannah began to have vivid hallucinations. She thought she was under constant surveillance, fearing that the smoke detectors in her home were video cameras. She picked at her skin until it bled because she felt like insects were crawling inside her arms and legs. She even nearly jumped out of a two-story window because the voices in her head were telling her to.
Despite a federal law signed by President Obama last year that banned two big ingredients of bath salts, MDPV and mephedrone, some smoke shops still sell it, and it's readily available online. According to attorney Phil Greer, the current regulations won't stop manufacturers from designing a new version of the drug that gets around existing laws.
"Someone is going to come up with a different name, a little bit of a different chemical formula, different packaging, and it's going to be back on the street... You don't know what they are mixing. You don't know if they are cutting it with Drano," Greer said.
Jed Wallace, founder of Street Relations Inc., has been on a crusade to shut down the sale of bath salts in head shops and online, where users often cue the supplier by asking for a "legal high."
"This is not the same dynamic as before," Wallace said. "There's no 'underground' element. This is a new class of drug manufacturer. They manipulate the Internet and the information. What's protecting bath salt sellers is the [U.S. Food and Drug Administration]. As long as the packaging says 'not for human consumption,' the FDA is protecting bath salts. This is the first time we've seen this. We're fighting technology, access, ease of information and the FDA."
Watch "SoCal Connected" tonight at 5:30 p.m. as Laura Ling exposes the tragic world of bath salts.