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Bangor's Battle Against 'Bath Salts' Yields Lessons for Other Communities

BANGOR, Maine - Three years ago, "bath salts" were big news in Maine. The synthetic drugs were blamed for acts of bizarre behavior and crimes that had law enforcement and emergency room doctors scrambling.

But now, the use of these drugs is on the decline. And Maine's response to the problem has served as a model for cities and states around the country.

Retired Bangor Police Lt. Tom Reagan remembers a call he got back in 2011. "I'm monitoring the radio," he recalls. "I was the third one to arrive. Two officers arrived just before I did."

Reagan, who was the department's night commander at the time, is standing in front of the house where the call took place. As the cruisers pulled up, a woman in her 20's was looking up at the trees, screaming, "because her boyfriend was up there with five other women," Reagan says.

No one was up in the trees. At the time, Reagan says officers thought she was psychotic. "This particular girl was addicted early on and we dealt with her almost nightly," he says. "We'd get calls from her boyfriend that she was paranoid and threatening to kill him."

The girl was high on a street drug commonly called bath salts, which no one knew existed.

"It kind of just spread like wildfire," says Tim Shaw, an overdose prevention specialist with Bangor's public health department. Shaw says the drug caused havoc. Users would take their clothes off in public and violently threaten police officers, jail guards, emergency room doctors and nurses on a daily basis.

Shaw did research in effort to find out exactly what Bangor was dealing with. "I tried to figure out what's out there for education, what's out there for just materials to distribute," he says. "And there was - couldn't find anything. Really, we just had to start from the ground up."

Doctors, police, city leaders, public health workers - they had to start thinking like scientists, graphic designers, even marketing specialists. The city needed an attention-grabbing way to warn the community about the dangerous drug's familiar name, and the seductive, colorful packets it came in.

"Warning - Bath Salts," read one flyer from the city health department. "This is not a beauty aid." Businesses down town, reeling from encounters with bath salts users, displayed the flyer prominently in their storefront windows. And this video kicked off one of the many public forums held throughout the Bangor and beyond.

Audio from video: "I was emaciated. I lost about 40 pounds in those three weeks. I wasn't eating. I wasn't sleeping."

Word began to get out. But one key piece of the strategy was missing: "We needed laws," says Roy McKinney, of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency.

McKinney says that in early 2011, bath salts could be legally purchased in gas stations and head shops. Laws were eventually passed banning the sale and possession of the drug.

And slowly, as 2011 gave way to 2012, Bangor was able to get the crisis under control, heading off its biggest fear - that teenagers would start using bath salts in large numbers. Mary Elliot is with Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America.

"When it comes to young people," Elliot says, "obviously perception of harm and risk is a big driver in whether they're going to try a drug."

Elliot says media coverage of the shocking behavior exhibited by bath salts users has helped steer teenagers away from the drug. Use of synthetic drugs, including bath salts, started falling nationwide in 2012.