This summer, the synthetic drugs known as bath salts alarmed emergency responders all over upstate New York, including in Jefferson County. In Watertown, they dealt with unstable, violent users several times a day. But lawmakers and law enforcement at the local, state and federal levels have been responding with crackdowns on the drugs. Now, both police and hospital officials in Watertown say cases are down sharply.
Back in July, bath salts were causing big problems for police and hospital staff in and around Watertown. Krista Kittle is a spokesperson for Samaritan Medical Center.
"Not only was the number of people coming in concerning, but also the attention that they required from the staff, the level of violence that these individuals came in with, was really something that we had never encountered before," Kittle said.
Kittle said bath salts patients required lots of time and attention, using up vast resources that otherwise could have gone to help other patients.
Meanwhile, police were confronting users who were unpredictable and difficult to control. Sheriff John Burns said the bath salts trend was one reason the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department decided to start carrying tasers. Several officers were injured during scuffles with users, he said.
"They're very violent. They really don't feel pain. You know, so, the pepper spray – when they'd get pepper sprayed, it had no effect on them at all. They would wipe it off their face and continue to fight," Burns said.
Elected officials began to take notice of the problem. In July, President Barack Obama signed into law a ban on many of the classes of chemicals used to make bath salts drugs. The law was followed by a nationwide raid led by the Drug Enforcement Administration on manufacturing facilities and retail outlets. DEA agents seized chemicals in Watertown and throughout central and northern New York.
In August, the New York State Department of Health issued regulations to crack down on the drugs. And now Jefferson County is working on its own potential ban on bath salts.
Sheriff Burns said the enforcement efforts are working.
"Certainly, by closing down some of these shops around the city here, that's certainly shown a big decrease in it – you know, just getting it off the streets, so that these people can't obtain it, is gonna slow it down," he said.
Samaritan's Krista Kittle said the drop in cases at the hospital has been remarkable.
"We actually saw a dramatic drop in the cases that presented to the emergency department, going from the three to five a day at the peak to nowadays with no cases presenting," she said. "So this quick action by the law enforcement and our elected officials really has made a tremendous impact on the emergency department."
Even with some relief now for hospital workers and emergency responders, Sheriff Burns thinks he hasn't seen the last of the bath salts trend. Burns said if there's money to be made, people are going to keep making and selling the drugs.