Banning bath salts

Brown’s bipartisan measure addresses a growing problem

Establishing the point at which a substance becomes so dangerous as to become illegal is not often easy. In the case of cathinones – known more commonly as bath salts – it could not be more clear.

The substance, sold in single-dose packets for $20 to $30, has a brief but troubling history on the streets. It is readily available in head shops and has made its presence troublingly renowned among medical professionals, law-enforcement officials, parents and friends of those who use it.

Its effect is similar to that of methamphetamines, and too often, partaking in bath salts results in trips to the emergency room, jail or both. It is nasty stuff.

Senate Bill 116, sponsored by Sen. Joyce Foster, D-Denver, and Rep. J. Paul Brown, R-Ignacio, is a bipartisan, reasonable and responsive legislative attempt to curb bath salts’ presence on the streets, criminalizing possession of the substance. It has made slow progress through the Legislature because of technical issues, but it deserves passage.

The measure would make it a misdemeanor to possess bath salts and a class 3 felony to manufacture, sell or otherwise distribute it. That distinction is an important one in that it focuses its severity on the source of the problem – those who put the substance into circulation – and allow some leniency among users who may not know just how damaging cathinones can be. As Rep. Daniel Kagan, D-Cherry Hills Village, said, extending some leniency to users – particularly young people – is appropriate as the substance shifts from being legal to controlled.

“If we start making kids felons for buying a sachet of what they think was recently completely legal, then we are creating criminals,” Kagan said.

That is not to say that there should be any implicit sanctioning of the substance.

In their relatively short time on the scene, bath salts have quickly gained notoriety for their ability to profoundly alter users’ behavior, both when they are under the substance’s influence and afterward.

Emergency room personnel, law enforcement, parents and friends of users have dramatic stories about the effects bath salts can evoke. More than one patient has had to be placed under general anesthesia to counteract the stimulant. Parents have watched their formerly sweet and engaging children become withdrawn and aggressive.

That a substance so powerful – and negatively so – should be available at checkstands across the state is deeply troubling, and SB 116 correctly aims right at the heart of that problem. The first priority should be to make bath salts difficult to access by making the substance illegal and attaching to it the stigma it deserves.

Making possession of bath salts a misdemeanor lets users know in no uncertain terms that the substance is dangerous. Taking that message up a notch by imposing upon those who make or sell bath salts a felony charge as well as a hefty fine further reinforces the severity of the issue.

Addressing the very real and too often tragic ramifications of substance use and abuse is not a partisan issue, and Brown is right to recognize the importance of acting swiftly but also reasonably in responding to the emerging problems that bath salts have wrought.

SB 116 reasonably and effectively addresses a very real situation in a manner that can help curb bath salts’ presence. There is nothing but good to come from that.