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Which is Worse: A Bath Salt Epidemic or a Zombie Outbreak?


Last Thanksgiving, I made it home to Pennsylvania for a visit. What I found nearly defied description. My friends in Florida had witnessed the havoc wreaked by pill mills. They'd seen someone in the throes of an oxy bender. Suffice it to say, they weren't easily impressed with even the most lurid horror stories regarding even the most depraved drug addicts. "It was like my hometown was in the midst of some sort of zombie epidemic," I heard myself say. That's when I realized that as ridiculous as the words sounded, I had finally found an apt analogy.  

"Bath salts" are a common street name for several designer drugs that contain chemicals like methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV), mephedrone, and pyrovalerone; amphetamine-like chemicals that are often sold over the counter or online by calling them anything from bath salts to plant food or even jewelry cleaner. The drugs are stimulants which affect the brain by producing feelings of euphoria, intense alertness and increased sensory awareness that can lead to vivid hallucinations. The heart beats faster, blood pressure soars and people get so hot that it's not unusual to see them stripped down to skivs and still sweating profusely, even outdoors during PA's most frigid months.

The drugs are technically illegal in at least 41 states (including PA and Florida) and there is a federal ban as well, but suppliers have routinely skirted the laws by changing the chemical structure along with the code-name product the drugs are marketed under. They also often include a "not for human consumption" warning on the package in another attempt to avoid criminality.

I grew up in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, or the Skook as it's affectionately known. It is an area that has suffered through a long history of problems with pervasive drug addiction. In that way, it's no different than a lot of small, economically-depressed places that have fared poorly in the post-industrial economy. The stories are the same, but for some reason, the drugs are often different, perhaps reflecting the particular brand of desperation most prevalent in any particular geographical region.

When the crack epidemic broke out in the '80s, there was a lot of media attention focused on the inner city slums of New York and Los Angeles. But in the Skook, bikers were cooking up crank, aka "poor man's coke" – a forerunner to crystal meth that was cut with powder and produced a high not unlike other earlier forms of Benzedrine-based speed. While I saw some people succumb to debilitating addiction, it was for the most part a far more manageable drug. Functional crank addicts were more the norm – everyone from waitresses to truck drivers dropping a bit of disposable income on a handy pick-me-up; kids fueling long nights of drinking beer around the bonfire.

In the '90s, the ecstasy craze was largely confined to the college towns and bigger cities, while the Skook went mostly unscathed, though the much more pure and powerful crystal meth was beginning to replace old-school biker crank as the stimulant of choice. These new meth-heads were about as functional as tits on a bull, and that was the first time we started to experience the sort of widespread, life-crushing problems that start to chip away at a community's foundation. People were losing their jobs, their homes and their families at a rate we hadn't seen with past drug fads. Meanwhile, heroin always pretty much mirrored trends elsewhere.

When I was writing about the Florida pill mill epidemic in recent years, I was surprised to learn that the Skook had fared significantly better on that front, though it was right around the same time that I started hearing about widespread use of new quasi-legal designer drugs. Some were called synthetic marijuana or synthetic heroin on the street. On the shelves of local gas stations and convenience stores, they went by names like Spice, K2 and eventually – bath salts.


I'd been hearing the tales for a long time, but by that last trip home the scope had become unthinkable. One after another, I heard dozens of stories about the ranks of friends and acquaintances who'd jumped to the dark side and become a "salter." It wasn't just the usual suspects either. Smart people with good jobs and intact families saw their lives quickly circle the drain before nose-diving down the pipe and into oblivion.

The stories didn't just come via unsolicited updates either. In too many instances, "salts" was the one-word answer to a question as to what a particular old friend was up to these days.

"I haven't seen Brian in a while," I told an old friend who I ran into at the pub.

"He lives two blocks from here, but he wouldn't know who you were if you paid him a visit," he said.

"Huh? What happened?"

He shook his head, as if to say who knows, and took a swig from his bottle before turning back to me.

"Whatever happens to people after they stay up for 32 days straight on salts and have one too many hallucinations about werewolves," he deadpanned.

All of it felt surreal. I was without a frame of reference. This many people couldn't be off the grid, living some underground life as fiends with an insatiable craving for some drug you bought in a head shop with cartoon pictures on the box. Then it happened ... I saw one.

She was a formerly gorgeous girl, five years my junior and daughter of a family friend. Her face was hollowed out so deep that it called to mind the Skeletor character from the horrible live-action movie, based on the He-Man cartoon. Her once full lips were now pencil thin and scabbed over on at least half of their surface area. The doe-eyed baby blues I remembered as her most striking feature had narrowed into slits, leaving her with only a permanent expression that seemed to drip with cynicism. Then there was the assortment of scabs and open cuts dotting her face. Her teeth looked like they'd begun rotting in place and her once-curvy body had thinned to the point that I might have missed her, had she been standing sideways rather than facing me straight on.

"That's the first one I've seen," I told a friend who I was with at the time.

"Yeah, overall you don't see too many of them once they get that bad," he explained. "They're usually holed up in some house wiggin' out or trying to come up with some way to score. Some of them are so fried they don't even understand what they're going through."

If you want to know what a salter looks like, check out the Faces of Meth website, a project begun by the Multnomah County (Oregon) Sheriff’s Office. It compares mug shots of repeat offenders with dates on the photos, so you can see the quick progression and gruesome results of getting involved with that similar drug. Or just search "zombie images," which you'll quickly see don't differ all that much, even with the help of Hollywood make-up artists.

                                                   Can you tell the zombie from the junkie?

How could this happen? was the thought that kept going through my mind. But I already knew the answer. It was part of the reason I'd for so long been living in exile from a beautiful place that I love and am proud to call home. Put simply, the absence of opportunity breeds desperation, and desperate times often produce disastrous outcomes.

The Skook wasn't always such a grim place. During the heyday of King Coal, prosperity abounded. Pottsville, the county seat and home of America's oldest brewery (Yuengling), even had an NFL football team that won (and was stripped of) the 1925 world championship. Red Grange called the Pottsville Maroons the "most ferocious" team he ever played against after they knocked the NFL legend out cold on the very first snap, before going on to beat his Chicago Bears.

In addition to Yuengling and the Maroons, the small and sparsely-populated county that sits about midway between Philly and the Pocono Mountains, gave the world John O'Hara, the Molly Maguires, the Dorsey Brothers, Mrs. T's Pierogies and the medicinal wonder of Boilo. Muhammad Ali's famed Deer Lake training camp still sits up on one of its more scenic mountains.

But once they'd taken all the coal from the ground (the few operations left are all mountain-top removal), the high times dried up. A somewhat thriving correctional industry and a few remaining plants and facotories simply don't provide enough living-wage jobs for even the declining populations of most of its towns, and the brightest young minds too often leave skid marks to head out for greener pastures. This is unfortunately the story of too many small towns in 21st century America and not all that different from the circumstances that made Manatee County a soft target for the pill mill epidemic.

Like I said, we've managed to mostly avoid the bath salt nastiness. Our folks seem to prefer the fade to black, slow crawl stupor of opiates over the million-mile-a-minute night train favored by the Skooks. Let's hope it stays that way, though MOLLY, a purer version of the club drug ecstasy – which has made its presence felt on the Gulf Coast – has been turning up cut with bath salts in other places.

If you're into the scene and do find yourself presented with the opportunity to sample some salts, let me tell you this much. Of all the sordid stories I heard, not a single one told of someone who'd just dabbled in bath salts, experimented harmlessly or were otherwise successful in using it even somewhat responsibly as a recreational drug. If there was a story about an ex-addict who got help, turned their life around – the kind that even notorious drugs like heroin and crack will produce from time to time – I didn't hear it. In other words, not a single happy ending.

That being said, tootin' a rail of this toxic junk would seem about as ill-advised as offering a flesh-eating zombie a little nibble off your arm – you know, just to see what all the noise is about. If you don't believe me, take a little field trip to the Skook. You can enjoy some of the world's best pizza and take in the historical landmarks like the Mother's Memorial and the Hibernian House. Then you can check out the closest thing to a zombie apocalypse you're likely to see outside of a movie theater – a cursed plague you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy, let alone your hometown.

Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at dennis.maley@thebradentontimes.com. Click here to visit his column archive. Click here to go to his bio page. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook.


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