The names may change, but the story stays the same: as fad substances like synthetic marijuana, psychoactive plants and alcoholic energy drinks gain popularity, lawmakers and college administrators rush to cut them off at the source – or, at the very least, to educate students and the public about the hazards. The newest substance to attract attention from policymakers, though, has yet to permeate most colleges – but for some administrators, it has pointed to the importance of having policies in place to address such products.
The substance in question is being marketed as a bath salt but is actually white powder, a chemical composition that is snorted or ingested, inducing pharmacological effects similar to those obtained through cocaine. The chemicals, mephedrone and MDPV, cause dangerous side effects that include severe hallucinations. One user committed suicide while on the drug. Others have inflicted serious harm on themselves and others – one man sliced his stomach repeatedly with a knife; another tried to decapitate his mother with a machete, mistaking her for a monster – prompting two states to ban the stimulant, and others to take steps in that direction.
Senator Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York, introduced a bill that would classify bath salts as a federally controlled substance, and the Drug Enforcement Administration declared bath salts a "drug of concern." Doctors and police officers also condemned the product, warning that it appeals especially to teenagers and young adults.
Although initial fears about the salts becoming the next substance of choice among college students have not come to fruition, concerns about the “drug of the day” remain. In fact, the salts prompted Mary Anne Nagy, chair of the Alcohol and Other Drugs Knowledge Community of NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, to re-evaluate the student code of conduct at Monmouth University, where she is vice president for student and community services.
For that project, Nagy and her colleagues are examining other colleges’ policies regarding students using legal products inappropriately, from NyQuil to glue. “There are so many of these things that are out there – how do you cover it all?” she said. While Monmouth hasn’t had any incidents involving the bath salts, Nagy realized that even if it had, the university would have no way to formally address it.
The bath salts, which are sold at head shops, online and in convenience stores, aren’t the only product to have triggered such a response from administrators. In recent years, colleges have dealt with the likes of Four Loko, an alcoholic energy drink that sent several college students to the hospital and has been banned by the FDA; salvia, a potent, psychoactive plant that is legal in most states; K2 and Spice, which are illegal in many states and are considered synthetic marijuana but cause more serious side effects that can lead to hospitalization.
Earlier this month, seven U.S. Naval Academy midshipmen were expelled for using Spice. (Users sometimes prefer Spice or K2 to natural marijuana because they don’t contain the chemicals that urine drug tests detect.) While synthetic marijuana products are not widely popular among students, Suanne Schaad, substance awareness coordinator at Monmouth, said that New Jersey college prevention and treatment officials who gathered over the weekend at a regular consortium meeting have seen evidence of them on most campuses – despite their being outlawed by the state late last year. The consortium members discussed bath salts as well, Schaad said, but nobody reported seeing them on campus.
It’s not a unique picture, said KP Prince, alcohol and other drug education program coordinator at the University of Texas at Austin. Prince recently checked in with colleagues and students in the state to gauge the popularity of bath salts. “The level of awareness about it was pretty low,” he said. Synthetic marijuana, meanwhile, is a different story: as the state’s Congress considers legislation that would ban the products, “students aren’t up in arms about the issue, but they are using [the drugs],” he said.
UT has tried to create a broad policy to cover all such substances that are dangerous to students, but, Prince said, “Trying to cover every drug that comes on the market – black or otherwise – is difficult to do.” UT-Austin's code of conduct prohibits students from engaging in “illegal use, possession, or sale of a drug or narcotic or possession of drug paraphernalia.” (While synthetic marijuana products are legal in Texas, Prince noted, a student would need to possess drug paraphernalia to smoke it.)
At Louisiana State University, where a few students actually have been caught using bath salts, and where Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal made the state the first to outlaw the substance, students who violate the code of conduct are required to take a substance education class. Bath salts didn’t spread to the point where it became necessary for administrators to educate the entire student body, said Kathryn T. Saichuk, LSU’s health promotion coordinator; in one education class, she asked the group of 40 or so students about the prevalence of bath salts, and they said students aren’t interested in the drug. “This is not something that our college students are engaging in,” Saichuk said. She and other administrators believe the drug is more likely to be used by teenagers and college-aged students who are not as educated about the substance. “That’s the trend of what we’ve seen in southern Louisiana,” she said.
Greg L. Jones, an addiction medical physician at Willingway Hospital in Georgia, has treated a handful of people – none of whom were college students – whose use of bath salts landed them in the emergency room. “In a very short period of time, I would say that the knowledge outside the people who are selling this and using it started to expand pretty rapidly,” said Jones, who was quoted in a press release sounding an alarm about the salts. He added that those who actually try the drug are more likely to already be serious substance abusers, which may explain in part why most colleges aren’t seeing use on campuses.
On the University of Tampa campus, Gina Firth, associate dean of students, has heard “not a single word” about the bath salts, despite Florida being the second and latest state to ban the drug. That wasn’t the case a few years ago with salvia and K2, she said, which were “much more common in our area.” Those fads prompted administrators to educate staff about the drugs, in hopes that they would recognize the substance or the signs that someone was using it. “We’ve never had to go out and do any type of targeted campaign for students on any of these fads, because we have not felt that it was necessary,” Firth said. “When you put the word out you educate them and induce curiosity. The last thing we want to do is tell them about something new to try.”
When Firth revamped Tampa’s drug and alcohol policy, she made it a point to cover as many loopholes as possible. The result was all-encompassing wording that covers bath salts and any other synthetic drug. The policy’s definition of drugs includes any “other chemical substance, compound or combination when used to: induce an altered state; and/or including any otherwise lawfully available product (such as over the counter or prescription drugs) used for any purpose other than its intended use.”
That policy illustrates the general understanding among administrators that somebody is always going to be inventing new products, and students looking for intoxication will use them. “You have to keep nine steps ahead of these folks, because as soon as you learn about something and figure out what they’re doing, there’s something else,” Nagy said. “It’s a real dilemma, I think, for campuses.”