CAPE GIRARDEAU — The way Rachel tells it, from a side room at the Family Counseling Center last week, she fell into bath salts by accident.
A recovering drug addict at the time with some three years of sobriety, in a moment of weakness the 32-year-old Cape Girardeau resident bought what she thought was methamphetamine, a drug that had toppled her life — along with cocaine — in the years since high school.
But when she first ingested the powdery white substance, Rachel, who asked that her last name not be used, knew immediately this was something completely different.
"It had been so long since I'd done anything — it felt like a cross between coke and speed," Rachel said. "But I hated it. It made me hate myself."
While she had struggled with the other drugs for years, a two-month run using bath salts brought her to ruin. She lost her children, her job, her home. It sent her running to rehab at the center where she now has about four months drug-free.
"I want my children back," she said. "I want life to myself. I want a home life, a career. I want to be a good mom."
Similar stories can be heard across the country by those who have tried the illegal synthetic drug known as bath salts, dangerous chemicals that are marketed as a household product but can be eaten, snorted or injected.
A little more than a year ago, Missouri enacted a law making certain types of bath salts — which have nothing to do with bathing — illegal. Now, while police say they intend to remain diligent, the problem is not as bad as it was.
The law was meant to replace previous laws that had been easily bypassed by the drugmakers. Before that, these so-called bath salts, with misleading names like "Ivory Wave," ''Purple Wave," ''Vanilla Sky" and "Bliss," could be bought over the counter at convenience stores, sold in brightly colored packages for about $35 for a half-gram.
A year ago, Cape Girardeau and the rest of southeast Missouri was said to be a hotbed for bath salt users, with fatalities being reported and law enforcement and health care professionals struggling to keep up.
"We're battling it on a continual basis," said Kevin Glaser of the Southeast Missouri Drug Task Force. "It was real prevalent before the law was passed. On the Missouri side, we've been watching it and keeping pretty close tabs and we're not seeing it as much in Missouri."
While the synthetic, designer drugs were sold in stores throughout the task force's 13-county area, the sales have sharply declined in the last 12 months. In July, when the Drug Enforcement Administration and local law enforcement agencies performed its Operation Log Jam here, six southeast Missouri businesses were raided as part of the nationwide law enforcement operation to remove synthetic drugs from the shelves.
Three of those businesses were in Cape Girardeau County, but authorities said they were selling synthetic marijuana, not bath salts.
"We wanted to put a lot of stores on notice," Glaser said. "They know we're watching them."
Still, the product is available to southeast Missouri residents who don't mind a quick drive across the Mississippi River into Illinois, notes Bill Bohnert, who works narcotics for the Cape Girardeau Police Department. One establishment in southern Illinois in particular, Glaser said, remains problematic. The Missouri residents buy the bath salts over there and then bring their behavior back to Missouri.
Bohnert said it's difficult for a police officer to deal with a bath salt user who is high on the drug. Users of the stimulant exhibit symptoms such as agitation, paranoia, hallucination, chest pain, thoughts of suicide and other extreme behaviors. Some high-profile incidents of violent behavior have been blamed on the drugs.
"It's a problem for us on how to handle them," Glaser said. "Hitting somebody with a Taser may be totally ineffective."
Nationwide, however, use of synthetic drugs has increased overall sharply in recent years. Calls to poison control centers about bath salts climbed to 6,072 in 2011 from 303 the year before. Meanwhile, as states ban certain formulations of bath salts, overseas manufacturers quickly adjust the chemicals so that, technically, they are no longer illegal.
Over the summer, President Barack Obama signed a bill into law that bans the sale, production and possession of more than two dozen of the most common bath salt drugs. U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, a Cape Girardeau Republican, introduced legislation to add 15 cathinone stimulant drugs to the list of substances subject to seizure and prosecution by law enforcement.
But health professionals say that there are so many varieties of the drugs that lawmakers are merely playing catch-up.
That leaves people like Dana Branson, the diagnostician at the Family Counseling Center, left trying to help bath salt addicts who want help picking up the pieces. While the sale of bath salts is being clamped down in Missouri, Branson said, the number of users who show up looking for help is steady. The typical user is in his or her 20s, she said, attracted to the new, trendy drug that is difficult to screen for in drug tests.
And those who do eventually want help face an uphill, but certainly not impossible, task. Withdrawal symptoms are similar to meth withdrawal and include fatigue, depression, decreased appetite, too much sleep or inability to sleep, anxiety and perhaps even psychotic behavior.
"It's an everyday battle," Branson said. "They learn that their addiction is patient and waiting to pounce."