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New federal ban offers hope, but local law enforcement still grappling with difficult bath salt situation

Nearly every day of late, emergency dispatchers in Genesee County field multiple calls related to people getting into trouble or causing problems while apparently high on a substance benignly called "bath salts."

Area law enforcement officials recognize the problem, and even though most of the compounds known as bath salts are now a Schedule 1 Controlled Substance under federal law, the tools available to police officers to deal with these sometimes bizarre events are limited.

In the City of Batavia, Police Chief Shawn Heubusch said the approach his department is taking to deal with bath salt-provoked incidents is first a public safety issue.

"First and foremost, any responding officer is checking the welfare of people," Heubusch said. "First comes public safety, the safety of the people involved, checking to see if medical attention is needed, giving it to them."

If a crime has been committed, an individual under the influence of bath salts might be arrested, Heubusch said, but the first order of business is that person's health and safety.

However, since at a local level, the possession and even the sale of these so-called bath salts are legal, there isn't much local law enforcement can do to combat the spread of the drug.

But that doesn't mean any Genesee County residents or businesses that might sell bath salts should feel comfortable distributing the compounds outlawed as a result of legislation sponsored by Sen. Chuck Schumer.

The federal government's top law enforcement official in Western New York said today that investigators will respond to any complaints of the substances being sold locally, whether the complaints come in the form of tips from concerned citizens or media reports suggesting such sales are taking place.

"What the public can expect as with any reports of criminal activities is that law enforcement will look into it as appropriate," said William Hochul, U.S. Attorney for Western New York. "I can’t comment on specific cases, but the way we do our job in law enforcement is we look for possible violations of crime and we investigate it. If it rises to the level of a federal offense, we will prosecute."

Hochul praised The Batavian and Rochester's WHAM 13 for aggressive reporting on the bath salt issue during an exclusive interview with the two news outlets at the Sheriff's Office in Batavia.

"The public needs to be aware that the side effects of these substances is that to an extent they can be deadly," Hochul said. "We've had any number of episodes where people have acted violently, or they've gone into cardiac arrest, and that's just what we know. There's a long-term effect that still remains to be seen. So, the best defense, as with most drugs, is for the public to get educated."

Schumer's legislation bans MDPV (methylenedioxypyrovalerone) and mephedrone, the active ingredients in bath salts.

Reportedly, the chemicals found in bath salts cause effects similar to those of cocaine and methamphetamine, including hallucinations, paranoia and suicidal thoughts.

In Batavia in recent cases, people have climbed on rooftops, waved knives at people in a threatening manner, claimed to be attacked by ghosts, reported hearing gunshots and have been combative toward medical personnel during emergency responses to deal with their seizures.

Family members of individuals reportedly on bath salts have said that users  expressed suicidal thoughts and engaged in self-destructive behavior.

The paranoia, violence and self-destructive thoughts of people on bath salts are a safety concern for the public and emergency personnel, local law enforcement officials say.

"People using these substances are sometimes unpredictable and sometimes become violent," Heubusch said. "The officers do a great job of limiting contact with these people and ensuring everybody is safe."

Sheriff Gary Maha said fortunately, no situations involving his deputies have gotten out of hand, but officers have been responding to numerous medical calls involving bizarre behavior.

"Our officers are trained to protect themselves," Maha said. "It doesn’t matter what type of situation. It can be a dangerous situation. This person could have a knife he’s swinging around or whatever and they will have to take appropriate action to protect themselves and protect the public.

"We haven’t come across a situation yet where an officer needs to use a Taser, but our officers are armed with Tasers and trained in using them," Maha added.

Det. Rich Schauf said that with all the information available now about bath salts, and the fact that it says right on many packages, "not for human consumption," the real question is, why are people using them.

"The unfathomable situation in all this is why would somebody do this to themselves," Schauff said.  Why would somebody ingest something that they don’t know what it is. ... that's the real question: How do you stop somebody from hurting themselves?"

While that may be a question without an answer, Hochul's office is taking seriously the issue of enforcing the new ban on bath salts and synthetic marijuana, he said.

"We will now be able to treat bath salts the same way we treat cocaine and heroine," Hochul said. "(We can) use all of our federal techniques that we have available, including wiretaps, undercover operations, and hopefully bring these cases to closure much easier and much more successfully."

Up until the new ban was signed into law by President Barack Obama, federal law enforcement had very limited tools to combat bath salts and synthetic marijuana.

The chemicals used to manufacture these drugs were part of a DEA emergency schedule as controlled substances, but that only meant that law enforcement had to prove in a court of law that a person selling the substance did so with the intention they would be used for human consumption and that the effect of the substances was in fact similar to that of meth or cocaine.

That all changed on Monday.

"It’s much better for the community to know now that the substances are -- no ifs, ands or buts -- illegal to possess, to sell or posses with intent to sell," Hochul said.

While law enforcement officials take seriously the apparent increase in bath salt-related calls, they also say it shouldn't be overstated as some sort of community epidemic.

The majority of calls, according to Schauf, involve the same people repeatedly, and those calls are generally confined to people who have had law enforcement contact prior to bath salts becoming an issue.

Heubusch agreed.

"I don’t believe this is a widespread, mass hysteria type of event," Heubusch said. "It does seem to be a small group of people."

The other factor that may contribute to bath salts being part of a greater consciousness in Batavia, Schauf said, is more people understand what bath salts are and what they do, including cops and medical personnel.

"We might have been dealing with this before and we didn't know it," Schauf said. "Now that it's identified, you have this effect of everything is bath salts the minute you see somebody who is irrational."

All of the law enforcement officials we talked to today also said bath salts are just the latest fad drug. They pointed to either Ecstasy, PCP, sniffing glue, meth and even LSD as "fad" drugs of the past that eventually stopped being a common problem.

"We've seen different peaks and valleys in the past," Maha said. "We've seen LSD and we don't see that much anymore, or PCP, and we don't see that much anymore. They have all come and gone and hopefully this will as well."

What worries law enforcement officials that while federal -- and even possibly, someday, state legislation -- might outlaw bath salts as we know them today, there are probably chemists somewhere trying to cook up the next intoxicating brew.

"We have to be concerned about it," Hochul said. "I read one report that said this (the new law) is like raising the wall a little higher as the floodwaters grow. We certainly hope at a certain point that there won't continue to be creation of illegal substances, but given the advances in science and the willingness of people located throughout the world to try and make money through the selling of illegal drugs, it’s reasonable to assume there will be continued efforts to avert this law."

Hochul had two other bits of advice for community members who are concerned about bath salts.

First, if people plan to picket -- as Jason Lang's mother suggested doing -- an establishment suspected of selling bath salts, they shouldn't worry that such action would interfer with a federal investigation.

"If you’re a mother or a parent with concerns, you still have to do what you have to do to protect your family within the bounds of the law," Hochul said.

"We have an obligation to investigate violations of the federal law using all of our tools and there are ample tools to investigate the fact that somebody may be illegally selling drugs," Hochul added. "If somebody is protesting on the one hand, they should not be worried that would impede our ability to use one of our other tools to investigate violations of federal law."

The second bit of advice was directed at any landlords who might be leasing property to a business that could be selling bath salts.

The property can be seized under the federal forfeiture law.

If a judge determines the property owner knew a business was selling a controlled substance -- and media reports indicating such transactions were allegedly taking place -- a judge could rule the property owner should have taken action to ensure such sales were not being conducted on his property.

"If the landlord wants to keep his property, the landlord's obligation should be to make sure there’s no illegal activity occurring on his property," Hochul said. "That’s another advantage of having very assertive media in exposing this to the public at large. What did the particular owner know and when did he know it?"

Heubusch and Hochul also said the entire community has a role to play in combating bath salts in Batavia.

Community members, they said, need to call the police about suspicious activity, cooperate in investigations and educate each other about the dangers of these chemicals and compounds.

"This is a perfect opportunity for the community to come together and help others out," Heubusch said. "Whether they call us, they call 9-1-1 to report a suspicious event, or when the officer does arrive, report what they saw to that officer. ... We will do what we can to protect this community, but we do need help from the community itself."

PHOTOS: Top, Chief Shawn Heubusch; first inset, U.S. Attorney for WNY William Hochul; second inset, Sheriff Gary Maha.

This story was produced in conjunction and cooperation with The Batavian's official news partner, WBTA, and Sean Carroll, reporter for WHAM 13 in Rochester.

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scott williams
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I would like to know if the federal forfeiture law would imply also to landlords that knowingly are renting to people selling this crap if so I urge people to tell landlords about the problem and then report it to authority's also. Maybe these absent landlords in this town might pay attention to the deadbeat losers they rent to.A lot of them like to use the excuse well this is what pathstone (section 8 housing) sends us we don't have control Yes they do it's their home they control who lives in it. So turn these users in people. I have had it with the absent landlords in this community if they would better police their own property's maybe we wouldn't have a lot of this crap around.

Sarah Christopher
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First of all, I want to say that I agree with Scott, the landlord that owns the property that houses this "head-shop" should be ashamed. Secondly, I am tired of everyone bashing Batavia and threatening to move away. I am proud to be a resident of Batavia and I know that there are many more citizens that are also proud of where they live and want to restore the integrity of our city. There are many complaints about our city's problems, but I don't hear anyone doing anything about it. Do we sit by and watch the further decay of our community? Maybe this is a naive thought, but I read an article about a woman that started a petition to ban "head-shops" and the sales of drug-related paraphernalia in her town. It is difficult to ban a specific chemical because the compound can be slightly altered, but if the sale of paraphernalia in general was banned, then maybe these head shops will loose business and pack up and leave. I am not personally concerned that anyone I know will fall victim to these drugs, but I feel we need to take a stand and let them know we don't want this in our community. I know banning and outlawing drugs does not stop people from using them, we all have free will, but maybe we all can feel a little safer knowing that these addicts can't just wander down to the corner head shop to get their fix. It is very easy for someone like me to say this is not my problem because I don't associate with addicts, but the erratic behavior that these drugs are causing puts us all in danger and is giving our home a bad name. As the quote says "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. " - Edmund Burke

Sarah Christopher
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I agree that Batavia is a great place...we moved here to give our kids a little more variety and diversity (well, relative to the surrounding rural communities anyway). I want to be involved in keeping Batavia a great place to live.....but I have absolutely no idea how to get more involved.

Sarah Christopher
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Thanks Howard

Kyle Couchman
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On a related note.....I made an observation this evening. I was quite surprised to see 420 still open and doing business at 11:15pm this evening. DO what you want with that info but its a pretty dead part of town to be open that late. Even SouthSide Deli closes @ 10

Sarah Christopher
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After further research, I have found that many communities have passed ordinances to ban the sale of drug paraphernalia. Many of these have spawned lawsuits, but in almost all of the cases the ordinances were found to be constitutional. I believe the best way to combat the bath-salts issue locally is to put the shops that sell these products out-of-business. I just don't see the value of these kinds of businesses in our community. Anyone know how to approach city council with an issue like this? Do you start with a petition? Are online petitions valid? I would go in front of the the city council myself, but I don't think I would hold much clout

mark jackett
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420 hours are late thats when all the salty people come out aND WANT MORE!
its like taking money from a BABY!
is that the new police chief in the picture?

Dave Olsen
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Something else Batavia has, but not many other communities of this size have: The Batavian. Howard is willing to shed sunlight on issues like this and allow anyone who wants to comment and even argue about the subject. I believe what the Sheriff said about this being a passing fad, makes sense to me, in my life I've seen all sorts of garbage people are willing to put in their bodies and destroy themselves. I feel bad for them and their families, I pray for folks for strength to combat this junk and help their loved ones. Make no mistake, Howard is showing the human toll of this stuff in very personal ways, you won't find this kind of attention hardly anywhere. A Police officer also asked "How do you stop someone from harming themselves?" Sorry, but the truth is you can't. Laws might be able to get rid of a particular drug or substance, but something else will just pop up, and some people will keep on killing themselves.

Love, Education and Transparency is what works. Keep up the good work, Howard.

Jeff Allen
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What I said yesterday on here "When folks use the substance and exhibit radical and sometimes harmful behavior to themselves and others, it is a public safety issue and therefore a problem."

What the Police Chief said today on here "Nearly every day of late, emergency dispatchers in Genesee County field multiple calls related to people getting into trouble or causing problems while apparently high on a substance benignly called "bath salts."... Police Chief Shawn Heubusch said, the approach his department is taking is to deal with bath salt-provoked incidents is first a public safety issue."

I hope that there is now a raised awareness for the over 100 people who felt in yesterdays poll that bath salts are NOT a problem. Even Howard can't report every call law enforcement gets related to bath salts so we can't estimate the scale of the issue based soley on what gets published.

Sarah Christopher
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I am not on a personal crusade to save people from themselves. I do not want to live in a community that has a head shop on every corner. I can think of a million reasons why these stores are bad....can anyone give me one reason they are good? Seriously....if you are really in need of a new pipe to smoke "tobacco" then order it online or drive to the city. If you are in that much of a bind that you immediately need some drug paraphernalia, then you obviously have a problem. Think of the kids that may not have the best parental supervision...do we really want these impressionable kids wandering into these stores and being able to buy this crap? Do they deserve a life of addiction because they don't have good parents? I know that isn't going to stop teen drug use...but can anyone honestly say that having this garbage in their faces is going to help the situation. Not to mention...how long before these addicts can't support themselves because of their addiction. I don't know of anyone that wants to work hard to support someone who only leaves the house to wander down to the local head shop to get their next fix, or commit a crime to get money for that fix...or just to do something crazy because they are hyped up on this stuff. Are there people out there that really think it is good for our city to have multiple head shops? I guess the people that patronize those businesses would, but they obviously have serious lack of good judgment and I don't really care what they think. So let's everyone turn a blind eye...then later complain about the moral decay of our community.

Jeff Allen
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Sorry Howard, given that the sentence is bracketed by his picture then his quote, it appears as though he was the source of the statement. Still supports that the problem goes well beyond the published police blotter. My mistake.

Kyle Couchman
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I have to agree w Sarah, it not so much the store but the clientele. Addicts start buying then they are gonna disperse in the neighborhood, imagine finding a person behind your house or in the stairwell leading to the apt you live in. Then with the effects of the drug your looking at a dangerous confrontation. Then add the mugging and victimization of people as well, it begins to get worse. As a matter of fact if you look at the past, the day before or after they opened, 420 had a break in and theft.... Howard might remember it so even the store itself was victimized before it became established and put in the spotlight.

Dave Olsen
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Sarah, when you pass laws or ordinances to keep people, even young people, from endangering themselves you are teaching them to not think for themselves, just follow the rules. Then when something comes out that is legal and harmful (such as this bath salt stuff, whatever it is) They'll just figure it's OK because it's not illegal. This is what personal responsibility is all about. If you really want to help the children of your community, then be open and upfront with them about drugs and addiction. Quite frankly, if noone patronized head shops, they wouldn't be in business, make it uncool to abuse yourself, teach children that being and acting intelligent is cool, not the other way around like TV and the mindless music industry pounds into them, that looking like an idiot and acting like a boor and using drugs and not speaking good english is what all the cool people are doing. The world is not perfect or fair and it's full of idiots the sooner a kid learns that, the better life they will have. You can't legislate behavior, even though that's what the state and fed keep on trying to do.

Mark Brudz
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Dave I have read many things by you that I found myself in total agreement with, logical and in perspective.

But this post my friend, is among your best.

scott williams
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Sarah it's great that you get involved.
I think when they made it cool to not judge people on their actions just accept them for who they are that's when society took a turn. oh don't condemn the addicts just get them help tell them its OK to be like that, hell the rehabs are en vogue. Well we need to go back to tough love if your a dirtbag then you are just that get away go cry to yourself we have to stop this enabling our society.We make them think their all owed something.
Dave your right teach the children to be responsible for their own actions. We teach them to figure out who it is that made them become users, what happened in their life that was so bad they had to do bathsalt or whatever drug they chose NO TELL THEM ITS THEIR FAULT THEIR CHOICE. I think that a lot of us do things in life that maybe the next guy don't like, but being responsible and not being a cancer on society and contributing to society in a positive way is the way were suppose to be taught...
Parents if your not happy in life and don't want your children to repeat it then show them what it is they can have if they do their best, drive them by those nice houses on nice streets tell them how to get this in life. Teach them to make a difference.

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