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.
"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.