NEW MARKET — — The storage facility just past the quaint frame houses and antiques shops pressed against this town's Main Street held more than furniture and heirlooms that could no longer fit into people homes.
Authorities say Unit 3019, steps from the main office, was being used to package the latest fad in designer narcotics — synthetic drugs sold as benign bath salts and herbal potpourri, with names such as "Snowblind Bath Salts," "Zombie World" and "Dark Night Sampler."
A recent arrest in Howard County led federal drug agents to the town this month. At New Market Mini Storage, court documents say, agents seized two barrels of white powder, a stimulant that when inhaled produces an effect similar to cocaine; and packages of the recently banned drug "K2" or "spice," doctored vegetable matter commonly marketed as synthetic marijuana.
Agents with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration have not arrested the man who rented the storage unit, but a search warrant filed in U.S. District Court details an investigation that spans the Baltimore and Washington metropolitan areas.
Public health officials are concerned about the surge in the use of synthetic drugs such as "bath salts" because they are unregulated by the government. People believe the synthetic drugs are a safe alternative, and they're widely available on the Internet.
"This is nothing new, but it's part of the newest wave of designer drugs," said Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, the health officer for Howard County.
Beilenson, the former health commissioner in Baltimore, said dealers try to bypass government regulation by varying chemical compounds. "The bigger issue is that it's completely unregulated."
Though called "bath salts," the drug does not contain the ingredients of traditional bath salts found in conventional stores. There "can be any number of toxic substances," Beilenson said. "You don't know what you are getting."
The bath salts, also commonly called "plant food," are marketed as a legal alternative to cocaine, amphetamines or Ecstasy. Users have reported suffering chest pains, elevated blood pressure and heart rate, as well as panic attacks and delusions.
Health officials haven't noticed a high number of hospital visits in Maryland involving bath salts, but they said poison control centers nationwide have reported more cases over the past few years.
The chemicals used in bath salts are already banned in several states, including West Virginia, Florida and Louisiana, as well as in some European countries. But they remain widely available over the Internet and even at local head shops, packaged and marketed as not to be ingested.
"People think, 'It is legal, it must be OK,'" said Special Agent Edward Marcinko, spokesman for DEA's Baltimore office. While the packaging is misleading, he said, users know how to use the drug because of videos on the Internet.
Geoff Gentry, who has owned Elevation Underground smoke shop in Towson since 2007, said customers began asking for bath salts late last year, and he still gets calls, including one that came as he was speaking to a reporter Tuesday afternoon.
"People are so afraid of losing their jobs because of drug tests," he said, so they look for alternatives that are not detected. "[Distributors] are capitalizing on the whole random drug test thing," he said, adding that "the populace of people after this stuff is astounding."
And when there's a demand, there's a supplier. "I go to trade shows, and the stuff is practically thrown at me," he said.
But Gentry said he's never been interested in selling bath salts or spice. "To me, it's really a moral question. I just sleep better at night knowing I'm not encouraging this synthetic drug."
The ingredients used in bath salts have not been outlawed. But in March, the DEA did ban for at least a year the sale of the five chemicals used in herbal blends to make synthetic marijuana, including spice, which consists of leaves coated with chemicals that provide a high similar to marijuana when smoked.
DEA officials noted dangerous reactions in users, including seizures, hallucinations and dependency. Baltimore County banned spice last year. This past winter, eight Naval Academy midshipmen were expelled for using or possessing it.
Law enforcement authorities are ratcheting up their scrutiny. Federal authorities were led to the alleged drug-packing center in New Market in May after an employee at an Elkridge UPS Store alerted police to a suspicious package, similar to one that was found containing drugs at a Glen Burnie store. Two women attempted to pick up the package from China that was addressed to the "AJ Fertilizer Group," according to Howard County police charging documents.
Howard County police arrested Blair Amanda Beebe, 21, of Chester, Va., and Sara Pelter, 21, of Hopewell, Va., as they tried to pick up the package, which was being sent to the "Sunshine Corporation." Both women were charged with drug possession and drug distribution.