Lake Elsinore resident Sharon Guffey knew something was really wrong with her son, but she couldn't know he would commit suicide by hanging himself from a Murrieta bridge.
In early November 2010, Gregory Thomas’s lifeless body was found hanging off a quiet bridge on Adams Avenue, near the western edge of Murrieta’s industrial area.
The 34-year-old was estranged from his wife and their two little girls. His death was ruled a suicide, caused by many months of using a stimulant that's available at local stores, his mother said.
“My son committed suicide after purchasing bath salts from our local smoke shop,” Guffey said. “I went to the police department and there is nothing they can do about it.”
"Bath salts" are synthetic stimulants that are sometimes also sold under the guise of “plant food.” They often come from European manufacturers and are marketed under various names such as “Ivory Wave,” “Purple Wave,” “Vanilla Sky,” and “Bliss,” according to Special Agent Sarah Pullen of the Drug Enforcement Administration.
The “high” that bath salt users get is said to mimic that of cocaine, LSD, Ecstasy, and/or methamphetamine, Pullen explained. Snorting, shooting, smoking and ingesting are the ways users get high on bath salts. Guffey said her son snorted.
For around $25, anyone over 18 years of age -- 21 in some stores -- can purchase about a gram of the beige-colored powder from retailers that sell it. What’s actually in these products, however, is pretty much a mystery.
On Oct. 21, 2011, the DEA exercised its emergency scheduling authority to control the three synthetic stimulants most commonly found in bath salts: Mephedrone, Methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV), and Methylone.
“If you’re caught selling a product that contains any one of these, you are violating the law,” Pullen explained.
To avoid legal trouble, however, manufacturers have become “very clever,” Pullen said.
“They are using other stimulants in their products and, unless a chemist tests them, it’s unknown what’s really in them,” she said. “It’s very difficult to keep up with all the products out there.”
A trip to two local smoke shops revealed that bath salts are readily available in town, and they are “selling like hot cakes,” said one Lake Elsinore store clerk.
“Bath salts became very popular very quickly. Even convenience stores are selling them," Pullen said
The biggest reason for the DEA's emergency action is the "violent behavior" often seen in users, Pullen explained.
“Someone high on bath salts is a threat to public safety,” she said.
Guffey can attest to that. Before her son died, his stepfather took him to urgent care at Inland Valley Medical Center. Shortly after Thomas arrived, there was pandemonium and the hospital went into lockdown, she said.
The effect of bath salts on her son was devastating. They destroyed his marriage, cost him his job, and ultimately his life, Guffey said.
“He was hearing voices and was paranoid when he was on them. They literally ate his brain away,” she said. “He was slowly poisoning himself. He didn’t sleep, he didn’t eat. His eyes looked different and his skin color changed.”
After his brief stay at Inland Valley Medical Center, Thomas was transferred to Better Tomorrow, a residential drug rehab center in Murrieta. Once there, he told his mother that he wanted to kill himself – the voices in his head and his wrecked life had become unbearable. True to his word, he slipped out of Better Tomorrow on a Saturday night, according to his mother, and his body was found just days later, less than a mile from the treatment center. Calls to Better Tomorrow were not returned.
“I tried to get him off it [the bath salts], but he was addicted,” Guffey said. “I know he’s in a better place now.”
But Guffey's tragic experience may not mean much to bath salts manufacturers who continue to profit -- legally -- off their products.
Sgt. Stephen Mike of the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department works narcotics for all of Southwest Riverside and said bath salts are sold locally, but law enforcement has no authority unless someone is selling products that contain the banned stimulants.
The sergeant said he was not familiar with the Thomas case (the suicide occurred within Murrieta Police Department's jurisdiction), and added that he has not received complaints about bath salts locally.
At the two stores Patch visited, one of the products being marketed was clearly labeled “Does Not Contain Mephedrone, MDPV or Methylone.” The other products were labeled with print too small to read.
“A lot of manufacturers have labeled their products to say that they don’t contain the banned stimulants,” Pullen explained. “But again, unless they are tested, no one knows for certain.”
Even if they are tested, the DEA’s emergency action expires this October.
“The DEA can ask for a six-month extension, but after that there needs to be legislative action, otherwise the three substances will be removed from the Schedule I list,” Pullen said.
Schedule I is the federal government’s most restrictive drug category under the Controlled Substances Act.
“Schedule I status is reserved for those substances with a high potential for abuse, no currently accepted use for treatment in the United States and a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug under medical supervision,” according to the DEA. All Schedule I drugs are illegal under federal law.
Guffey said she is telling her story now because she wants to see bath salts – in all their forms – made illegal.
“I don’t want to see anymore kids die from this.”