COLUMBUS, OH — On an unseasonably hot and muggy May afternoon, a squad of armed agents from the Franklin County Drug Task Force — some wearing street clothes, some wearing menacing ski masks — swarms into a storefront aptly named the Joint. Sandwiched between a liquor store and a sex shop, and adjacent to the Ohio State University campus, the Joint is one of 18 different head shops, gas stations, carryout restaurants, and mini-marts being searched this day by seven task force teams consisting of several dozen officers from numerous local police departments and prosecutors' offices, all spearheaded by the County Sheriff here in the state capital. Make no mistake: This is no ordinary pot bust. The raids are part of the ongoing Operation Synthetic Drugs, a highly coordinated and choreographed sweep through central Ohio. The target of this operation — which has received assistance from the DEA and the FBI — is a strand of a relatively obscure but insidiously metastasizing illegal substance marketed under the name "bath salts," a deceptively innocuous moniker used to disguise the drug as a benign household product. As small knots of sweaty tweakers gape from across the street, visibly frustrated that one of their favorite haunts is being hit, the law-enforcement troops inside the Joint hit pay dirt. After a meticulous, two-and-a-half-hour ceiling-to-floor toss, the cops emerge with a bulging Hefty bag and cardboard cartons brimming with $70,000 worth of synthetic marijuana known as Spice and what they assume to be bath salts, the latter being sold in little foil packets. By the time night falls, the task force teams seize $250,000 in illegal synthetic drugs in the greater Columbus area. Selling and possessing bath salts in Ohio is a felony, yet due to loopholes in state and federal laws, the anonymity of the Internet, and the pace at which the chemicals can be altered, prosecuting anyone above a street-level seller and buyer currently poses a stiff challenge. About two years ago, bath salts — a lab-brewed drug that unpredictably mimics a freakish combination of coke, meth, and Ecstasy — suddenly popped into public consciousness with a rat-tat-tat of reports from emergency rooms and law-enforcement officials that sounded like the stuff of a D.A.R.E. officer's most florid nightmare. By most accounts, the drug — then legal — first surfaced in Louisiana in mid-2010, quickly moved through the South, and then spread out in all directions. It was, in fact, in Louisiana where one of the first Code Red warnings about bath salts emerged, when a user lost her arm and part of her shoulder after she shot herself up and sparked a flesh-eating bacteria. Not all drugs are created equal. Unlike, say, meth, bath salts transcend class. They most often establish a beachhead in college towns where head shops tend to cluster. To generalize, there are two types of users: college-age kids who want to get high without engaging in criminal activity and just plain drug addicts looking for a hassle-free fix. In some sense, bath salts are an exercise in decriminalization. Buying drugs, especially hard narcotics, is often a seedy experience: You have to go to dangerous areas to obtain them, make the transaction with active, often violent, criminals, and then sweat at stoplights, hoping to make it back home without a felony possession charge. But the way the synthetic drug market currently exists, you can walk into a climate-controlled shop, slide your ATM card under the glass, and walk out. Or you can skip all that and just order online. The casualness of the purchase, the sterilization of the exchange, is part of what makes bath salts so pernicious and appealing. And the ease with which key chemical compounds can be disseminated, and thus adjusted to stay one step ahead of the law, ensures that the drug stays decriminalized. The last four decades have seen plenty of whipped-up hysteria about various fad intoxicants of the moment. But the fear generated by bath salts seems well earned. Dr. Mark Ryan, director at the Louisiana Poison Center, called bath salts "the worst drug" he has seen in his 20 years there. "With LSD, you might see pink elephants, but with this drug, you see demons, aliens, extreme paranoia, heart attacks, and superhuman strength like Superman," Ryan has said. "If you had a reaction, it was a bad reaction." Starting in late 2010, an influx of violent, irrational, self-destructive users began to congest hospital ERs throughout the States. A 19-year-old West Virginia man claimed he was high on bath salts when he stabbed his neighbor's pygmy goat while wearing women's underwear; a Mississippi man skinned himself alive while under the influence. Users staggered in, or were carried in, consumed by extreme panic, tachycardia, deep paranoia, and heart-attack symptoms. (Perhaps the most infamous incident tied to bath salts is Rudy Eugene's horrific naked face-eating attack in Miami in May, although conclusive toxicology reports have yet to be released; still, the fact that this feels like the closest thing to a credible explanation for chewing a homeless man's head for 18 minutes speaks volumes about the drug's reputation.) Because the chemicals most often found in bath salts — mephedrone, methylenedioxypyrovalerone, and methylone — were not outlawed initially, a nearly year-and-a-half period ensued where, to the horror of law enforcement, salts were sold legally and widely, not only in head shops, but in gas stations and convenience stores all over the U.S. In 2010, 304 calls were made to poison control centers nationwide regarding bath salts. A year later, the calls skyrocketed to 6,138. Bath salts being sold over the counter, in stores, carry names like Cloud Nine, White Ivory, Vanilla Sky, Purple Wave, Panic, and Rushmore. Salts peddled online come branded with harder-edged names like White Slut Concentrated, Scarface, and, yes, "Charley Sheene." Bath-salt packets are usually marked with the disingenuous warning Not For Human Consumption in an attempt to skirt drug laws and to throw off customs agents. DEA officials believe that the base compounds are manufactured primarily in China and India and then imported into the U.S., where traffickers cut and mix the drug in a variety of ways — just one of the reasons why even the first hit of salts can produce unpredictable results. "Some of these manufacturers will mix these substances purposefully or not purposefully," says Jeffrey Comparin, a senior DEA laboratory director. "There's zero quality control. You have no idea what you're putting in your body." Last year, several municipalities moved to ban the drug, and dozens of states have followed suit. In October 2011, the DEA used its administrative powers to institute an emergency but temporary one-year ban on the three basic bath-salt chemicals, declaring them Schedule 1 substances. Possession can now lead to a four-year federal felony sentence. But the clock is ticking. The DEA's ban runs out this fall and a federal bill to make it permanent had been stalled in the Senate, mostly thanks to libertarian true-believer Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), before finally passing on May 24 (two days before, the bill was also opposed by groups such as the Drug Policy Alliance, which argue that stiff legislative penalties will only escalate a futile War on Drugs). Cops working at the ground level disagree and fear bath salts could become a devastating epidemic, as crack did in the '80s and meth in the following two decades. "It's tempered since the ban, but not nearly enough," says Lt. Shawn Bain, a narcotics agent with the Franklin County Sheriff's office, who is coordinating the Ohio raids. "What the ban did was force bath salts to go underground." You can't straight-out ask for bath salts in shops anymore, Bain says. But that doesn't mean they're not on shelves or that users don't know how to ask for them in coded terms. The race to stem the tide of bath salts is underlined by daily reports of busts from Maine to New York to Arizona and Nevada. Merely two weeks before the Ohio sweep, 70 police and federal agents targeted three stores, seized 11 properties (plus $750,000 in cash and bank credits), and arrested a suspected kingpin distributor. The raid was the culmination of the nation's largest and longest investigation into bath salts. In the two months prior to the Ohio raids, undercover agents in Franklin County made 38 different bath-salt buys. A number of those purchases were made at the Joint on North High Street in Columbus. The day before the Ohio raid, I stopped by the Joint to see if police claims that bath salts could be purchased there easily were true. Inside the spacious head shop, the room-length glass counters were covered with glass pipes, vaporizers, dubious sexual-enhancement pills, and four signs that read: "Warning! You will be refused service and asked to leave the store for saying any of the following words: Bath Salts, Cracker, Bong, Pot Pipe, Weed, Coke Spoon, Crack Pipe, or any other illegal Reference." I linger at the counter looking for any of the other easily recognizable names that bath salts are sold under: Potpourri, Plant Food, Jewelry Cleaner. Nothing. I do see tiny jars of synthetic marijuana, packets of Crystal Bubbly hookah pipe cleaner, electronic cigarettes, and dick-shaped bongs. I ask for a pack of Marlboros and leave, wondering what, if anything, the cops are going to seize the following day. Turns out the bath salts were there right under my nose. Unlike the tweakers, I didn't know the street code necessary to make the buy. When the Task Force agents emerged from the Joint 24 hours after my visit, they brought out 2,300 packets, all of them wrapped in bright orange, lightly disguised as hookah cleaner — the Crystal Bubbly I had seen earlier. "I'm not surprised," Bain tells me on the way to the next raid in southern Columbus. "This stuff is still everywhere," he says. "We just made a dent today." This story originally appeared in the July/August 2012 issue of SPIN, which you can order here now. "Do I seem crazy to you?" LAS VEGAS, NV — John and Deanna are enrolled in a methadone program as treatment for heroin addiction. Today, we're rolling up I-15 to North Las Vegas so they can score some bath salts from their dealer. They can't test positive for any other kind of drug or they'll get kicked out of their program, but, luckily, bath salts don't show up in tests conducted by most rehab clinics, highway patrol, or probation officers. Only a handful of states have begun to update their drug tests; Nevada is not one of them. John and Deanna have been "flying" — what they call panhandling — at the Walgreens near the University of Nevada, Las Vegas campus for close to two years. They've hustled a little more cash than usual today and are taking the rest of the afternoon off so they can shoot bath salts. In the car, John announces he's feeling chatty and excited because he doesn't usually get to shoot stimulants. Besides their five-dollar morning dose of methadone, the two only shoot heroin every four or five days in order to keep their opiate levels low. Anything approaching speed or hallucinogens is a rare treat. We park across the street at a gas station. John gets out of the car and waits in front of a smoke shop in one of the many stucco strip malls lining Martin Luther King Blvd. John's dealer bought bath salts in bulk when they were readily available in head shops; now, he uses that reserve to sell to clients when they want to get high without testing dirty. A red car pulls up with John's dealer in it. John comes back to our car with a little plastic baggie filled with a chunk of white powder. A tension seems to lift in the car, and we all chat as though we were friends heading to a movie. As we walk into a sour-smelling hotel room, Deanna, who was very quiet and nervous during the car ride, takes over as hostess — asking questions, offering seats, fetching water. John sits down and gently taps the product out of the baggie and onto a tabletop. He wants to snort it first. The bath salts, bought for $20, look like a chunk of rock cocaine. Carefully, he breaks the rock in half with a plastic room key and begins to cut lines. It's less powdery than cocaine, and grainier. John snorts a line. "This tastes way different from the other stuff we've done," he says with a grimace and a hard swallow. That could be because this packet has mephedrone, or MDPV, or methylone. Or all three. Or something else. Deanna will not be snorting. "It makes me feel anxious. I hate how it feels." She reties her curly, dyed-pink hair back into a small ponytail. "I'll wait till John's ready to shoot." Deanna is 20 years old and has a slight accent from being raised in a Spanish-speaking house. She moved from Valencia, California, to Las Vegas when she was a junior in high school, so her father could find work. Now he cleans floors at a local city agency; Deanna's mom is disabled and stays at home in the weekly hotel room the family rents. "I was very sheltered," Deanna tells me as John snorts two lines and smacks his lips. "This has a really strong chemical taste," he says. "Horrible drip. My stomach is already cramping." After a few minutes, I ask John how he feels. "My heart is going really fast. I don't know if it feels good. I mean, I feel up, like way up, but I don't feel good, you know?" He laughs. So does Deanna. He blinks hard a few times and lights a cigarette. "I mean, it's different from methadone or heroin. It's a high that feels more like crystal, like I'm fluttering inside." John, 37, first did cocaine with his father when he was 13. For a long stretch of his life, he was a crystal-meth addict; he's had jobs here and there doing inventory. He is gentle, eager to be liked, and tries to save up money so that he and Deanna can see punk bands. His ex-wife lives in town, but he's not in contact with her or their ten-year-old daughter. John opens a bottle of water and pours a few drops into the cap. He puts the bath-salt rock into the water cap to dissolve. He and Deanna fall silent and hover over the cap. "There's a lot of bullshit in this," John says. "It's not very water-soluble. See all this?" John points to the cloudy film on the water's surface. "That's all stuff that doesn't get you high. It's baking soda or baby powder. Oh well." He doesn't feel ripped-off. John is pleased that he can do something other than methadone today. Quickly, he finds a vein, pushes the needle up in it, and thumbs the dropper. "Okay, my turn!" Deanna grins, balls up her fist, tilts her wrist, and presents the pallid part of her arm. John tries to find a workable vein for Deanna. After a few jabs and squirts of blood, he slowly presses down on the dropper. A few minutes later, Deanna is hyperalert and talkative. She keeps interrupting John to ask questions, but before he can answer, she asks something else. She requests a pen and paper so she can keep track of her questions. We are mostly talking about music and a little bit about politics. She can't keep track of her questions on paper, either. She blurts out, "Do I seem crazy to you? Like, super strung-out?" I tell her she just seems a little hyper. "Okay, good, because sometimes I worry that I'll break with reality like my mom does and not know it." Deanna's mother has a schizoid effective disorder, and Deanna fears she will develop it as well. She sees my makeup bag and asks if she can use some eye shadow. I say sure. She dumps out the contents and arranges them in neat rows for the next 20 minutes. Deanna met John shortly after she was released from a psych ward. The transition from Valencia to Vegas was rough. She would fight with her mother and once threatened to kill herself. Her parents had her committed. She dropped out of high school and spent days taking walks around the neighborhood. She met John outside of Walgreens on one of her walks. "I knew he had a drug problem, but I didn't know he was an addict, you know?" she says, giggling. John is the only guy Deanna has ever been with. They both have hepatitis C. "I told you I was a drug addict!" John insists. Another ten minutes pass and then John's face gets a little pink; he's sweating a lot. "I feel really nauseous." He spends the next 20 minutes in the bathroom. "I hope this wears off soon," Deanna says a little timidly, sounding almost embarrassed. She tells me she hates doing anything that isn't heroin, and won't even touch weed because it makes her so paranoid. I ask her how she feels now. "You know," she says, "like I do whenever I shoot something into my veins. I hate myself." This story originally appeared in the July/August 2012 issue of SPIN, which you can order here now. "It's like a game of Whac-A-Mole." DULLES, VA — Inside a typical-looking suburban business park in Dulles, Virginia, sits a spanking-new 3,200-square-foot building. It has no signs, a fortified fence, and a lot of security cameras. Each morning, hundreds of employees outfitted in business-casual attire, with their laminated ID badges hanging around their necks, stream inside the cool gray structure for one purpose: to outmaneuver heavy-duty drug cooks and manufacturers. Arthur Berrier, a bespectacled man in his late 50s, with a likable nerdy demeanor and clear passion for organic chemistry, leads a key group of these shock troops in the new war on synthetic drugs. A senior research chemist, Berrier is in charge of a 46-member team — called the Emerging Trends Lab — that works within the DEA's Office of Forensic Sciences. The challenge faced by Berrier's chemists is more complicated than Bolivian coca leaves or Middle Eastern poppies. "Someone — the people who were making these illegal drugs at first — was simply reviewing some science literature and copying what was done," Arthur says. "That part is still going on. But what we've found more perplexing is that they've also started coming up with their own compounds." Unlike the DEA agents in the field, who don Kevlar vests and ski masks to bust drug rings, Berrier battles the growing synthetic-drug market by using fluorides, crystallizing acids, and countless rows of Erlenmeyer flasks filled with the toxic powders. Not only does the spotless, state-of-the-art lab run around-the-clock tests on seized evidence, but it also brews its own in-house synthetic drugs as an attempt to anticipate what's coming next. For the large-scale distribution of bath salts that's currently taking place in the United States, one needs to know more than your average backyard tweaker. This is advanced-level chemistry. "What they're doing is taking the molecules they've made and that they've read about and they're putting different pieces together to form something totally new," Berrier says. "And it makes it harder for us to do the analysis because it's totally new." In other words, synthetic drug organizations have guys like Berrier working for them, too. "I think, forensically, it's a game of Whac-A-Mole," says Jeffrey Scott, a former narcotics agent in the field who now works at DEA headquarters. "We can control these substances with a temporary ban, but we don't control Purple Wave or Ivory Bliss. We control the components within them." When Scott was doing undercover streets busts, it was a little more straightforward. "Coke is coke and heroin is heroin. And it's pretty easy to know what you've got. But now, when you go out and seize a warehouse full of something packaged as Dragonfly, you really have no idea what it is." If chemistry is one aspect of the problem, the Internet is another. Take, for instance, mephedrone: It was first synthesized under the name "toluyl-alpha-monomethylaminoethylcetone" in 1929 by a French pharmacologist named Saem de Burnaga Sanchez. It remained an obscure object of academic interest for 80 years until a clandestine chemist working under the pseudonym "Kinetic" uploaded a how-to guide on the Hive website. Then the drug exploded across Europe. The ban on mephedrone put an end to that specific synthesis, but chemistry, like any recipe, is malleable. "The Internet is great at proliferating this sort of information almost faster than law enforcement can really keep track of it," says Robert J. Bell, a coordinator inside the DEA's synthetic drug department. Once the recipe makes its way online, anyone with the financial means can order chemicals in bulk, usually from China and Southeast Asia. The chemicals are most often synthesized here in the States, then packaged and distributed at both the wholesale and recreational level. The DEA has found that most websites selling bath salts wholesale have domains registered in the U.S. Hip to the current DEA ban, these sites will advertise their products as being legal in all 50 states and explicitly say they do not contain substances banned by the DEA. It's a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't scenario in terms of legislating synthetic drugs. If the law is specific and names chemicals outright, then manufacturers know which ingredients to avoid. Some states have passed their own version of the Federal Analog Act, which gives prosecutors the ability to try cases against those who traffic in substances that have a similar structure and effect on the human body as outlawed chemicals. But since there's no clinical data on new substances, trying these cases against synthetic drug distributors has proven to be a Kafkaesque endeavor. "It's a hard process," says Bell. "It's a big ship to turn." As of today, no wholesale distributors of bath salts have been brought to trial successfully. This story originally appeared in the July/August 2012 issue of SPIN, which you can order here now. "He had a really fast downward spiral." HENDERSON, NV — Roughly a month before 18-year-old Las Vegas–area swim champ Jay Sirat was found asphyxiated in the garage of his suburban home, he penned a love letter to bath salts while checked into a Utah rehab center: "You make me feel ready for anything. I love the way I can bump you just about anywhere. When I was with you, no one could control me. You made me tingle with each experience. When you hit me, I just started losing my mind. You made it easy for me to pass drug tests and still feel buzzed. I love you all and with all my heart and thank you for always being there for me, in every way and every situation." It was the afternoon of March 25, 2011, when Jay's sister, Brittany, came home from work and went to her bed-ridden grandmother's room. A couple of hours before, her grandmother had asked Jay to bring her some peaches, but he never returned. Brittany says she first thought Jay had just spaced out. On the kitchen table she saw an unopened can of peaches, a can opener, and an empty bowl. After a half hour and a couple of unanswered calls to Jay's cellphone, a worried Brittany went into the garage. She saw Jay's phone vibrating on a tool bench, plugged into a charger. Jay was slumped forward, in front of an exercise machine, with electrical cord wrapped around his throat. She thought he was playing a gag on her. Then she noticed his feet were not touching the floor. "Jay was at the beginning of the salts wave; they absolutely contributed to his death," says Alisa Sirat, Jay's mother. Alisa and her husband, Robb, are sitting on the lawn outside a community swimming complex in this Vegas suburb, where Jay helped lead the high school swim team. Today, Jay's 14-year-old brother, Troy, is competing in his place as an homage. "He had a really fast downward spiral," says Alisa. "And it was fueled by daily trips to head shops to buy bath salts." Things weren't supposed to go this way for Jay. The Sirat family is solidly middle-class and active in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Robert is an industrial components salesman. Alisa is a teacher. Their home and their neighborhood are well-manicured and seemingly untroubled. But Jay began his distressing drift at the end of his sophomore year in high school. Recruiters from colleges such as Cornell started scouting him for their swim teams. Eventually, more than two-dozen fat envelopes arrived at the Sirat home addressed to Jay. Alisa thinks it might have been this excessive attention that freaked her son out. He started to party and get cocky. Then, the summer before senior year, Jay got busted for driving under the influence of weed and Ecstasy. He was placed on probation for a year with monthly drug tests. His grades started slipping and he wound up not applying to any colleges. When his mates on the swim team all graduated and moved on, he was left behind. Even though Jay was regularly coming up clean on his court-ordered drug tests, his parents saw him becoming more erratic. "Not just adolescent moodiness, it was beyond that," says Alisa. One night, about five months before his death, Jay got into a fight with his dad because he wanted to sleep on the trampoline in the backyard. Jay stormed out and said he would stay with his girlfriend. Once the girlfriend picked him up, they began to fight, and Jay threw himself out of the moving car. When his father went to help, he found Jay shirtless, screaming, and throwing rocks at him. "He was so angry, he seemed possessed," Robb recalls. Things started disappearing from the Sirat house — electronics, jewelry, Jay's parents' wedding rings (Alisa found hers in a local pawn shop and bought it back). His parents were certain that Jay was using, but were confounded by the way he continued to come up clean on his monthly drug tests. When Jay disappeared one night, his parents searched for him all night and found him early the next morning, curled up by a Dumpster in the parking lot of a local school. When Jay posted "I should end it all" on Facebook, his parents were able to get him temporarily committed to a psych hospital. By emptying their bank accounts, looking under couch cushions, and rolling up loose change, the Sirats put together $20,000 to send Jay to Renaissance Ranch, a Mormon-affiliated rehab facility in Utah. While Jay was in Utah, Alisa combed through his room. She found dozens of foil packets with powdery residue inside. She went through his pile of unwashed laundry and found receipts from a head shop called Jungle Zone in nearby Summerlin. Alisa drove to the store, which was a few blocks away from a practice pool where Jay would often swim. Inside the Jungle Zone, she saw a five-shelf display by the counter; Alisa recognized the foil packets inside the display case. She checked Jay's bank statements and discovered that he was making daily trips to the Zone and a couple of other local head shops. Alisa and Robb told Jay's probation officer, as well as his counselors in Utah. "I said, 'Look, this is the stuff he's on,' Alisa says. "They treated me like I had a third eye in the middle of my head." Robb called a doctor to ask about the effects of bath salts. "I might as well have said I was Abraham Lincoln and I was drumming for Bon Jovi," he laments. Bath salts and their consequences remain a mystery to the wider rehab and law enforcement community, let alone public consciousness. Jay made it to 30 days clean and sober at Renaissance Ranch. He wrote extensively in his journal, attended meetings, and regularly called his girlfriend. But it was all for naught. After moving into a sober-living house with a sketchy reputation, Jay started using heroin and overdosed. He was revived in the ER with nitroglycerin and drove home to Las Vegas the next day. When his parents picked him up, he told them, "If I stay here, I'm going to die here." One week later, Jay was dead. "I know it sounds odd," Alisa says, "but there have been a lot of good things that have come from his passing." Not only did a half-dozen of Jay's friends quit drugs because of his death, but the Sirat family started a public petition campaign on change.org to have bath salts outlawed. That drive contributed to the public clamor that has led to the current ban. Alisa and Robb don't think Jay killed himself. They believe Jay was so desperate after a year of snorting bath salts, taking Ecstasy, and smoking Spice that he wanted a fix but did not want to use drugs anymore. "The coroner reported a very slight amount of Ecstasy was in his system," Alisa says. "But at the time, they didn't know to test for bath salts." Perhaps, Jay was trying to choke himself and create a natural high of adrenaline. He had recently promised his swim friends that he wasn't going to use drugs again. Alisa thinks Jay may have been trying to keep a promise, but she can't be sure. And her uncertainty mirrors that of every police officer, DEA chemist, and user. Alisa tucks strands of her hair behind her ear, as cheering from the backyard fills the silence. "Who knows? That's the thing."