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A panel comprised of local law enforcement officials, substance abuse counselors and medical personnel addressed a concerned crowd of 153 people on the dangers of bath salts Tuesday night at Augusta Health.

Described as a "new designer drug," bath salts can be swallowed, snorted, injected or smoked, and some of the most common side effects include severe paranoia, delusions, suicidal thoughts and intense cravings for more consumption.

Dr. Scott Just, emergency physician at Augusta Health, said that the hospital's Emergency Department is currently seeing one to two bath salt-related cases per day, and the drug first surfaced in the area during the early summer months of 2011.

He added that its potency is nine to 13 times that of cocaine.

"It is the most dangerous drug I've encountered in 16 years in the ED," Just told the crowd.

Tonya Phillips, of Fishersville, reiterated that statement. Phillips, a recovering narcotics addict, said that her 23-year-old daughter took bath salts last week and is currently in her seventh day of detox.

"I had never seen anything like it before in my life," said Phillips in reference to what the drug did to her daughter, adding that she had witnessed people high on methamphetamines whose behavior was not comparable.

Cpl. Todd Lloyd of the Augusta County Sheriff's Office said that prior to 2010, Augusta County was the "methamphetamine capital of the state," but law enforcement officials saw a decrease in meth seizures that year due to the emergence of bath salts.

John Savides, Certified Substance Abuse Counselor at Augusta Health, noted that relapses are common among his patients because of the intense cravings and euphoria experienced from the usage of bath salts, while Just and other panel members agreed that bath salt abuse was most prevalent among those ages 20 to 29.

Savides added that because bath salts are not outlawed, many underestimate the severe consequences of using them.

"People make assumptions that because the drug is legal, it must be low-risk �'' that is not the case," he said.

While there has been state legislation proclaiming it illegal to distribute the drug, panel experts said that its manufacturers are constantly changing its chemical composition to skirt this legislation.

It can be found online, as well as discreetly at convenience stores and gas stations.

Rebecca Surratt, of Staunton, voiced her support for the Sheriff's Office and Staunton and Waynesboro police departments informing their citizens of which stores in the local vicinity sell bath salts so that people can boycott those stores.

"I don't want to spend my money at the same place that's selling bath salts," Surratt said.

In order for the problem to cease, Dep. Rick Modlin, who works for the Augusta County Sheriff's Office as a school resource officer, said that getting the word out is the key. He said that he is working to put a program in place for the next school year that will educate students on the hazards of bath salts, and urged those present to contact local city council and Board of Supervisors members, as well as state and federal legislators in Richmond and Washington, D.C., regarding the drug and its prevalence.