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Outlawed bath salts still leave shattered lives behind

Ocala, FL - November 12, 2011

Published in the Ocala Star-Banner on Saturday, November 12, 2011

Jason Russell Smith stuck the barrel of his .38 caliber revolver to his sweat-soaked temple. His mother looked on just a few feet away, unable to stop her son and unable to fathom that his year-long struggle with drug addiction had come to this.

The pair stood in the middle of their usually quiet Ocala street. Smith pulled the trigger. Lucille Cranston heard a click as the hammer dropped, but nothing else. The chamber was empty.

The mother and son locked eyes once again as sunlight streamed through the trees and onto their faces. It was already warm.

Smith was enraged, gripped by a fury fueled by his addiction to bath salts. Once available mostly at convenience stores, it was purported to give its users energy and a sense of well being. What the makers didn't advertise was the paranoia, hallucinations and addiction.

Florida made the drug illegal in January and most stores took the small packets off their shelves, but users like Smith still managed to get their hands on it.

Once a hard-working air conditioning and heating repairman, Smith had begun to experience visions, believed strangers were breaking into his home and suspected his wife of having affairs. His house, once neat and orderly, was in shambles. Smith placed dozens of cheap cameras and cellphones throughout the home to record any unwanted intruders. He had long ago lost his job.

Months of trying to get Smith clean had been fruitless.

Then one morning, Smith appeared at his mother and stepfather's home, shirtless, covered in dirt and disoriented. High on the drug and exhausted from lack of sleep, he had first gone to the wrong house, a neighbor's home, and tried to get inside. Afraid he was being followed, he buried his gun under some leaves there.

Later, he and his mother raced to the house, each desperate to get to the gun first. She found the gun, but he grabbed it away in a struggle.

Her son had never been violent toward her before.

After pulling the trigger on the empty chamber, Smith shouted at his mother, "This is your fault. This is all because of you."

Cranston lunged at her son in one last attempt to save his life, but Smith swung the gun in an arch around his head the way a child would throw a ball and pulled the trigger. This time, the gun fired.

"He falls ... and I'm thinking, ‘what did you do?' " she said, wiping away tears as she recalls the moment. "I see blood shooting from both ends. I'm thinking that if I hold it in ..."

Although local law enforcement says bath salts and their derivative cousins haven't been a significant problem since their ban in January, families like the Cranstons disagree. It has just gone underground, they say, and it remains popular and easy to get.

The drug's active ingredient, Mephedrone, produces amphetamine-like effects and in most cases is snorted as a powder. But the drug also can be ingested, smoked or injected. In many cases, the drug's active ingredient is chemically tweaked to skirt Florida's ban.

To add to its appeal, the drug is sold in non-threatening, colorful and small 500 milligram (0.018 ounces) packets with names like Jamaican Spirit, Vanilla Sky, Eight Ballz and Ivory Wave.

Local health care officials agree that when bath salts were outlawed, the number of overdose cases in emergency rooms declined, along with the number of referrals to addiction centers.

But those same health officials say the drug is still around.

Dawn R. Sollee, assistant director of the Florida Poison Information Center in Jacksonville, said her agency received just eight reports of bath salt intoxication from hospitals this year, "but we know this is a huge underestimation."

The poison center received 109 such phone calls from throughout North Florida.

Sollee said only the most extreme cases ever get reported to her agency, and that's only when hospitals treat the patients or families report it. In many cases, patients won't admit what drugs they used.

Sollee said there are many reasons the drug remains popular, but mostly because it is widely available on the Internet.

To coax users into buying it and avoid prosecution from the law, Sollee said manufacturers often don't list the toxic ingredients on the packaging. They also make a variation of the illegal drug to avoid detection by law enforcement.

The price is typically between $15 and $35 for 500 milligrams, enough for several doses.

Also appealing to users is that there are currently no laboratory tests available to even detect the drug in the human body.

"So we have no idea what the true consumption is," Sollee said.

What is known is that there is little to fear that legitimate bath salts users will buy the hallucinogen by mistake.

Packets containing 500 mg "isn't enough for a bath for a gerbil." Sollee said.

Dr. Frank Fraunselter, director of emergency services at Munroe Regional Medical Center, said patients high on bath salts sometimes come in complaining of chest pains. They are sometimes dumped at the hospital's front door by family or friends.

One of the problems with the drug is that not much is known about it because it's still relatively new, Fraunselter said.

In most cases, the patient is treated for the symptoms they're experiencing and told to get follow-up care from a family doctor or an addiction treatment center, but there is little else emergency rooms can do, Fraunselter said.

Once the patients are stabilized and behaving normally, they usually leave on their own.

The Centers, a mental health and substance abuse center serving both Marion and Citrus counties, also still sees a couple of patients a month.

Boswell Trowers, The Centers' director of Acute Care Services, said treatment for bath salts is different than most other mainstream drugs. With bath salts there's no lengthy detoxification process.

Family members of addicts say those addicted felt they could control their use of the drug for short periods or even stopped using it for a time.

Kandice Wisco said that was the case with her husband, 34-year-old Ralph Wisco.

The couple married in 2000 and three years later started a successful business building swimming pool enclosures.

Before the recession, the company had ample work, keeping as many as five separate work crews busy.

Ralph Wisco supervised the workers while Kandice Wisco kept the books. The couple also diversified their business, buying two additional homes for rental properties. The couple had five daughters and were living a comfortable life.

When the economy tanked, Kandice Wisco said there was still work for the couple, but they let go of most of the workers, and her husband had to do more of the physical labor.

"He was in a lot of pain from (a previous car) accident and from a fall from a ladder. So it was hard to be the kind of father he wanted to be," she said.

Wisco said her husband took painkillers for about a year and got addicted.

It hurt the business.

They lost customers and owed people money because Ralph was using profits and selling supplies to support his drug habit.

Wisco said her husband got off the pain medicines and got clean but, then, with much of the physical work falling on him, Ralph Wisco started looking for something to boost his energy. He found it in bath salts.

Just like Jason Smith, paranoia and agitation soon set in.

Wisco said the doting father and husband began accusing her of breaking into his phone and computer, having affairs and stealing money.

"Very quickly (the drug) got a hold of him like nothing else," she said. "He was constantly beyond paranoid. He would stay up all night. There were constant accusations. And then he couldn't complete a thought, or he would say something over and over again."

When she threatened divorce, he got off the drug for a while, but then started again.

On the night of June 25, the couple went to a local restaurant with friends to celebrate selling one of their rental homes and getting enough cash to stay afloat.

But at the restaurant, the celebration went bad.

"He got angrier by the minute. He had this totally different demeanor," she recalled.

He accused her of trying to pick up men at the bar and of having affairs again.

At 11:30 p.m., an angry Ralph Wisco left the restaurant in his pickup. Kandice Wisco said she and their two friends found him later at their home in northeast Ocala.

Ralph Wisco started to argue again with his wife. He was enraged, one witness later told police.

Their children were in the home crying and screaming. He had thrown Kandice Wisco's clothes and personal belongings across the yard.

When Ralph Wisco found his wife and friends sitting at a patio table, he approached them. Then the confrontation with his wife became violent. He started bashing her head onto the table.

He then took his 9mm pistol, pressed it to her head and threatened to kill her.

When he left, one of the friends tried to talk with Ralph Wisco, but Wisco told him to leave and fired a round to warn him away and walked down an alley toward an empty lot.

Police were called.

"About 10 minutes later we all heard what could have been Ralph screaming something at the top of his lungs and then we heard a gun," she said.

Wisco was rushed to the hospital with a gunshot wound to the head.

He died nine days later.

Kandice Wisco said she is certain her husband was using bath salts or a close derivative.

Since his death, Wisco has tried to convince the police and medical examiner's office to list the probable cause of death as accidental and not an intentional gunshot wound.

She says their children would be better off to think their father's death wasn't suicide.

She also says they would all have been much better off if he had never heard of bath salts.