First Australian deaths from use of bath salts

Added by on November 2, 2012

A central coast truck driver, Glenn Punch, 44, and his girlfriend, Rachael Hickel, 42, injected a drug while in the cabin of his truck one afternoon two weeks ago; they thought it would just be some fun, yet ended up in high that lasted several days and ended in a naked, bloodied death.

They were in a deep psychosis two days later, after further doses. Suffering unbearable heat, both had shed their clothes. A naked Mr Punch had jumped a barbed wire fence in an industrial area near Newcastle and attacked a security guard before going into cardiac arrest.

Punch died in Prince of Wales Hospital two days later.

Ms Hickel, who was found with no top on hundreds of meters away survived the intense high to bury her long-term partner on Friday near their Berkeley Vale home.

But this was not a normal drug overdose. The pair had done nothing illegal.

The drug they took was not illegal – it was so-called “bath salts”, a legal synthetic drug that mimics the effects of cocaine and has quietly reached Australia after sparking widespread concern overseas.

The pair had bought a bag of nondescript white powder called “Smokin’ Slurrie” from the an adult shop in Rutherford. It was labeled not for consumption but marketed online and in forums as a legal high.

Mr Punch’s death was the first bath salts fatality in Australia but the commander of the state’s drug squad, Detective Superintendent Nick Bingham, has since revealed that the mysterious product is “flying off the shelves” in adult shops, tobacconists and online, prompting a parliamentary inquiry into the rapidly emerging synthetic drug market.

Manufacturers reportedly tweak the composition of the substances so they circumvent illegal drug classifications yet can still trigger many of the same effects of amphetamines. In NSW, the powder has become astonishingly easy to buy and users boast of their exploits online.

“I was up all night and the next day and I had only gone through about .5 grams. Teeth grinding and hard to sleep the next day,” wrote one forum user.

A new psychoactive drug enters the European market every week, far out-pacing efforts to legislate against them, yet figures on consumption do not exist in Australia because the substance is so new.

A Brisbane lawyer representing several sellers, Patrick Quinn, said the products were becoming “huge”, particularly among miners because they were not detected in urine tests.

“There’s a lot of money to be made and my clients make no secret about what they do,” Mr Quinn said. “The profit margins are incredible and they are intent on selling a legal product.”

Nauti & Nice refused to comment and the distributor of Smokin’ Slurrie, who gave his name as Brett, hung up on Fairfax. A woman earlier said he couldn’t talk because he was dropping his children at school.

The director of the National Drug Research Institute, Professor Steve Allsop, said authorities needed to take seriously what was happening around the world.

“I think we need to be concerned,” he said. “We’re not clear on prevalence in Australia because all people have to do is click a couple of buttons and the substance comes through Australia Post, so that makes it hard to detect. It’s a new challenge.”

Several synthetic cannabis blends were banned in NSW last year but manufacturers can simply tweak recipes, causing further confusion.

Detective Superintendent Bingham suggested following New Zealand’s approach, where their legislation places the onus of proof about safety on manufacturers. Bingham said Australian sellers were willing to foot the bill for testing, which topped NZ$1 million in New Zealand.