TAMPA — A 23-year-old Tampa man died from ingesting a drug sold as "bath salts," the first such fatality reported in Florida, officials said Thursday.
Jairious McGhee died April 3 from intoxication of methylone, the main compound in the now-banned "bath salt" found in his stomach, according to the Hillsborough County Medical Examiner's Office.
Tampa police initially believed McGhee died of viral meningitis because of symptoms he displayed after an altercation with a police officer, authorities said.
Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill into law Tuesday banning the white powder marketed as bath salts but used as an alternative for drugs like cocaine and LSD.
The bill was supported by Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who in January issued an emergency rule making it a third-degree felony to possess or distribute drugs sold as bath salts.
The Florida Poison Information Center documented 113 cases involving so-called bath salts since becoming aware of the use in August, said Cynthia Lewis-Younger, medical director for the center in Tampa.
The number of calls dropped by about half after Bondi issued the emergency rule. But this case marks the first death in the state caused by the outlawed substance, she said.
The American Association of Poison Control Centers has received 2,507 calls about exposure to the drug since it began gathering reports last year.
But Lewis-Younger said many more incidents do not get reported. The state center was alerted of deaths from the drug in Europe and other states before it showed up here.
People on the drug can experience many symptoms, including hallucinations, anxiety, violent behavior and seizures. The symptoms can last a few hours or up to a few days. Some users wound up in psychiatric wards and others have harmed themselves or others, Lewis-Younger said.
The day before McGhee died, police said, a motorist alerted a police officer about a man walking in and out of traffic at Dale Mabry Highway and Kennedy Boulevard and banging on cars. McGhee was yelling, cursing and "acting erratically," according to an autopsy report.
Officer Greg Preyer approached McGhee, who said he wanted to fight and lunged at him. Preyer struck McGhee with a Taser, but medical examiner spokesman Dick Bailey said the autopsy found it bounced off McGhee's clothes.
McGhee was handcuffed and taken into custody under the Baker Act, which allows for observation of people considered a danger to themselves or others. He was transported to Tampa General Hospital.
McGhee died at the hospital 28 hours later as his brain swelled from a lack of oxygen and his body temperature soared to nearly 106 degrees, shutting down his kidneys and other organs. He bit his tongue, possibly because of an acute seizure.
"Essentially, he's just deteriorating very quickly," said Julia Pearson, a toxicologist with the medical examiner's office.
Believing he had meningitis, the police officers who came in contact with McGhee took an antibiotic as a precaution.
McGhee's mother, Melody Thompson, said in April that she didn't accept the police account that her son was acting erratically in the intersection.
"I know my son's personality," she told the St. Petersburg Times. She could not be reached for comment Thursday.
It's not clear how much of the drug McGhee ingested or whether he snorted or swallowed it. The drug is a powerful stimulant that is very new to medical examiners and other officials. Before this case, Pearson did not have a method developed for identifying it.
The "bath salts" are synthetic drugs manufactured as an alternative to cocaine or heroin not to be confused with what someone can buy in a grocery store, said Jennifer Davis, a spokeswoman for the Florida Attorney General's Office. They were marketed as "bath salts" as a way to sell drugs in convenience stores before they were outlawed here.
Legitimate bath salts are not affected by the new law.
But while the so-called bath salts are illegal in Florida and some other states, they can still be found and purchased online.
"As long as people are going to want to use drugs," Lewis-Younger said, "they're going to find a way to do it."