The powdered drugs are sold under such brand names as "Ivory Wave" or "Purple Wave." Kerlikowske said synthetic stimulants in them have made hundreds of users across the country sick already this year. A Mississippi sheriff's office has said the drugs are suspected in an apparent overdose death there.
"They pose a serious threat to the health and well-being of young people and anyone who uses them," Kerlikowske said in a written statement. The American Association of Poison Control Centers has received 251 calls related to "bath salts" so far this year, compared to 236 such calls to poison centers during all of 2010.
Kerlikowske said these stimulants can cause chest pains, increased blood pressure and heart rate, agitation, hallucinations, extreme paranoia and delusions.
Rafael Lemaitre, a spokesman for Kerlikowske's office, said the drugs mimic the effects of cocaine, ecstasy, and LSD.
Kerlikowske's office convened a meeting of federal drug and health officials at the White House Tuesday to discuss their growing popularity. He was later briefed on that discussion, Lemaitre said.
The "bath salts" drugs, also sometimes labeled as plant food, contain the synthetic stimulants MDPV, or 3,4-methylenedioxypyrovalerone, and mephedrone. Those chemicals are neither controlled by the Drug Enforcement Administration nor approved for human consumption by the Food and Drug Administration.
No plans for federal regulation plans were announced Tuesday. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., has drafted a bill that would add the chemicals to the list of federally controlled substances.
Hawaii, Michigan, Louisiana, Kentucky, and North Dakota are considering legislation to ban the products. Several counties, cities, and local municipalities have also taken action to ban these products.
DEA spokesman Rusty Payne said users "are playing Russian roulette when you are dealing with this stuff."
Payne said the DEA is working with health officials to study abuse data and other information about the synthetic stimulants used in the "bath salts." For now, he said people should simply stay away from the drugs.
"Just because something is not illegal . does not mean it's safe," Payne said.
The "bath salts" are the latest synthetic drugs to be targeted by federal authorities. In November, the DEA announced its intention to use emergency authority to ban five chemicals used to make synthetic marijuana products that were also sold in drug paraphernalia shops and on the Internet.