A new form of designer drugs known as “bath salts” are the focus of federal legislation as public officials attempt to deal with a recent rash of violent reactions to the evolving substance.

Bath salts, a form of synthetic cocaine that can produce paranoia and hallucinations, first emerged in Europe and gained widespread attention in the U.S. after a man suspected of being on the drug attacked and consumed the flesh of a homeless man in Florida. Other violent behavior by users of the drugs has been reported across the nation.

DEA spokesman David Levey says the federal bill would extend the list of illegal compounds and potentially close the loophole allowing drug makers to elude law enforcement.

A provision was added to the Food and Drug Administration Safety and Innovation Act, which would outlaw synthetic marijuana alongside MDPV (methylenedioxypyrovalerone), mephedrone, and possibly, methylone—the main stimulants found in the drugs. The bill has been sent to the House of Representatives after passing the Senate in May of 2012.

While the drugs’ active compounds were placed on an emergency ban by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in September, they can still be found in convenience stores, smoke shops and online where it is sold in packets or jars and often labeled as “not intended for human consumption.”

They are also sold under brand names such as “Plant Food” and “Ivory Wave” and retails anywhere from $20 to $50.  Other names include “Cloud Nine”, “Purple Wave,” “Red Dove,” “Blue Silk,” “Zoom,” “Bloom,” “Ocean Snow,” “Lunar Wave,” “Vanilla Sky,” “White Lightning,” “Scarface,” and “Hurricane Charlie.”

The chemicals used in “bath salts” act in the brain like stimulant drugs, sometimes as a cocaine substitute, presenting a high abuse and addiction liability. They have been reported to trigger intense cravings not unlike those experienced by methamphetamine users, and clinical reports corroborate their addictiveness.

A major concern of law enforcement and health officials is that the chemists who make the drugs are constantly “tweaking” the molecular structure, allowing them to skirt existing regulations by claiming to be a different substance while maintaining the same or possibly more dangerous effects.  This also means that it is difficult to test whether someone has used the drug.

The odorless white powder can be ingested several ways and produces effects similar to methamphetamine, but users also can have hallucinations caused by psychotic breaks or the influence of drugs such as LSD. The American Association of Poison Control Centers received over 6,000 calls regarding bath salts last year, up from 303 in 2010.

Police departments are now warning officers to be extremely cautious around disorderly homeless men, telling the public to call police immediately if they see anyone showing signs of being on the new drug.

In the latest incident, police took Brandon De Leon into custody after he entered a restaurant shouting obscenities and initially resisted arrest.

On the way to the station he slammed his head against the plexiglass barrier in the patrol car, shouting to the officers: “I’m going to eat you!” Later, the 21-year-old growled and grunted like an animal, and tried to bite an officer’s hand, police said, prompting them to fit him with a bite mask and leg restraints.

In addition to the Cloud Nine, police also believe De Leon consumed a bottle of rum and was drinking a beverage called Four Loko, which combines alcohol and caffeine. He tested positive for marijuana, Xanax and alcohol.

In another recent incident, a nude assailant almost killed another man by trying to bite his face off, in what some media reports have dubbed the “zombie” attack. The aggressor, Rudy Eugene, 31, was shot dead by police.  Police have suggested Eugene was under the influence of bath salts.

Cloud Nine is “addictive and dangerous,” a police memo said, part of a “disturbing trend” in which new drugs are sold in the guise of household products.  The drug, sold as “Ivory Wave” or “Cloud Nine,” comes in harmless-looking packets, police said, adding that it is illegal in Britain and Australia.

Eugene’s girlfriend, who asked not to be identified, told The Miami Herald that the frenzied attacker bore no resemblance to the man she was dating.

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