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2012: The Year of Synthetic Drugs

Synthetic drugs have irrevocably changed the face of international drug dealing, while ushering in a new era of hysteria.
 
 
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This article originally appeared on The Fix.

This is the year of the knockoff. A witch’s brew of new synthetic drugs, most of them stimulants, peddled as either bath salts or “spice” concoctions, has offered users new forms of Russian Roulette, and has irrevocably changed the face of international drug dealing. 2012 was also the year hysteria took over. Myths began to accumulate, and everywhere you looked, somebody was supposedly doing something psychotic due to the new synthetics. Who can forget Rudy Eugene, Florida’s Causeway Cannibal, the bizarre face-eating man on bath salts? The attack left law enforcement officials wondering how a drug could drive Eugene to strip off his clothes, attack a homeless man, and chew pieces of flesh from the man’s face.

Well, it wasn’t bath salts, as it turned out. But never mind. As Fix columnist Maia Szalavitz  wrote: “Despite the fact that Eugene had no synthetic drugs in his system, it’s likely that his case will still be used for years as an example of what bath salts can make people do.” But drug users saw it differently. After all, how deadly could bath salts really be, hanging there on the rack beside the Slim Jims, the 5-hour energy drinks, and the caffeine tabs at the local Bag-and-Drag minimart?

By 2012, amphetamine-type stimulants, including synthetic bath salt derivatives, had become more popular worldwide than either cocaine or heroin,  according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). This international eclipsing of the plant-based “hard drugs” of the past represents a major paradigm shift in the landscape of the illegal drug trade. The stunning market growth of synthetic stimulants is not hard to understand. Bath salt drug products soared in popularity throughout 2012 due largely to the belief among users that the drugs were: 1) quasi-legal, 2) non-addictive, 3) relatively safe, and 4) invisible to drug tests.

By the end of the year, it had become clear that none of these things was still true.

To begin with, bath salts—just like Spice and other cannabis spinoffs—are no longer legal. And many of the drugs found in bath salts appear to be addictive. Some carry known health hazards. And, although it was the desire to finesse drug testing that gave a major push to this new class of recreational chemicals, major bath salt ingredients can now be detected in routine urinalysis. Researchers have teased out the main culprits in both categories of synthetics—for synthetic marijuana, it’s the JWH family of research chemicals. For stimulants, it’s the cathinones, compounds like mephedrone and MDPV, members of a family of psychoactive alkaloids that includes khat, the chewable form of speed popular in East Africa.

But the truth was, nobody really knew with certainty just what was inside those shiny foil packages. Nobody knew how much to take, or how to determine how much had been taken. Doctors didn’t know enough about the drugs to consistently diagnose an overdose. And what little testing was available for detecting synthetic stimulants was costly and questionable. The effects were wildly unpredictable. Users are serving as unwitting guinea pigs for underground designers, ingesting compounds about which little or nothing is known clinically. Violent headaches, paranoia, disturbed vision and impaired decision-making can all be effects of bath salts. But you can also catch a mild ride, and come out of the evening without a scratch. Are they safe? Yes and No. Maybe. Plenty of people have taken bath salts and lived to tell about it. But bath salt stimulants and spice-style marijuana derivatives can also sometimes be compared to “a shot of methamphetamine with a PCP chaser,” in the words of one bath salts user. And that is nobody’s idea of a fun-loving evening.

 
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