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'Bath Salts' Are the Latest U.S. Media Hysteria Drug

A new drug sold legally in head shops as "bath salts" is getting a lot of media attention that may be doing more harm than good.
 
 
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The latest U.S. drug scare is over the oddly named "bath salts," a cocaine- or meth-like drug sold for $20-$50 in head shops. Bath salts have become popular among speed-seekers, triggering a wave of hospitalizations, which the media has decided constitutes a new epidemic.

The drugs are called bath salts because their white, clumpy texture looks like something you'd throw in the tub. Actually, they are legal, hallucinogenic stimulants synthesized from the manmade chemicals methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV), mephedrone and methylone. Once users have ingested the drug they are not likely to want anything to do with a bubble bath – unless, of course, the bubbles can talk.

Bath salts typically produce a high characterized by a sense of alertness, stimulation and euphoria that lasts three to four hours. There have also been some nasty reported side-effects: seizures, hallucinations, paranoia, and life-threatening increases in heart rate, as well as addiction. 

Media and law enforcement have been quick to stir up panic over the drugs. But as is often the case, their fear-mongering and knee-jerk push to make these substances illegal may cause more harm than good.

Society has entered a new era in which chemists are able to use manmade research chemicals (often called RCs) like those in bath salts, to mimic the effects of illegal drugs by slightly altering their makeup. If a new product produces a strong high, you can create a new market. If the resulting substance becomes illegal, these money-hungry creative geniuses are going to produce a lot of it and make some major cash. Pushing bath salts underground will only create a black market, which results in less open discussion and education about the drug -- a counterproductive development since the more potentially dangerous the drug, the more harm reduction and education users need. 

By all accounts, bath salts, which have been on the market for about a year, took off quickly. According to the American Association of Poison Control Centers, poison control centers nationwide received 3,740 calls about bath salts from January 2011 through June, compared to 303 in all of 2010.

At least 28 states have already banned the chemicals in bath salts, and some politicians are pushing for a federal approach. New York Senator Charles E. Schumer introduced  federal legislation in February to classify bath salts as controlled Schedule I substances – non-medical drugs with high potential for abuse like heroin, ecstasy and marijuana. With Schumer’s proposed legislation still under review, bath salts are widely available online, and as the New York Times points out, “experts say the state bans can be thwarted by chemists who need change only one molecule in salts to make them legal again.”

As some chemists may be willing to make slight alterations to bath salts to preserve their legality, others will continue to synthesize the drug, and dealers will continue to sell it – possibly with lower purity levels, which can often cause dangerous reactions.

The media is grabbing on to the story with mixed results. A July 17 New York Times story titled “ An Alarming New Stimulant, Legal in Many States,” compares bath salts to PCP in the 1970s, and chronicles the “horror” of a drug so scary it drives users to do things like climb a flagpole and jump into traffic, stab a priest, or scratch one’s self “to pieces.” Many users, the article claims, experience violent fits that even sedatives cannot calm.

As shocking as these stories are, the article focuses on bad reactions to bath salts without looking at the bigger picture: Why some people have such strong, negative reactions to the drug, and how best to minimize these negative side-effects. 

 
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