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The Truth Behind the Bath Salts "Epidemic"

After the explosion in use comes the demonization. Then the press, despite a total lack of causal evidence, parrots the outlandish accusations.

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Florida Republican Rep. Sandy Adams is one of the politicians who helped push the Combating Dangerous Synthetic Stimulants Act of 2011 through the House last December. The bill would federally ban MDPV and mephedrone, the two chemicals found in bath salts, as well as outlawing dozens of other chemicals found in synthetic drugs. The reasoning? "Looking at the Miami incident, we've seen people do some very bizarre acts on bath salts," Adams told the  U.S. News and World Report. If he gets his way, bath salts would be categorized alongside heroin and LSD.

So can bath salts really cause ordinary normal people to cannibalize strangers, expose themselves to children, or murder goats? And if they can, why on earth would anybody take them? A drug that has been described variously as “super powered LSD” and “PCP on crack” seems like a confusing proposition. So which is it?

“The reason for the contrasting descriptions is most likely the small but very significant difference in the specific chemicals involved,” says Dr. Jaffe. “Meth and ecstasy are very close chemical cousins but obviously cause very different effects for the user; the same is true here.”

To better get a handle of what is happening here in the US, I looked toward the United Kingdom, which has recently been through a similar cycle of shock horror media coverage of the “bath salt epidemic,” followed by a rush to ban. Bath salts were known under various aliases in the UK, including M-Kat, Meow-Meow and Bubbles, so for the sake of clarity, I’m going to use their chemical name of the most common compound: mephedrone.

“The issues in the US and UK are very similar, except that, as in many things, the US hype is even more over the top than that in the UK,” says Danny Kushlick, founder of the  Transform Drug Policy Foundation, a charitable think tank that attempts to draw public attention to the fact that drug prohibition is the major cause of drug-related harm. “I mean, we never got so far as cannibalism.”

Yet at its height, the mephedrone scare in the UK was still pretty lurid; according to some of the coverage, it was linked to overdose,  patricide and at least one case of  self scrotum tearing. Many of these stories would later be disproved (the scrotum story, unsurprisingly was revealed as a hoax) and the two deaths that started the whole media scare—that of Louis Wainwright, 18, and Nicholas Smith, 19—turned out to be totally unrelated to the use of the drug. By the time the toxicology report on Wainwright and Smith had been published, however, it was too late: the drug had been banned a month earlier by the UK parliament, after a one-hour debate and no vote on the matter.

Kushlick, who is on the council of the  International Harm Reduction Association, and is a member of the British Society of Criminology's Advisory Council, was a vocal opponent of the rush to ban mephedrone in the UK. In the months following the ban, he saw harm actually increase and not reduce because, he said, “when mephedrone was banned, the price increased and it was sold not by legitimate retailers but by non-tax paying unregulated dealers. It was also immediately replaced by a more potent compound and traded as  Ivory Wave, which users had little experience with so they were more likely to get into trouble.”

These sentiments are echoed by Dr. Fiona Measham, a senior lecturer on Criminology at Lancaster University and the author of several books on drug use in young people. Her groundbreaking research into the use of mephedrone in the UK has provided some of the only hysteria-free data into mephedrone and the people who use it. Her  paper, “Tweaking, Bombing, Dabbing and Stockpiling; the emergence of mephedrone and the Perversity of prohibition” (2010 Measham, et al), is the definitive account of the UK’s experience with the drug from the perspective of the people who actually use it.

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