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

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. 

Many people who buy ecstasy often learn the hard way, shortly after taking the pill, that it was not MDMA they swallowed but likely a combination of other chemicals, often including amphetamines and perhaps LSD, which produces a similar but more agitated – and more dangerous --high.

Even when they're legal, the ingredients in bath salts are not regulated; they come in different brands that offer different experiences. It is possible that different brands using different chemical combinations elicit different reactions from users, some of them more dangerous than others. Making bath salts illegal, however, is likely to make the problem worse. That's because when you bust a manufacturer, dealers often end up dry. Cutting drugs with other chemicals can be a way to stay in business, and it can also be a way to maximize profit. The less of the sought-after chemical dealers put in their drugs, the less they pay the chemists who make it. And they still sell the same number of pills, bags, etc.

An alternative to making the drug illegal is allowing shops to keep it in stock, so long as manufacturers follow strict regulations to maintain purity. Because they allow users a) to become familiar with the effects of the drugs at specific quantities; and b) to know exactly how much of a drug they will be ingesting, a consistent purity level is one of the best ways to prevent overdose.

During an investigation into bath salts by ABC’s 20/20, a producer purchased the (illegal) bath salts "ThundaCat" from a New York City head shop involved in a recent bath salts trafficking bust. According to ABC, lab tests showed this brand contained lidocaine, which dentists use to numb the mouth, but no MDPV, mephedrone or methylone. A numb mouth is a classic side effect of cocaine. Clearly, the makers of ThundaCat already know a thing or two about how to maximize profit: Cut the drug with something that produces a similar effect (or in this case, side effect) and save cash by spreading thin the product of demand.

Online forums show evidence for different brands leading to different reactions, but they also suggest that the terrifying trips reported by some bath salts users may be linked to other factors, like dosage, education and experience. One commenter said her experience with bath salts was “far more akin to that of speed and amphetamines” than cocaine. “When I snorted bath salts, the effects were immediate. My heart rate accelerated rapidly, my blood pressure zoomed ‘off the charts,’ and, subjectively speaking, I suddenly became ‘more voluble,’ extremely talkative, and the feeling was not unlike that of a ‘meth trip.’"

Others were not so impressed. One commenter offered: “This intense surge lasted for roughly an hour before it began to die down and I felt that I could actually sit down without jumping out of my skin. I didn’t feel the euphoria I felt with some of the other blends I had tried, only stimulation which was kind of a turn off for this blend. Not really suggested unless you want to pay for an expensive bath salt that just makes you uncomfortably awake.”

Another commenter added: “That first hit gave me a sexual euphoria, close to meth, for about a half of an hour. But if you are looking for replacement for that sexual energy you got from meth, I'm afraid you will be disappointed.”

In light of these reported experiences, it seems that people who did commit violent or otherwise shocking acts allegedly high on bath salts fell victim to the age-old factors (with which casual drug users are familiar) of a bad trip, not necessarily a bad drug: Dosage/method, lack of experience, predisposition to psychosis, and an uncomfortable social setting.

As with every other substance, quantity and manner of consumption are important indicators of the intensity and type of high users will experience. Bath salts are typically injected, snorted or smoked: Shooting bath salts will lead to a quicker intoxication or “rush,” while smoking bath salts can elicit a more intense high than snorting. The DEA's Office of Diversion Control noted that higher doses of MDPV have caused intense, prolonged panic attacks in stimulant-intolerant users. The ODC also attributed “bouts of psychosis” to sleep deprivation, not the drug itself. Thus, sufficient drug education could show users how to take MDPV safely: Take low doses or start slowly, ingesting (if necessary) incrementally larger doses over a period of experiences.

But that doesn't help a whole lot if users don't know what chemicals they are ingesting, which is more likely to happen if the drugs are illegal and dealers dilute them with who knows what. Users will lose track not only of what chemicals they are ingesting, but also how much of the active ingredient they are taking. Shifting purity levels will make it difficult to determine a safe dosage.

One New York City head shop employee (who claimed that his most regular bath salts customers were "corporates") says reports about the dangers of bath salts caused him to take them off his shelves. He said the attention surrounding head shops and bath salts is “ridiculous.” “They are going after the wrong people,” he said, “What about places that sell cigarettes and alcohol?”

Cigarettes cause 443,000 deaths annually, and 25 percent of suicides are linked to alcohol, which causes another 100,000 deaths a year. While the dangers of cigarettes and alcohol may be old news, the implications of their legality are not. People want to experience the altered state of consciousness cigarettes, alcohol, bath salts, and illegal drugs provide. Legal drugs are the most dangerous, yet the government is in the midst of a war against the illegal ones.

If bath salts are indeed addictive, denying users access to the substance may drive them toward underground sources or similar illegal drugs like methamphetamine and cocaine, where unknown ingredients, inexperience and lack of knowledge may contribute to more adverse reactions. Perhaps the answer to the bath salts phenomenon is not fear or hysteria, but research into why people use drugs, and education in how to use them safely.


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