The Zombie Bath Salt Apocalypse

As Americans grapple with the legality of marijuana across the country, drug testing in sports, and emerging e-cigarette rules, not to mention a host of other hot-button issues in the realm of drug policy, it would be wise to pay attention to designer drugs.


Bath salts are one example of this new class of designer drugs, which are sometimes referred to as “legal highs.” These are substances with psychotropic effects that have been or are marketed and distributed for recreational use by exploiting gaps in existing drug legislation.  Another popular example is the synthetic cannabinoids ("fake marijuana") marketed under names such as Spice.

However, the gap to exploit with bath salts was largely closed in recent years. In 2012, the so-called bath salts were made illegal through the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act and then with the Synthetic Cathinones Control Act a year later. At roughly the same time, Canada introduced measures to ban the key ingredient in bath salts, methlyenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV).

The move to schedule and control the drug was surely warranted, yet one can easily detect how the drug was sensationalized as part of this process. Lurid and grotesque stories were reported about bath salts, including the naked zombie attacker who was shot by police in Miami while biting a victim’s face. Rudy Eugene, the face-chewing “zombie,” wasn’t on any bath salts, contrary to a majority of the stories.

Yet, the nation went into full-on moral panic mode. From PBS and Spin to Forbes and GQ magazine, the public was exposed to the new menace in American society. It was the stuff of nightmares. It was a Zombie Bath Salt Apocalypse.

The Big Picture

Cathinones are naturally occurring amphetamine-like substances that come from Khat, a plant found in eastern Africa which has been chewed since at least the tenth century. Synthetic cathinones, not surprisingly, are lab-created derivatives of this compound, dating back to 1928 or so. 

By the 1990s, the use/misuse of the synthetic cathinones began to pop up on radar screens and became an issue with law enforcement and government officials.

Before the recent regulation in the past few years, the designer “bath salts” were purchased from dealers, through online distributors, or at book stores, gas stations, and head shops. They got the nickname because they resembled the everyday Epsom salts that bath-lovers pour in their water when they take a soothing soak.

But there are trade names as well:  “Ivory Wave,” “Purple Wave,” “Ocean Burst,” “Monkey Dust,” “Sextacy,” “Vanilla Sky,” and “White Lightning” are just some of the varieties one can put in the body rather than the bathtub. Tough to detect, they can be snorted, smoked, or injected.

And the effects of these are similar to MDMA. Users have reported increased energy and empathy, more sociability, and mental and sexual stimulation. The negative side effects of bath salts, on the other hand, have included difficulty breathing, fatigue, insomnia, muscle twitching, nausea, paranoia, violent behavior, and tachychardia.

A Vicious Circle

Compared to traditional psychotropic drugs (cocaine and LSD, for instance), there is relatively scant medical information available. That has not prevented its assignment to the category of Schedule I, meaning it has no known and accepted medical use.

Yet certain researchers raise interesting points. One is that classifying bath salts as schedule I substances without pre-clinical or human research is very problematic.

This move restricts the number of laboratories and institutions with licenses to study the bath salts. As a result, finding an accepted medical use becomes even more difficult, even though there have been suggestions that bath salts could be a viable alternative to amphetamines in dealing with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or severe, treatment-resistant Depression.

This is, in short, a case of the snake eating its tail, and one does not have to look any further than LSD to detect some historical parallels. In the late 1960s, the recreational abuse of LSD as well as the anti-authority, counter-cultural, and outright malevolent images associated with it helped to scuttle research. Now, after over forty years, LSD has begun to make a slow return, and perhaps even a comeback.

Hyperbole and inaccurate information played a role in the scheduling and controlling of LSD, in other words. This was also the case when it was reported that crazed Mexicans who smoked marijuana went on vicious rampages, or when it was reported that Chinese workers were raping white women in opium dens while customers were “Chasing the Dragon.” With bath salts, which are the latest in a long line of drugs used for their euphoric effects, this hyperbole was readily apparent. 

No, bath salts will not turn you into a cannibalistic criminal like Rudy Eugene in Miami. And, no, bath salts will not give you super strength. But the media had no problems in pushing such narratives on news consumers.

Should we be surprised about this type of journalism? Or that it dovetailed with the first synthetic cathinone legislation in 2012, which was passed the same month as the attack? Far from. If anything, the history of drug policy demonstrates how predictable this is.

In the future, the best way to avoid cowering in bed about an imminent zombie bath salt apocalypse is with candor. It’s probably best not to cut off avenues of research or focus on gory thoughts about face-chewing.

And, at the very least, it would be prudent to recognize the challenges and dangers of designer drugs like bath salts, even as we place them in a longer history of drugs.

This way we can create a proactive strategy for evading the zombie hordes.

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