Bath Salts: Your Guide to Dangerous Designer Drugs

BlogHer Original Post

On Saturday, May 26, a man was brutalized in what has been described by several media organizations as a zombie attack. But unlike the usual plot in zombie films, the perpetrator was not a victim of an apocalyptic virus. According to Miami-Dade law enforcement, the 31-year-old man was under the influence of a synthetic drug called "bath salts."

Armando Aguilar, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, told the media that "When the officer approached [the suspect], told him to stop, pointed a gun at him, [the suspect] turned around and growled like a wild animal and kept eating at the man's face." Given no other option, police were forced to shoot the attacker. The victim is reported to have lost 75 percent of his face.

"[Bath salts] causes them to go completely insane and become very violent," said Aguilar, reflecting on this and four other Florida cases involving extreme violence and this synthetic drug.

When I first heard this story I was watching the television on mute, so all I could see was that someone had become frenzied after using bath salts and resorted to cannibalism. It terrified me -- until I realized that the bath salts being discussed were not the same delightfully-scented crystals I am fond of scattering into my tub.

Now I know that bath salts are a drug -- but what kind of drug? Media outlets can't seem to agree -- is it synthetic cocaine or LSD or ecstasy? Or all of the above? I looked into it and the answer is that it depends. Bath salts are not any one single drug in the same way that "ice," for example, is used to refer to crystal methamphetamine. The term "bath salts" describes a whole class of synthetic stimulants, packed into grab bag of other chemicals, many of which remain unidentified.

Designer drugs mephedrone and methylenedioxypyrovalerone. Structures from chemspider.

Unlike their name suggests, bath salts do not contain fragrant soaps or oils (some actually smell quite foul, like chemicals or fish).

"It's confusing. Is this what we put in our bathtubs, like Epsom salts? No. But by marketing them as bath salts and labeling them 'not for human consumption,' they have been able to avoid them being specifically enumerated as illegal," says Zane Horowitz, MD, an emergency room physician and medical director of the Oregon Poison Center.

According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, the most common active ingredients in bath salts are mephedrone and methylenedioxypyrovalerone. Mephedrone (MEF-uh-drone) is a synthetic stimulant that produces effects similar to amphetamines and cocaine. There have been no formal studies into the effects of mephedrone on humans, but it is reported to cause euphoria, sexual stimulation and improved focus. Negative side effects abound, including erratic behavior, breathing difficulty, agitation, anxiety, paranoia and depression.

Methylenedioxypyrovalerone (METH-uh-leen-di-OX-ee-PY-ro-VAL-uh-rone, or MDPV) is a psychotropic euphoriant. It is said to be stronger than Ritalin and cocaine. Though it has not been studied, users report desired effects as euphoria, increased alertness, increased motivation and sociability. Side effects include anxiety, dizziness, breathing difficulty, the persistence of a ringing sound in the ears, confusion, severe vomiting, anxiety, agitation, violent behavior, and suicidal thoughts. Some repeated users remain awake and paranoid for several days.

Bath salts may also contain cathinone, which is a lot like ephedrine and other amphetamines; pyrovalerone, a highly addictive psychoative stimulant used for the clinical treatment of chronic fatigue as well as an appetite suppressant; the stimulant CFT, which is structurally similar to cocaine, but far more potent and known to last longer; naphyrone and desoxypipradrol (2-diphenylmethylpiperidine or 2-dPMP), stimulants that act similarly to reuptake inhibitors (used commonly to treat depression).

Several reports suggest that bath salts cause hallucinations and delusions, going as far as to describe them as the "new LSD," but David DiSalvo, a science writer at Forbes disputes that bath salts are hallucinogens:

Neither of these drugs are hallucinogens like LSD. Hallucinogens are psychoactive drugs, but not all psychoactive drugs are hallucinogens -- the primary difference being that hallucinogens induce changes in perception that are significantly different than normal consciousness, not merely an amplification of conscious states we already experience.

[ ... ] Aside from that, bath salts contain a bevy of harsh chemicals in addition to the psychoactive substances -- like lidocaine, a topical analgesic and anti-itch agent. Why is it in some varieties of bath salts? Who knows, but it along with a lot of other stuff that hasn't even been identified yet is getting circulated throughout your body when you ingest the powder. Think of it this way -- would you knowingly snort a line of athletes foot powder?

Mark Ryan, the director of the Poison Center in Louisiana, a state that has been ravaged by bath salts, puts more emphasis on the results of consumption than what makes up the contents of these little brightly-colored packets.

"These substances are among the worst poison centers have ever seen," Ryan said. "The psychosis seen in some users is truly remarkable, in a very scary way. People high on these drugs have done some bizarre things to themselves and hurt others around them."

These drugs have been reported as being sold at gas stations, convenience stores, truck stops, "head" shops (stores selling drug paraphernalia) and online, costing anywhere between 20 to 50 dollars. A single bag contains about 500 milligrams of crystallized power, which is often white or brownish, and occasionally speckled. Bath salts are generally snorted, taken orally, or injected intravenously.


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