Bath Salts, sold in small packets with names like “Blue Wave,” “Cloud Nine,” and “White Lady,” are the newest — and scariest — designer drug. (Image of legitimate bath salts via Wikipedia)
Can the headlines really have it right? Is there really a new drug that makes people so violent they bite each others’ faces off? I wish this was a News of the Worldheadline that we could all dismiss, along with the stories of alien babies and women giving birth at 95. But in this case, the headlines do have it right — sort of.
Yes, unfortunately, there’s a new drug making its way into communities across the country and it’s really, really scary.
How scary? Well, in the incident described in the current headlines, a 31-year-old man, Rudy Eugene of Miami, attacked a 65-year-old homeless man, stripped off all his clothes, dived on top of him, and started chewing off his face. Eugene had a history of run-ins with the police, and had been accused of domestic violence, but his history hadn’t suggested a risk of public violence. The explanation — if there is one — seems to be that bath salts can trigger a full-blown psychotic episode with extreme delusions.
Who knows what type of hallucination would lead someone to eat another person’s face, but you can imagine it would have to be a pretty extreme and vivid one. Reports from onlookers characterized Eugene as a “zombie,” behaving as if he were under the control of some evil spectre.
So what are “Bath Salts” – and how did the drug get this ridiculously misleading name?
Like Ecstasy and methamphetamine, the drug known as “bath salts” is a designer drug, which means it’s synthetic, concocted in a lab. (On the street, it’s also sometimes called “bath powder,” “herbal incense,” or “plant food.”) What makes the term “bath salts” more confusing, though, is that name is used for a surprisingly large number of different chemical combinations.
To understand what the drug does, think of “bath salts” as a cross between meth and acid. Well, sort of. Like cocaine, meth, and speed, bath salts work by stimulating the central nervous system, kicking it into overdrive, if you will. But the drug also apparently causes paranoid delusions and/or hallucinations. Experts are saying it’s psychoactive, rather than hallucinogenic like acid, but the end result appears to be similar: delusional beliefs acted upon in violent ways.
The key ingredients that go into bath salts are the synthetic compounds MDPV (3,4-Methylenedioxypyrovalerone), mephedrone, pyrovalerone, and methylone. But there are many other ingredients used in addition to these, or in place of them. For example, many of the “bath salts” seized have been found to contain extremely high levels of caffeine.
MDPV and mephedrone, the most common bath salts, originated as synthetic versions of a natural ingredient found in Khat (Catha edulis), a hallucinogenic plant found in eastern Africa. Cathinone, the active ingredient in khat, is a Schedule 1 controlled substance, meaning illegal. However, MDPV and mephedrone were legal until Fall 2011 when the FDA banned them, but underground chemists keep skirting the law by slightly altering the chemical compounds to come up with new versions that are technically legal. The FDA now refers to bath salts as a “designer drug of the phenethylamine class.” Slang names for mephedrone include “meph,” “drone”, and MCAT.
Yikes! Where did bath salts come from?
Currently, the chemicals we call “bath salts” are most frequently manufactured and imported from China and Europe, but drug officials say it’s only a matter of time before American drug-cookers begin making them. The history of bath salts is both fascinating and frightening. The drug was actually first formulated in France in the 1920s, but disappeared until it was rediscovered from the obscurity of academia by an underground chemist. He published the recipe on a website known as called the Hive, which was shut down in 2004 for sharing waaayyyy too much info about illegal substances. But the word was out, and the drug became extremely popular all over Europe.
It might be interesting to those in the pharmaceutical and chemical fields to note that bath salts were legal in Israel starting around 2004, sold under the name hagigat. Once declared illegal, the cathinone was modified and another Israeli company, Neorganics, sold the drug as pills and liquids under several names, including Neodoves, until the Israeli government specifically made mephedrone illegal in 2008.
Bath salts are cheap, innocent looking, easy to obtain, and many people think they’re legal, or at least know they’re unlikely to be caught and prosecuted for using them. Bath salts come in little packets with soothing names like “Blue Silk”, “Bliss,” “Vanilla Sky,” and “Ivory Wave,” and cost just $25-60 a packet. (Actually, according to one website, some have much scarier sounding names like “Crazy Train,” “White Slut,” and”Eight Ballz”.)
Bath salts can be smoked, snorted, or injected. The initial symptoms are positive, including relaxation, euphoria, and a sense of warmth and wellbeing similar to Ecstasy. But pretty quickly a darker side of the drug kicks in.
The symptoms of being dangerously high on bath salts include (but aren’t limited to):
- extreme paranoia
The FDA has banned the active ingredients in “Bath Salts” but drug designers keep a step ahead.
- elevated heart rate, blood pressure, and pulse
- extremely high body temperature
- sleep deprivation
- vivid hallucinations
- hostility or aggression
- strange eye movements
- extreme sweating
- panic attacks
- suicidal thoughts
Oddly, given the list of symptoms above, another reported side effect of bath salts is “an intense desire to use the drug again.” In other words, it’s highly addictive. Overdoses of bath salts can quickly turn into emergencies because of the lack of knowledge about the drug. Because “bath salts” is a collective term for a bunch of different ingredients, there’s no test to determine if someone took the drug. The only way to know for sure is if the user admits that’s what they took.
Bath Salts and Crime
Bath salts are absurdly easy to get hold of. They’re sold in “head shops” all over the country and even behind the counters in many convenience stores. Reports of violence associated with “bath salts” have been confused by the use of different names for the drug compounds. But those who’ve taken them report feeling that they experienced “pure evil.” Here are just a few of the episodes reported around the country:
- California: Two 15-year-old boys fell violently ill and developed small holes in their lungs after consuming mephedrone, which they thought was MDMA. The drug was sold to them by a student at a nearby college.
- Colorado: A drug called Alpha-PVP, a type of bath salt, led to a young man’s death by strangulation when friends tried to restrain him during a violent fit.
- Washington: Investigators believe that a double murder-suicide in which a man killed his wife and five-year-old son, then shot himself.
Louisiana: A 21-year-old Louisiana man slit his throat in front of his family after he snorted bath salts, because he believed police were after him.
- Pennsylvania: Police arrested a couple high on bath salts who had nearly cut their 5-year-old daughter with a knife, which they were using to stab the “90 people” they believed were “living in the walls” of their apartment.
- Kentucky: A prison guard off duty reportedly high on bath salts was cited for 10 different acts of violence in two different towns, and ultimately had to be tasered.
- West Virginia: A man high on bath salts was found wandering the woods in lingerie after he allegedly stabbed a goat.
- Indiana: A man committed suicide after telling his family for weeks that the FBI were following him and watching him eat.
- Ohio: A young man was fatally shot after he held a knife to his girlfriend’s neck.
- California: Two recent suicides have been attributed to bath salts.
- Police around the country say they’re seeing a spike in domestic violence and assault cases connected with bath salts.
Is Bath Salts an Epidemic?
No, nowhere close. The real drug epidemic is oxycodone, which is now the second highest cause of accidental death in the U.S., behind car accidents.
But what’s scary about bath salts is how the drug seems to have appeared out of nowhere, and how fast it’s taking hold. In the past year, the number of calls to poison control centers about bath salts increased more than 20 times, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers, from 304 reports in 2010 to 6,138 in 2011. According to the FDA, no reports of the drug surfaced until 2009, during which the FDA reported two cases. By the following year there were more than 300 cases, and by last year the number had tripled to over 900 cases.
That’s a tiny number, to be sure. But those most often using the drugs are kids and teens, whose brains and central nervous systems are still developing. In fact, experts say the drugs are marketed directly to kids, with cartoon characters on the colorful packages.
So we have a drug that’s easily available, inexpensive, innocent sounding, and profoundly addictive. Doesn’t that sound to you like we’re going to have a serious new drug problem on our hands in a few years?