Legal Highs: Bath Salts that Aren’t for the Tub

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For most Americans, the terrifying story of the Miami “zombie”  was the first time they had heard about bath salts. Faced with a crime so incomprehensible, the media seemed to immediately focus on the possibility that the attacker, Rudy Eugene, had consumed an increasingly available and popular substance known as “bath salts” before the attack. The entire nation was briefly fixated on the “Miami cannibal,” also dehumanizingly referred to as the “bath salts zombie,” but interest faded well before the toxicology reports from Eugene’s autopsy. That toxicology report showed nothing but previous cannabis use and indicated that Eugene had no active substances, not even alcohol, in his body at the time of the attack.

His toxicology results, however, expose one of the most dangerous aspects of the legal highs market; namely that there are so many variations on this chemical theme that there’s no feasible way to test for them all. Plenty of professionals brought up this issue at the time of the investigation, but labs can only do so much in the face of such a variety of compounds.  Bans have been attempted at national, state, and local levels, which forced the manufacturers of these compounds to change their chemical composition to avoid overtly breaking the law.  These bans, however, have been utterly ineffective at curtailing demand and supply of bath salts, as new products are ready to go as soon as a ban is placed in effect. So, if not a specific compound, what exactly are bath salts?

Far from the lavender and rose-scented rocks getting tossed in the tub by someone in need of pampering relaxation, modern bath salts are any number of synthetic cathinones that were openly sold online and in headshops or convenience stores, beginning in roughly 2004. They took hold in the UK and Europe before entrenching themselves in the United States as well, with the bath salts boom well underway by 2010. When people started catching on to the term bath salts, the same products were offered as watch cleaners, glass cleaners, or phone screen cleaners.

The primary active compounds that were most popular were MDPV (methylenedioxypyrovalerone for those of you who like a good compound name), pipradrol, methylone, and mephedrone (4-methylephedrone). These synthetic compounds have an effect not dissimilar to that of amphetamines, with all the benefits and drawbacks that implies. The intended effects of these compounds include euphoria, intensely increased energy and strength, decreased pain, increased libido and sexual desire, increased sensory perception, and probably a good time. The unintended effects include the rapid development of both tolerance and addictive tendencies, teeth grinding, aggression, terrifying hallucinations, and a host of negative effects associated with amphetamines. If you want to believe the Federal government’s analysis of data, they state that bath salts are as addictive as methamphetimines. Anecdotal information available from users online seems to back this claim.

These synthetic cathinones have all been made Schedule I substances, joining actual cathinone (and therefore natural-state khat or Catha edulis) on that list of prohibited compounds. As the list of banned chemicals has increased, the makers of these products have turned to newer compounds, such as naphyrone and flephedrone. Though these compounds had been sold in previous bath salts formulas, they didn’t become popular until other compounds such as MDPV were banned. As bans began taking effect, producers also began mixing cocktails of these synthetic compounds and selling them as branded blends as a way to include small amounts of the previously popular compounds.

When people buy bath salts, they generally come in gram or half gram quantities in a pre-sealed envelope, a small plastic tub, or possibly, if they’re buying it from a local dealer, just in a little plastic baggie. Bath salts are generally tan, brown, or white, and users have very strong opinions about the color and odor of their preferred brands (likely because it reflects the specific chemical composition they prefer). Some brands have their active compounds already cut with a carrier powder to make for easier insufflation (which means snorting it through the nostrils like people do with cocaine powder). Some brands are actually similar in appearance to traditional bath salts, meaning there are large rocks. Users can easily crush them or dissolve them (if they are injecting the compounds, which is much less common). Some people smoke or eat bath salts, but the general consensus among users is that those methods are less effective.

Sextacy bath salts, which are nothing like the street Sextacy (cocaine mixed with powdered erectile dysfunction pills), were at one time sold in convenience stores and gas stations.

Sextacy bath salts, which are nothing like the street Sextacy (cocaine mixed with powdered erectile dysfunction pills), were at one time sold in convenience stores and gas stations.

After speaking with employees at an international legal highs company and a lengthy review of user reports online, it seems that the legality of bath salts was one of the primary reasons so many people were eager to buy them, either online or at the local convenience store. The only way these compounds could be sold legally was by using the phrase “not for human consumption” on the packaging and even then most businesses still carded the individuals buying these packets of powder or salts. Other reasons cited by users included the never-diminished human desire to experience altered states of consciousness and the ever-pressing need for more energy (and bigger, longer-lasting erections).

Users report effects from insufflation setting in within minutes, if not instantly. Insanely increased libido, dark, ominous, unpleasant hallucinations, a high that lasts for hours (at least at first), and a nearly immediate desire to take more are all commonly reported. People report feeling compelled to snort more of the substances even when feeling overwhelmed by anxiety and how high they are. An internet search will lead you to forums, such as Erowid or Bluelight, where people lay out their experiences, sometimes in frighteningly graphic detail.  We will be exploring first-hand reports of bath salts, plant feeders, and herbal incense in a later article in this legal highs series. If more people read the accounts of experienced drug users who have tried these substances, it might dissuade them from trying these addictive substances. Then again, in our culture of chemical prohibition, it probably wouldn’t.

Bath salts represent the epitome of the danger of War on Drugs. The active compounds are either synthesized in basement or garage laboratories, or they are produced in unregulated Chinese factories. They are shipped, mixed with other compounds, repackaged, and shipped again, possibly to be cut one last time with a filler before being sold on the streets. They fill a demand that has existed, arguably, in almost every culture: the need for something that will provide increased energy (and intoxication).

Federal (and international) prohibition has made a significant dent in the retail supply of bath salts at a local level and online, though the demand persists despite the boom ending. Now, instead of being sold at a storefront, bath salts are coming out of homes and drug fronts, like meth and crack cocaine do. Those who are addicted are still addicted. Those who desire to experiment are still going to find a way to get their hands on their desired chemical. The only thing this prohibition has done is ensure that users are less likely to seek treatment and flood our prisons with people whose crimes have no victim (other than themselves).

And as for Rudy Eugene, who will forever be linked with the word “zombie” online, there’s little hope of a conclusive answer as to what caused him to attack a homeless man. His loved ones do not believe he was a drug user. In fact, his girlfriend believes he was attacked by a supernatural force after leaving their apartment with a Bible in hand the morning of the attack because the behavior seems so inexplicable to her.  Regardless of what caused his attack on Ronald Poppo, he should not be the poster boy for synthetic drug prohibition.

If anything, the attack that resulted in Eugene’s death should be used as a rallying point for a more rational national discussion about drug policies. Instead of screaming about the newest chemical boogyman, namely bath salts, in attempts to garner more clicks and sell more hard-print copies, the media could have focused on the need for better access to mental health care (as Eugene did have a history of interpersonal violence and near-psychotic outbursts) and the fact that Ronald Poppo had been living on the streets for decades. This isn’t a horror story, it’s a tragedy that likely could have been averted if a proper social safety net actually existed in this country.

Bath salts, like many stimulants, are addictive and can be dangerous. In the end, however, their prohibition poses much greater risk than their existence. Not only do synthetic cathinones represent a steady, massive stream of income for organized crime, they are also a substance which could easily be replaced with the safer, if still addictive, natural-state cathinone from khat (which is prohibited in the United States and will be prohibited in the UK after June 24th, 2014). Regular khat users (mainly African immigrants), defend traditional khat use as being similar to the use of caffiene. Making bath salts illegal will do nothing to curtail their use or production. Legalizing the importation and domestic production of khat, however, would likely substantially undercut the market for bath salts in the United States and provide a less-harm option for those already addicted to the synthetic variety of cathinone.


Photo Credit: Rainer Z [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.