“Bath salts” resemble bath crystals or Epsom salt (shown)
Ask ten people if they use bath salts and most of them will look at you quizzically. “You mean in the bath?” they might ask. “I don’t take baths,” is another frequent response. When I met Bonnie Nolan, Ph.D., a neuroscientist and lecturer at Rutgers University, and she mentioned bath salts, I did not realize she was talking about a drug. If you think “bath salts” refer to a powdery substance you add to the bath water, you will want to read what she has to say.
Bonnie Nolan, Ph.D. (Guest Post):
While teaching a college psychology course that specifically examines drug abuse, I was recently asked by a student to explain the term “Bath Salts.” While media coverage of what the strange new drug can cause abounds (including a frightening recent story about a Miami man who cannibalized a homeless person while allegedly under the influence of bath salts), information about what bath salts really are is less understood.
“Bath Salts” Defined
“Bath salts” have nothing to do with bathing. In fact, they have very little to do with relaxation. They are synthetic cathinones, a drug class that is abused for its stimulant-like effects, and as many as 60 other compounds have been identified in the drugs. They come in powder or crystal form (perhaps pointing to the reasoning behind the name), and can be snorted, swallowed, smoked, or injected intravenously. They sell for about $40.00 a gram, and produce a cocaine-like euphoria and hallucinations.
According to Nora D. Volkow, director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA), bath salts have been sold both online and in drug paraphernalia shops under a variety of benign-sounding names: Blue Silk, Bubbles, Drone, Red Dove, Zoom, Vanilla Sky, Bloom and Meph (not to be confused with methamphetamines which have been illegal for many years). They are also often cleverly marketed as “plant food,” “hookah cleaner,” and “incense.” The drugs that are sold as “bath salts” are typically mephedrone, MDPV, and methylone; each can be abused individually or in combination.
Bath Salts are made in vats in private laboratories, evocative of “meth labs.” The labs are often located in places like China, India and Pakistan, making matters more difficult for U.S. law enforcement.
Bath Salt abuse has skyrocketed in recent years, largely due to the fact that these drugs had been, for the most part, legal. In September 2011, a student shared that she had recently spent time in Europe, and mephedrone was everywhere. “It’s like Ecstasy,” she said. “Everyone takes it in the clubs, and nobody seems concerned.”
How Concerned Should We Be?
While Ecstasy (MDMA) set off a designer-drug panic in the 80s, it has not resulted in widespread addiction, brain damage or death, as far as scientists can tell. Are “bath salts” different?
According to Dr. Volkow preliminary data suggest they are. “These drugs have cocaine-like qualities, so the potential for addiction is high,” Dr. Volkow says. Like the well-known and quite illegal methamphetamine, the “bath salts” mephedrone, MDPV, and methylone activate the brains natural dopamine reward circuitry.
In addition to being highly addictive, “bath salts” carry a significant risk for overdose. The National Institute of Drug Abuse has issued a warning that “ingesting or snorting bath salts containing synthetic stimulants can cause chest pains, increased blood pressure, increased heart rate, agitation, hallucinations, extreme paranoia, and delusions.” Overdose fatalities have been reported in several states.
In 2010, there were 304 visits to emergency rooms across the U.S. for bad reactions after ingestion of the synthetic drugs. In 2011, this number jumped to over 6000. As of June, the number for 2012 appears to be rising in some states, including New York, where several counties have enacted emergency legislation to prevent distribution of any synthetic drug.
A CDC report of emergency room visits after ingestion of these drugs in Michigan showed that people between the ages of 20-58 had used the drug, but the highest concentration of users were in their twenties. Reports from other states show similar trends.
What’s Next for “Bath Salts”?
In October 2011, the New York Times reported that the Drug Enforcement Administration would enforce a ban on the sale of the three substances most commonly associated with bath salts. Many states have followed suit, which will likely result in more difficulty in both selling and procuring the drugs. However, it should be noted that prohibition of a drug often carries with it a new risk: adulteration.
“Bath Salts” and the like have never been regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) because the components were not recognized as food or drugs. Now that they are banned, “bath salts” join the ranks of drugs like Ecstasy, synthetic marijuana, and methamphetamine. As the FDA does not regulate the drugs, the user has no way of assessing purity. A user may note the known dangers of a drug and be willing to take the risk. However, when adulterants (methamphetamine being a common example) are added, users may get more than they bargained for.
When discussing drugs of abuse with my students, I often ask what, if anything, convinces students themselves to avoid drugs. The overwhelming response is that they respond to facts, rather than hype. The real risks, such as addiction, overdose, and adulteration, are enough to convince them to steer clear.
So, while we needn’t anticipate a rash of cannibalistic attacks resulting from “Bath Salts,” we should certainly be aware of the genuine dangers of bath salts and adulterants, and be prepared to explain these risks clearly to our children before they learn about the “rewards” of synthetic drugs from their friends.
Center for Disease Control. “Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR): Emergency Department Visits After Use of Drug Sold as ‘Bath Salts’ ---Michigan, November 13, 2012-March 31, 2011,“ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, May 20, 2011.
Fuentes, Gidget. “Navy’s Next Battle: Stopping ‘bath salts.’” Navy Times, June 10, 2012. http://www.cdc.gov/phlp/news/2012/2012-06-21.html#topstories2
Harris, Elizabeth A. “D.E.A. Bans Chemicals Used in ‘Bath Salts.’” The New York Times, October 22, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/22/us/dea-bans-chemicals-used-in-bath-salts.html
King, James. “Miami Cannibal Rudy Eugene Wasn’t High on Bath Salts When He Ate a Homeless Man’s Face.” The Village Voice, June 27, 2012.
NPR Staff. “Synthetic ‘Bath Salts’ an Evolving Problem for DEA.” National Public Radio, June 30, 2012. http://www.npr.org/2012/06/30/156048262/synthetic-bath-salts-an-evolving-problem-for-dea
Volkow, Nora, D. ‘’ ‘Bath Salts’ – Emerging and Dangerous Products.” National Institute of Drug Abuse, February 2011. http://www.drugabuse.gov/about-nida/directors-page/messages-director/2011/02/bath-salts-emerging-dangerous-products
Watterson, Lucas R., Kufahl, Peter H., Nemirovsky, Natali E., Sewalia, Kaveish, Grabenauer, Megan, Thomas, Brian F., Marusich, Julie A., Wegner, Scott & Olive, M. Foster. “Potent Rewarding and reinforcing Effects of the Synthetic Cathinone 3,4-methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV).” Addict Biol. July 11, 2012. doi: 10.1111/j.1369-1600.2012.00474.x. [Epub ahead of print]
Yablonski, Steve. “Oswego County Lawmakers get Tough on Synthetic Drugs.” OswegoCountyToday.com, September 13, 2012.
Copyright 2012 by Bonnie Nolan