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The Truth Behind the Bath Salt "Epidemic"

If you believe the lurid headlines, addicts across America are ingesting bath salts and transforming into crazed cannibals. This trend, like many, actually hit first in England, where a bath salt ban only increased the problem.

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Bed, Bath Salts & Beyond Photo via

By Tony O'Neill

06/17/12

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Drug scares, like the seasons, are cyclical. Here in the US, we had media firestorms over crack in the 80’s, meth in the 90’s, and prescription painkillers in the 00’s. Right on schedule, the latest demon drug that is supposedly tearing our society apart has entered stage left: bath salts.

Bath salts really just means a drug that is a combination of two stimulants—MDPV and mephedrone. Sold online and via headshops as a cheap, legal alternative to cocaine and ecstasy, mephedrone was first synthesized in 1929 while MDPV came along in 1969. Both were rediscovered in 2003 and they were perfect drugs for the Internet age—an ideal alternative to pricy illegal drugs that could be obtained legally with nothing more than a credit card and the click of a mouse.

The exact pharmacology of bath salts can vary, as compounds are constantly tweaked by chemists to stay one step ahead of the law. “Most of these substances seem to be cathinone derivatives, and as such are central nervous system stimulants that act through interruptions of dopamine, norepinephrine and—to a more limited extent—serotonin function,” explains Dr. Adi Jaffe, an addiction specialist at UCLA. While noting that actual research on these substances is in its early stages and reports are limited, Jaffe says that “at low to moderate doses the most common effects for MDPV can be thought of as meth-like: stimulation, euphoria and alertness. Mephedrone seems to act more like MDMA than meth.” 

While the chemistry may change, one thing that has remained consistent is the ballooning popularity of this sector of the drug market.

"The government might claim that the ban was successful because mephedrone use and deaths have fallen but for me the question to ask is: what are users taking instead?"

After the explosion in use, the next phase of the drug scare comes in the form of demonization, and the authorities have certainly wasted no time in making some pretty wild allegations about the supposed effects of bath salts; recently we’ve heard that these drugs can causes cannibalism, a la the infamous Miami face-eater, pedophilia and even cross-dressing goat abuse.

The third part of any good drug scare happens when the press, despite a total lack of causal evidence, parrots these outlandish accusations. In the Miami cannibal case, the link between bath salts originated from a statement made by someone with no direct involvement with the case—the president of the Miami Fraternal Order of Police, Armando Aguilar—despite the fact that an autopsy and toxicology had yet to be performed on attacker Rudy Eugene.

In the case of Shane Shuyler, the Miami man accused of exposing himself to children while “allegedly” under the influence of bath salts, the evidence was no less hazy. The police said they found something that “appeared” to be bath salts in his wallet (i.e. an unidentified white powder). And then there was this strange quote from a detective giving evidence against Shuyler: "Upon talking to him, he made some statements to me which led me to believe that he was cooling off in a fountain by the tot-lot, because he was hot, which was consistent with ingesting bath salts." The logic being that since bath salts cause users body temperatures to rise, then cooling off by a water fountain is evidence of bath salts use. Never mind the fact that the incident took place in June, in Miami, where the average temperature is 88.1 degrees.

After the hype comes the crackdown, which means that high-profile cases like these have created a push from both the media and law enforcement for a federal ban on the sale of bath salts.

Florida Republican Rep. Sandy Adams is one of the politicians who helped push the Combating Dangerous Synthetic Stimulants Act of 2011 through the House last December. The bill would federally ban MDPV and mephedrone, the two chemicals found in bath salts, as well as outlawing dozens of other chemicals found in synthetic drugs. The reasoning? "Looking at the Miami incident, we've seen people do some very bizarre acts on bath salts," Adams told the U.S. News and World Report. If he gets his way, bath salts would be categorized alongside heroin and LSD.

So can bath salts really cause ordinary normal people to cannibalize strangers, expose themselves to children, or murder goats? And if they can, why on earth would anybody take them? A drug that has been described variously as “super powered LSD” and “PCP on crack” seems like a confusing proposition. So which is it?

“The reason for the contrasting descriptions is most likely the small but very significant difference in the specific chemicals involved,” says Dr. Jaffe. “Meth and ecstasy are very close chemical cousins but obviously cause very different effects for the user; the same is true here.”

To better get a handle of what is happening here in the US, I looked toward the United Kingdom, which has recently been through a similar cycle of shock horror media coverage of the “bath salt epidemic,” followed by a rush to ban. Bath salts were known under various aliases in the UK, including M-Kat, Meow-Meow and Bubbles, so for the sake of clarity, I’m going to use their chemical name of the most common compound: mephedrone.

“The issues in the US and UK are very similar, except that, as in many things, the US hype is even more over the top than that in the UK,” says Danny Kushlick, founder of the Transform Drug Policy Foundation, a charitable think tank that attempts to draw public attention to the fact that drug prohibition is the major cause of drug-related harm. “I mean, we never got so far as cannibalism.”

Yet at its height, the mephedrone scare in the UK was still pretty lurid; according to some of the coverage, it was linked to overdose, patricide and at least one case of self scrotum tearing. Many of these stories would later be disproved (the scrotum story, unsurprisingly was revealed as a hoax) and the two deaths that started the whole media scare—that of Louis Wainwright, 18, and Nicholas Smith, 19—turned out to be totally unrelated to the use of the drug. By the time the toxicology report on Wainwright and Smith had been published, however, it was too late: the drug had been banned a month earlier by the UK parliament, after a one-hour debate and no vote on the matter.

Kushlick, who is on the council of the International Harm Reduction Association, and is a member of the British Society of Criminology's Advisory Council, was a vocal opponent of the rush to ban mephedrone in the UK. In the months following the ban, he saw harm actually increase and not reduce because, he said, “when mephedrone was banned, the price increased and it was sold not by legitimate retailers but by non-tax paying unregulated dealers. It was also immediately replaced by a more potent compound and traded as Ivory Wave, which users had little experience with so they were more likely to get into trouble.”

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