The Truth Behind the Bath Salt "Epidemic"

The Truth Behind the Bath Salt "Epidemic" - Page 2

By Tony O'Neill 06/17/12

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.

Bed, Bath Salts & Beyond Photo via

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These sentiments are echoed by Dr. Fiona Measham, a senior lecturer on Criminology at Lancaster University and the author of several books on drug use in young people. Her groundbreaking research into the use of mephedrone in the UK has provided some of the only hysteria-free data into mephedrone and the people who use it. Her paper, “Tweaking, Bombing, Dabbing and Stockpiling; the emergence of mephedrone and the Perversity of prohibition” (2010 Measham, et al), is the definitive account of the UK’s experience with the drug from the perspective of the people who actually use it.

“The government might claim that the ban was successful because mephedrone use and deaths have fallen,” says Measham, “but for me the question to ask is: what are users taking instead? In the UK, the rise and fall of mephedrone in 2009 and 2010 tracked the fall and now rise in the purity of cocaine, ecstasy pills and MDMA powder. [Since the ban], pills are back, big time, and the legal highs—whether now banned or not—just don’t compete for most recreational users.”

Despite the hazy evidence that it would have any effect at all on the level of drug use among young people, a federal ban is something that many in politics and law enforcement are in favor of here in the States. All it really seems guaranteed to do is drive up prices, lower purity and criminalize young people who continue to use the drug. At best, the use of the drug might be reduced as users switch over wholesale to different drugs. But in the politics of the drug war, no one ever let the truth get in the way of an expansion of hostilities. The police, Drug Enforcement Agency and court system will always welcome a new front in the war. 

The big motivation, as always, is money. Local authorities want more money to “fight the war on drugs” even if they are fighting against a phantom menace. Already there are dark rumblings from the cops about needing more resources to fight against this army of bath salts crazed cannibals who are seemingly about to smash down your door and devour your children.  

“The cities are deeply involved [in banning synthetic drugs] because the state can’t seem to get on top of it,” Pembroke Pines Commissioner Angelo Castillo said in an illuminating interview with “We see cities jumping in to handle it because the state isn’t. Otherwise people die and people’s faces get chewed off.” Castillo added, “This is the next horizon in the war on drugs and we need to gear up and deal with it.”

Kushlick, who has seen firsthand the lack of effect that “gearing up to deal with it” has had on levels of use, suggests a more pragmatic approach. “The wiser move would have been to leave meph on the market and monitor its effect in order to ascertain its costs and benefits,” he tells me. “We know from experience that the Iron Law of Prohibition means that milder drugs will be replaced by more potent ones. That's what happened under alcohol prohibition in the US as bootlegged spirits replaced beer. Conducting research on its effects and how people were using it could have been used to provide information to current and potential new users.”

The bottom line is this: more and more new users are trying bath salts, at least in part because of the attention thrust on the drug by the hysterical press coverage. When they discover that it doesn’t cause them to chew off peoples’ faces or tear off their own genitals, then they are more inclined to ignore all warnings about these drugs’ potential dangers. Kushlick’s advice to users is less likely to get the press excited but more likely to reduce harm. “As with any drug, if you are not used to using meph, you should take a small amount to assess its effects on you as an individual," he says. "Always take new drugs with someone who is an experienced and trusted friend. Just because you have a good effect from the dose you've taken, do not assume that you can double the fun by doubling the dose.”

Tony O'Neill is the author of several novels, including Digging the Vein and Down and Out on Murder Mile and Sick City. He is the co-author of the New York Times bestseller Hero of the Underground (with Jason Peter) and the Los Angeles Times bestseller Neon Angel (with Cherie Currie). O'Neill has also covered Jerry Stahl and abstinence, among many other topics, for The Fix.