The hottest new drug on the streets is perfectly legal — and totally dangerous, according to everyone from the DEA to local toxicology experts.
Sold on the Internet and at head shops under names such as Ivory Wave, Cloud 9, Vanilla Sky, and White Lightning, "bath salts" sound so sweet and innocent. But the alleged potent effects of these particular bath salts don't come from dumping them in the tub for a relaxing soak. The packets contain small amounts of white crystalline powder, and they're labeled with warnings like "novelty only" and "not for human consumption."
But there have been more than a hundred reports nationwide of people smoking, snorting, eating, or injecting the bath salts — with ill effects ranging from paranoia to seizures. Doing so is said to produce effects similar to highs from ecstasy (heightening of the senses, sexual arousal) and stimulants like cocaine and methamphetamine (euphoria and increased energy).
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Local DEA spokeswoman Ramona Sanchez says they haven't received any calls related to bath salts in Arizona yet, but Banner Good Samaritan Medical Center reports two cases related to ingestion of bath salts in Phoenix, one in September and one in December. Both involved 22-year-olds who were admitted to the emergency room with "agitation, increased heart rate and blood pressure."
The bath salts are being sold widely — and legally, for now — in the United States. They are marketed here much in the same manner as "herbal incense" (also called spice). Spice was sold for "aromatherapy only" and also labeled "not for human consumption," but chemical compounds sprayed on the herbs (five of which were federally banned in December) replicated a marijuana high when people smoked it. Spice blends are still sold in head shops, but they don't have the banned compounds in them anymore.
The speedy high from ingesting bath salts is said to come from two synthetic compounds, mephedrone and methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV). The federal Drug Enforcement Administration was alerted to their presence in 2009, when they showed up in lab tests on substances seized by law enforcement officers in six states. Last year, the DEA published reports on both compounds, noting that each was "related in chemical structure" to illegal hallucinogenic substances like MDMA (ecstasy) and illegal stimulants like cathinone and methamphetamine.
Mephedrone, first synthesized and reported in a French academic journal in 1929, didn't appear on the designer drug market until 2003, when an underground chemist named Kinetic rediscovered and published the formula on the website The Hive (the site shut down in 2004). It's been banned in numerous places, including Israel and Europe. MDPV has reportedly been sold as a "research chemical" since 2008. It has been banned in Finland, Denmark, and Sweden. Neither compound is currently a federally controlled substances in the United States, which makes "bath salts" containing them legal to buy and sell — but far from perfectly safe.
Side effects of snorting bath salts include increased heart rate and chest pain, agitation and paranoia, dizziness and vomiting, and profuse sweating. Poison-control centers around the country have reported receiving more than 160 calls about bath salts in the past three months. Much of the buzz has come from Louisiana, where at least 84 people have been hospitalized after ingesting them. It's been quiet in Phoenix so far — only two reported emergency room visits from bath salts — but they already seem to be a popular product here.
During the last week of December, New Times visited seven Phoenix head shops and called four others looking for bath salts. Every one New Times contacted (with the exception of Trails and Herb 'N' Legend, which doesn't carry them) was sold out.
Herb 'N' Legend owner Tim Martin says he's decided not to carry bath salts because "as a retailer in this business, I'm concerned about the attributes of what's being said — if it's addictive or even deadly. As a father, I can't let this get to anyone. People will do anything for a dollar, and it's sick."
When we finally found a bag of bath salts at DJ's Smoke Shop in Mesa, it was the last on their shelves. The clerk said that five minutes earlier, a man came in and bought the rest — seven 250 milligram bags of bath salts, totaling nearly $240.
Dr. Daniel Brooks, co-medical director of the Department of Medical Toxicology at the Banner Good Samaritan Poison and Drug Information Center in Phoenix, is familiar with mephedrone and MDPV as "relatively novel synthetic stimulants" but says that little academic research has been done on them and that they've never been tested on humans. Medical professionals aren't 100 percent certain how these compounds are metabolized or how they'll react with other drugs. The ingredients in bath salts aren't listed on the packages, so users have no way of knowing what they're actually ingesting.
"We see patients that are often sent to us after overdoses and adverse drug effects. I don't have specific numbers and such, but a lot of the patients that come to us saying they bought an illicit substance, like . . . spice or mephedrone; especially these newer drugs that are out on the market, we often run tests and find other drugs in their system," Brooks says. "I think that's the main problem with using illicit substances. Anything that's not regulated . . . you never know what you're getting. They could say it's spice, but it's really methamphetamine. Or they can say it's mephedrone, but it's some prescription anti-psychotic."
"There's a risk of having to trust your supplier — and who knows who your supplier is? — or their ability to make these compounds," Brooks says. "It's always pretty much clandestine labs set up in a trailer or an apartment or a house — or wherever they're making these things — and just distributing them with or without adulterants."
"The big risk of adverse effects [with stimulants] always occurs in the dose, and how much you take, and the concentration, which you may not know," Brooks says. One risk of using synthetic speed in Phoenix is hyperthermia. "You get all revved up and your temperature can go up to 103, 104, 105 degrees, and that can lead to seizures and liver disease and kidney disease."
But Brooks adds that most of the time, "these drugs can be treated with basic supportive care," and he hasn't seen a lot of cases of extremely sick mephedrone and MDPV users in Arizona.
Other states haven't been so lucky. Last month in Kansas, 21-year-old Elijah Taylor ran onto Interstate 135, waving his hands, before he was struck and killed by a van. In his pocket, police discovered a container of Blue Magic Bath Salts. Toxicology tests are pending.
In October 2010, 29-year-old Jarrod Moody committed suicide in Missouri, allegedly after a binge on Ivory Wave bath salts. Moody had reportedly been off painkillers for two years when he developed an addiction to Ivory Wave. His father told media he found several packets of the bath salts in his son's room. Moody's friends and family described him as emaciated, paranoid, and sleepless in the days leading to his death.
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Although mephedrone and MDPV are not currently controlled in the United States, both were placed on the DEA's list of "Drugs and Chemicals of Concern" last year. And possession or use of substances containing them and sold for human consumption could be prosecuted under the Federal Analog Act.
Analogs are chemical compounds derived from another compound, which often differ by a single element. Mephedrone and MDVP are both analogs of cathinone, a chemical similar to amphetamine and derived from the khat plant. Cathinone has been illegal internationally since the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances in Austria.
Because they involve analogs of a controlled substance, law enforcement cases involving mephedrone and MDPV can be prosecuted under the Federal Analog Act — if the substances were intended for human consumption. But the bath salts believed to contain these compounds are marketed and sold strictly as toiletries — and they're the most expensive on the market. Considering that 20 ounces of regular bath salts sells for about $7 on Amazon.com, the bath salts sold in head shops for as much as $120 a gram make a ridiculously expensive soak in the tub.