After discovering that it was reportedly (though not confirmed)* bath salts that turned 31-year-old Rudy Eugene into the face-eating "Miami Zombie," we did some crowd-sourcing -- ie. asked our colleagues at The Atlantic Wire -- and realized we don't know much about these bath salt things. To our embarrassment (or credit) we discovered this trend over a year ago. But our memories have gotten fuzzy since then. And, to be honest, we didn't really understand the full extent of the salts. Now that we have a bona fide horror story, it's about time we studied up.
Okay, first things first, are these actual, like give-your-mom-for-Mother's-Day bath salts?
No. People aren't going around getting high off of Dead Sea salts. One cannot use these for bathing. Well one could, but it would not have the desired effect. These bath salts, also known as "plant food," are a blanket term for a group of synthetic drugs. They are often made from mephedrone and methylenedioxypyrovalerone, or MDPV, though, as a 2011 Journal of Medical Toxicology article reported and we learned from Reuters' Jack Shafer, sometimes the packets have nothing more than caffeine and local anesthetics. Sometimes the mixture has other drugs similar to MDPV and mephedrone which are generically called cathinones. No, those drugs are not common ingredients in bath salts or any other spa-related product. Rather, they are illegal substances, related to khat an organic stimulant found in Arab and East African countries, as we learned from this enlightening (and we guess prescient) New York Times trend story by Abby Goodnough and Katie Zezima from last July.
So, then, why the misleading moniker?
Two reasons. The drugs usually come in powder and crystal form, looking like the real-deal bath salts and also carry names that call back to our bath products, like Ivory Wave and Red Dove. Also, selling them as "bath salts" served as a legal loophole for dealers. That along with the misleading label "not for human consumption," which gets around the Analog Act, under which substances "substantially similar" to illegal drugs is deemed illegal, but only if it is intended for consumption. See the trick there?
Wait, so these are technically legal?
Kind of, yeah. Last March the federal government put a temporary year-long ban on the drugs that go into making bath salts. But, those can be slightly tweaked (no pun intended), getting around that. Plus that expired in March 2012. Though, that Times article said at least 28 states had banned bath salts as of last July. And the Senate passed a bill on May 24 that would make the salts illegal, closing some of the loopholes. "Let this be a warning to those who make a profit manufacturing and selling killer chemical components to our teens and children: the jig is up," New York State senator Chuck Schumer said after the bill passed. "This bill closes loopholes that have allowed manufacturers to circumvent local and state bans and ensures that you cannot simply cross state lines to find these deadly synthetic drugs," he continued.
Sounds like the government is getting pretty serious about this. What's so scary about this drug in particular?
Well, as you heard, officials think the drugs made that man turn into a face-eating zombie. But, this story isn't an outlier. Back in January the Associated Press told us a tale of a man stabbing himself in the face and stomach repeatedly while high. There was a disturbing episode of Intervention about them, too. Poison control centers saw more than a 1,000 percent increase in calls about bath salts in 2011 versus 2010, report The Times' Abby Goodnough and Katie Zezima. Reuters' Jack Shafer points out, however, as of April 2012, only 1,007 calls have been made, compared to the over 6,000 last year. "Some of these folks aren’t right for a long time," Karen E. Simone, director of the Northern New England Poison Center told Goodnough and Zezima. "If you gave me a list of drugs that I wouldn’t want to touch, this would be at the top."
If they are no fun then why do people do them? They must be fun for some people sometimes, right?
Well, the stuff is made from stimulants, so it has the same benefits as what sounds like ecstasy or cocaine, at least from the trip explanations we found on this drug forum. Though, some also described hallucinations, so why not throw in LSD while we're at it. Here's one man's description after doing just a few lines with his girlfriend:
A very Adrenal rush, quite clear headed at this stage. We were very talkative and the body rush was more physical IMO.
I mean this in the sense there was a real push, fast heart rate, pumping body that I would consider not a Euphoric rush but a physical one if that makes sense. However I would still consider this ‘Euphoric’ (in the sense I felt good). We were thinking pretty fast and conversation flowed.
Another described it like the euphoria that comes with an ecstasy trip:
the effects seem to fall somewhere between MDMA/MDEA and Meth. Perhaps the charginess of meth, the empathy of MDMA, and the brief dulled euphoria of MDEA. There is definately an overwhelming 'love' - I managed to connect with my girlfriend on a level like never before. It's the sort of drug that would lead you to solve issues of world peace...unfortunately, the thoughts/feelings diminish the next day.
We also hear these drugs are undetectable by drug tests, something that might lure users looking for a high without losing their jobs. Though, it's worth nothing the first user describes a horrible experience, when he decides to do more of the drug:
So the high was just a scatter! It is a really pushy adrenal rush from this drug and I have heard people use the phrase ‘jumping out of my skin’ but never really felt like this – this is a very good analogy for how I felt. I was Mr. King of Tension, the tension lord. Felt very tripped out (not in a nice trip way just a messy horrible way).
And it's not like the stuff comes that cheap, either. A 50 milligram packet costs somewhere between $25 to $50, according to this government bath salt fact sheet. It takes about that much to get high, says our second drug-tale teller. That's not the cheapest night of entertainment we can think of. And the hangover, well, it can be killer.
*This post originally stated that bath salts were what turned Eugene into a face-eater. We have now clarified that this has not yet been verified.