Bath Salts: The Newest Designer Drug

By Nancy Knott, M.A., Scripps Health

Imagine someone using meth, cocaine, LSD and ecstasy (MDMA) at the same time, and you’ll get an idea of the effects of the latest synthetic or “designer” drug to become popular with adolescents and young adults: bath salts.

Don’t let the name fool you. These aren’t the fragrant granules you sprinkle in bath water to soothe tension. Sold as “bath salts” or “plant food” to evade drug laws, these products are actually synthetic versions of cathinone, a naturally occurring amphetamine that comes from the leaves of the Catha edulis plant. Among the amphetamine-like derivatives commonly found in bath salts are pyrovalerone, methylone, methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV) and mephedrone. When smoked, injected, snorted, or mixed with food or drink, they act like stimulants in the brain. Like amphetamines, they can produce effects similar to that of several powerful street drugs—including methamphetamines (meth), cocaine and ecstasy—combined. Users have described feelings of increased energy, euphoria, heightened libido, and empathy.

However, the risks far outweigh any perceived benefit. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, bath salts have been linked to an alarming number of ER visits across the country, and poison centers have reported increasing numbers of calls related to these products. In addition to the elevated blood pressure and heart rate often linked to stimulant drugs, bath salts have been shown to cause agitation, increased blood pressure, rapid heart rate, chest pains, hallucinations and paranoia. Mephedrone in particular is associated with a high risk for overdose.

Another concern is suicidal behavior. There have been reports of several suicides linked to MDPV use, even several days after the drug has worn off.

Because these products are relatively new on the streets, there is limited knowledge about their short and long-term consequences. Currently, no tests are available to detect these drugs, so emergency medical personnel must rely on users to self-report whether they have taken them.

Given the significant risks and dangers of bath salts, why have they been able to be sold and purchased legally? It’s all about labeling. Because the product labels state that they are “not for human consumption,” they avoid being subject to drug laws, even though they are clearly intended for that use. These products are widely (and legally) available online, in drug paraphernalia stores and even in many convenience stores under a variety of names, such as “Ivory Wave,” “Purple Wave,” “Red Dove,” “Blue Silk,” “Zoom,” “Bloom,” “Cloud Nine,” “Ocean Snow,” “Lunar Wave,” “Vanilla Sky,” and “White Lightning.”

In October of 2011, the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) exercised its emergency scheduling authority to control three of the synthetic stimulants commonly used in bath salts: mephedrone, MDPV, and methylone. This temporary action made possessing and selling these chemicals or products that contain them illegal in the United States, and will remain in effect for at least one year. Further studies will be conducted to determine whether these chemicals should be permanently controlled.

However, this shouldn’t be considered a final solution to the problem. One of the greatest challenges to law enforcement is that drug makers continually create new combinations of chemicals for these substances, so that as soon as one is outlawed, a new version becomes available.

The more parents know about these ever-changing designer drugs, the more they can recognize the signs of use and take action. Scripps Drug and Alcohol Treatment Center, located on the campus of Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla, offers free, educational intervention seminars every Saturday from 10:30 a.m. to noon. Parents and family members can learn about the current drugs of choice, signs and symptoms, and resources available if they suspect their child may be using drugs.

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Lisa Ohmstede

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