Bath Salts: It’s Not a Day at the Spa

A new narcotics threat has emerged in recent years under the name bath salts. In truth, this narcotic is anything but what its name describes. A far cry from the water-soluble, inorganic solid products designed to be added to a bath to improve cleaning and act as a cosmetic agent, bath salts in the world of narcotics is a term used to describe a synthetic drug, usually mephedrone or methylenedioxypyrovelrone. The term bath salt was coined in the UK, where mephedrone was sold under such a heading in order to avoid regulation under the British Medicines Act. Of course, selling the product under such a false description violates the UK’s Trade Descriptions Act.

Mephedrone is a stimulant, a class of amphetamine. It comes in pill or powder form and can be swallowed, snorted or injected. Methylenedioxypyrovelrone (MDPV) is also a stimulant, and in addition to bath salt, it can go by the street names Blue Silk, Euphoria, Hurricane Charlie, Ivory Dove and numerous others. It can be taken orally, intravenously or in a vaporous form.

Bath salts first appeared in the United States in 2009, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). The drugs mimic the effects of cocaine, LSD, Ecstasy and/or methamphetamine, although most experts say that comparisons to methamphetamine are the most accurate. Law enforcement agents in Mississippi said the problem grew last year in his rural area after a Mississippi law began restricting the sale of pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient in making methamphetamine. According to the DEA, users have reported impaired perception, reduced motor control, disorientation, extreme paranoia and violent episodes. The price can range from $40 to $140 a gram.

According to one estimate by the Minneapolis Star Tribune, bath salts have been confirmed or suspected in more than 15 deaths nationwide. The American Association of Poison Control Centers reported that calls to poison centers about exposures to bath salts skyrocketed from a total of 303 calls during 2010 to 4,720 calls in the first eight months of 2011. The drug appears most popular in the Southeast, with Louisiana experiencing the most poison control calls as a result of overdose, and Florida leading the nation in ER visits.

Recently, there has been a slew of legislative and regulatory activity aimed at curbing the use and abuse of bath salts, mostly at the state level. MDPV is not yet a DEA scheduled drug, but is banned in Louisiana and Florida. Two of the chemicals needed to manufacture MDPV have been banned in seven states. At least 33 states have taken steps to ban at least one of the chemicals needed to manufacture bath salts, but the products remain widely available on the Internet. The chemicals used to make bath salts can also be found in “plant foods” that are sold legally. Again, the name plant food is deceptive: Do not think of Miracle-Gro or something that you put on your lawn. Plant food is the name for another synthetic drug that is sold under a legal name.

As for federal activity, the Office of National Drug Control Policy has taken notice of the growing problem. In September, Gil Kerlikowske, Director of National Drug Control Policy, convened high-level representatives from the Departments of Justice; Health and Human Services; Homeland Security; Transportation; and Defense, as well as the Food and Drug Administration; the National Institute on Drug Abuse; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; the DEA; and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, to discuss the threat of synthetic stimulants on public health and safety.

On September 7, 2011, the DEA did take advantage of its emergency scheduling authority to ban three chemicals used in the manufacturing of mephedrone and MDPV, so that the drugs could be deemed illegal to buy or sell for 12 months while it is studied. It is, in all likeliness, the goal of the DEA to classify both as a Schedule 1 narcotic. On Captiol Hill, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., has drafted a bill that would add the chemicals to the list of federally controlled substances. The bill, S. 409, is entitled “The Combating Dangerous Synthetic Stimulants Act of 2011.” It has bi-partisan support from 19 co-sponsors.

Bath salts are of particular interest to the military, due in large part to an incident that occurred in April. Army medic David Stewart murdered his wife and then took his own life, following a high-speed chase on Interstate 5 in Washington State. Toxicology reports revealed bath salts in both of their blood. After the murder-suicide, the couple’s five-year-old son was found dead in their home, the cause of death being suffocation. Navy Surgeon General Vice Adm. Adam Robinson wrote on his blog about the legal consequences and health dangers of synthetic drug use. “Consumption of any of these products meets the criteria for drug abuse and is prohibited,” he said.

The drug has caused enough problems to merit an appearance in the CDC’s “Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report,” first doing so on May 18, 2011. The report focused on a spike in ER admissions due to bath salt use and exposure. According to the CDC’s data, close to 70 percent of those admitted had a history of substance abuse, and almost 50 percent had a history of mental illness. Some experts believe that the 70 percent is indicative of the large number of addicts who are constantly searching for a newer, better high.

Despite all of the recent activity surrounding bath salts, very little is known about the drug. It has not been thoroughly researched, and its effects are unpredictable. Different batches of the drug can vary widely, in terms of chemical composition, price and potency. As regulations banning its sale continue to pile up, the next step in fighting the drug will almost certainly have to be research, in order to make prevention and treatment strategies more effective.

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