Bath Salts: The New Hard Drug or Just Something for the Youngsters?
By Bill Gerdes
Bath salts? Bath salts? If it’s a fair proposition that 95 percent of drug stories in the mainstream media are utter crap—Reefer Madness springs to mind-then what are we to make of the new drug menace “bath salts,” a compound that is legal in many states, has nothing whatsoever to do with the perfumy stuff we pour into bath tubs, but is instead a synthetic compound entirely legal up until a year ago that combines the worst elements of cocaine and methamphetamine, a compound that has figured in some rather high-profile arrests including a genuine face-chewing, a drug that threatens users with the possibility of turning them into a dope-savaged freak? At least if you believe the stories . . .
A History of Hysteria
Drug scares are in no way new. Hysteria over cocaine use in the early Twentieth Century started a familiar meme. Users, said the media, were overly sexualized, had super-human strength, and were prone to violent crime. Some of this was no doubt true; a large part was surely exaggerated. Black users, claimed The New York Times, could quickly turn from “peaceful negroes” into obstreperous troublemakers. And in another oft-repeated theme, media outlets reported that women (white women that is) were in danger from hordes of minorities fired up on coke and intent on raping the innocent. All of this started a now familiar wave of public outcry and then legal overreaction, and with the passage of the Jones Miller Act in the early 1920s cocaine was criminalized in the U.S.
One of the most stigmatized drugs is also ironically one of the least harmful. One could, especially if high, make a strong case that Tylenol is more dangerous than marijuana. And yet much of the same hysteria applied to cocaine has also been attributed to marijuana over the years, from early efforts against the drug during the ’20s to propaganda films of the 1930s like Assassin of Youth and the 1936 now camp classic Reefer Madness, where teens get hold of impossibly potent pot for the 1930s and rape, kill, and generally go ape-shit in a host of ways. In the1960s dope paranoia centered on LSD, and in the ’90s came methamphetamine, a terrible drug to be sure but one that wound up being dismally reported on at the time. Jack Shafer wrote a series of articles for Slate in which he exploded several myths including the idea that the drug destroys teeth through “meth mouth,” which turned out to be due to speed freaks not being the most conscientious flossers, and also overly-sensationalized accounts of rampant overdoses.
The New Sound of Hysteria
Bath salts now join a list of other Millennial drugs that that many of us over the age of 30 have trouble understanding like salvia and “Spice.” In this way drugs resemble music in a sense. We totally get Pearl Jam—think of it as pot in the analogy, and we understand the Pixies. That band is cocaine by the way. Maybe we’ve even sampled My Chemical Romance; it’s ecstasy perhaps. Bath salts is like Grizzly Bear to Generation X; most of us haven’t even heard of the shit. And being out of the loop makes us feel old and cranky.
It’s also this though. Many of the post-millennial drugs have spent a large portion of their short lives legally, as in you couldn’t get arrested for them; Bath salts is no exception and still exist in a nebulous region in regards to the law. To those of us who grew up with the idea that the only drugs that mattered were the ones that entailed serious jail time; it’s hard to take seriously a drug that few have heard of, sounds like it can be bought at Bed, Bath and Beyond, and of which possession is still not as yet a crime in California.
A Serious Compound
Bath salts though is no joke. The moniker “bath salts” is a bit of a catch-all for a group of designer drugs, which contain synthetic cathinones and in many ways mimic the highs of both speed and cocaine. It is fairly new, coming on the scene in the U.S. in the last four years, and the chemical compositions are constantly changing so manufacturers can stay ahead of any laws banning a specific composition. According to Patrick Woolweaver of the San Bernardino Police Department’s narcotics division, producers “tweak the formula” to stay ahead of new laws. Woolweaver explained to me that while the original five compounds were made illegal in October 2011, there is no tried and true formula like with methamphetamine. Currently in California possession of most types of bath salts is actually legal for adults, while manufacturing and sales is a crime. People are being arrested under statute 615 F for being high on salts, and according to detective Woolweaver are “very difficult to deal with.” Like salvia, made forever famous by Miley Cyrus, it exists in a strange legal limbo, and even more than salvia, bath salts is fast becoming notorious.
A Trojan Horse
Stories about people going out of their mind on bath salts are everywhere. There’s the case of Dickie Sanders, a 21-yeard-old who shot himself on Nov. 12, 2010, seemingly because after five days of hallucinations that wouldn’t stop he simply wanted an end to the madness. His suicide came a few days after he had already slit his throat and wound up hospitalized. As with many of the bath salt horror tales, Dickie Sanders experienced vivid terrible hallucinations before he wound up taking his own life.
Part of the extreme reactions to bath salts are due to the unique nature of the drug. Cocaine is what is referred to as a reuptake inhibitor—it keeps dopamine, the neurotransmitter that brings us so much pleasure, from retreating back into the cell, thus flooding the system with energy, euphoria and at times the ability to turn into a total asshole. Methamphetamine works in a very different way, flooding the synapses with dopamine, causing a longer-lasting euphoria than the cocaine user as well as the ability to make the cokehead seem semi-rational in comparison. Bath salts manage to split the difference; it both floods the brain with dopamine and blocks it up at the same time and often for several days, according to some reports. It manages to double down on the asshole factor and is legal in California to boot.
UCR associate professor of chemistry Michael Marsella believes that the very title of the drug is a “Trojan horse,” designed at least originally to provide a modicum of cover to both sellers and buyers. And while seemingly not willing to proclaim a new wave of flesh-eating zombie dope fiends does point out that, “Most illegal synthetic drugs have incomplete data with respect to safety,” which might translate into buyer beware.
Whether or not salts is objectively worse than other more established drugs, many of the news reports are often quite similar to those in the past. First there is the “destroyer of youth” meme present in many of the articles on bath salts, an oldie but a goody that hearkens back to the anti-pot hysteria of the ’30s and ’50s. Another standby is the superhuman strength, impervious to pain angle. This one featured prominently in articles on PCP in the ’70s and ’80s and occasionally shows up on articles dealing with methamphetamine. Bath salts too, will apparently give the user abnormal physical properties. Many journalists have started to refer to what they term an “excited delirium” where people under the influence of bath salts are paranoid, violent and uncontrollable. Implicitly this seems to condone extreme measures by law enforcement to control users, extreme measures like Miami police took last May 26.
The Pseudo Poster Boy
Rudy Eugene’s chewing off of 80 percent of Ronald Poppo’s face in Miami earlier this year functioned as a sort of dope cotillion for bath salts, a real coming-out party for a drug that had lurked in the shadows till that fateful evening. Suddenly this admittedly bizarre incident had everyone talking about bath salts. Many news outlets openly speculated about whether bath salts had been involved, way before autopsy reports from the Miami-Dade medical examiner had come in. ABC News reported that this was, “not the first time police have had to respond to people high on the drug,” a claim true insomuch as police had dealt with people high on bath salts before but also suggesting that Eugene had indeed been high on the stuff.
There was only one problem with many of the news reports—Eugene, who had been shot to death by police reportedly in the act of taking very large bites out of Poppo’s face-showed no traces of any of the typical chemicals involved in bath salts. The poster boy for bath salts turned out not to have been on them at all. But hey, no reason to let facts get in the way of a little old-fashioned Drug War hysteria. And so we get quotes from politicians like Delaware Sen. Chris Coons, “Dangerous drugs like bath salts are terrorizing our communities and destroying lives.” And we get somewhat fishy “statistics” like 91 percent of bath users experience neurological damage. That stat is from The Huffington Post. That stat is almost certainly bullshit. But still . . . this does seem to be a drug that only Dr. Jekyll, Hunter S. Thompson and Keith Richards could pull off without turning into a circus freak.
Let’s Make a Deal
In my efforts to clear up some of my confusion about bath salts I did what any enterprising journalist would do. I typed in bath salts on YouTube. In the first video I watch a youthful Rob Zombie look-alike thrashes around under a green blanket and screams like a moronic cat for 39 seconds; it’s impossible to determine if he is really on bath salts or not. My second video called “Bath Salt, Bro” is clearly an attempt at comedy—and features two guys pretending to do the drug and “tripping.” The third is an ABC News video featuring a concerned looking Dianne Sawyer and some interviews with a Florida police department with wild claims but no numbers to back them up. Unlike salvia very few people get high on camera. I’m perhaps even more confused then when I started. For the first time YouTube has failed me.
There is however always Google. A quick search lands me several sites that sell bath salts on the Internet; one is headlined “Relax with Bath Salts” but features products labeled “Atomic Bomb” and “Toxic Waste,” two titles that well don’t give off a mellow vibe. Possible buyers are directed to click on a link that will let them know what’s legal in their state. Another site boasts “Stimulating Bath Salts,” doubling down on the wink-wink, say-no-more aspect of the whole thing. Being on the “Relax with Bath Salts” site is semi-creepy, shady and a bit sad.
Possession of small amounts of marijuana just became decriminalized in Washington and Colorado—there’s a legal drug that makes sense. But as for bath salts I got to ask Generation Y, Why the hell bath salts? As professor Marsella of UCR puts it, “Would you feel safe taking ibuprofen that was manufactured in someone’s garage?” To that I’d say, “no.” Generation Y, let’s make a deal. Generation X won’t tell you how long to grow your Civil War beards and where to put your next tribal tattoo and you’ll promise to go back to buying drugs the old fashioned way: from a friend of a friend out behind the dumpster at Pizza Hut. Or in Colorado.