Understanding Bath Salts, Part I: The Irony of Drugs (or Enjoy Your Semi-Legal Bath)

Remember that time the media completely made up a scary new drug craze that barely existed?

Of course you do, they can’t get enough of it.  Because nothing gets Midwestern soccer moms glued to the screen like a terrifying load of nonsense about the two things they understand the least: drugs and their kids.  The newest assassin of youth: addictive, hallucinogenic, harbinger-of-the-zombie-apocalypse “bath salts”.

First of all, can everybody stop calling it that?  It’s just making the headline readers of the world think that teenagers are dialing the Avon lady to get high.  Sure, at one time there were some psychoactive chemicals sold as “bath salts”, and they were pretty widely available if you knew how to ask, but that was well over a year ago.  No physical establishment sells bath salts anymore, and hasn’t for a very long time.  Some websites still do, but they’ve been mostly replaced by more sophisticated vendors selling “research chemicals.”   That term is a bit absurd too, but at least it’s accurate.  They are chemicals.  They can be researched.  Just not in your nose.

So I present you Part I of a three part series explaining what you should know about bath salts and why you should (still) never believe anything WebMD tells you (it wasn’t Japanese encephalitis after all).

Today, we’re looking at the history and background of synthetic drugs.  So sit down, turn off The View, and for the love of all that’s good and covalent, calm down!

Chemicals: What They Can Do for You, What They Can Do for Science, and What They Can Only Do for TV Ratings

“They said it was like a mix of PCP and LSD.”

I heard this outside my restaurant one night, and my heart cried in the name of chemistry.

Let’s be realistic about drugs for a minute.  They can mess you up, but they do have limits.  Nothing is “like a mix of PCP and LSD”, except an actual mix of PCP and LSD. Dextromethorphan can almost be comparable, but come on, that was so last year’s media-fueled drug panic.

And before you ask, no.  There is no drug on this planet capable of prompting a normal, healthy individual to eat a face.

Furthermore, stop thinking about unfamiliar drugs in terms of the ones you already know.  They are entirely unique compounds, they’re only like themselves.  And there’s nothing “in” them either, except exactly that chemical and various impurities.  There’s no ecstasy in bath salts, there’s no meth in ecstasy (assuming, probably incorrectly, that it’s pure MDMA), and there’s no Drano in meth.  Drano can be used in manufacture, but the only thing in meth is meth, or you’re doing it wrong.  But please, please, don’t do it right.

Anything called “bath salts” is generally a stimulant.  Caffeine is a stimulant, cocaine is a stimulant, the pill you give your kids to focus is a stimulant.  PCP is dissociative.  LSD is psychedelic.  “Hallucinogenic” isn’t even really a thing, and definitely not a thing that can describe any chemical sold as bath salts.  That wouldn’t be too hard for the news to explain, but they won’t.  Because logic doesn’t make you fear for the security of your face.

You don’t need an aching chemist’s heart to understand the basic effects of drugs and make informed decisions, but pharmaceutical companies would never want you to do a silly thing like that.  It would interfere with the whole basis of their operation.

Branding!

If the companies that sell drugs teach you everything you know about them, they have the privilege of making stuff up.  There are some little laws against blatant lies, so you tiptoe around it.  Don’t lie about what the chemical is, just don’t mention it at all.  People are bored by facts, they like personality.  Just give the drug a character, and it won’t matter what it is, everyone will want to be its friend.  Paxil is happy.  You want happy.  Ask your doctor today!

The same strategy is reversed in anti-drug campaigns.  We don’t want you to do this, so don’t complicate things with “research”, just know that these chemicals are the bad guys, they lurk under your bed at night, and they have a secret agenda to slither into your life and destroy you.

Unless of course that same chemical is bought by a corporation, stamped with a trademark, and called “Desoxyn”.  But hey, I’m not here to be the judge of words like good or bad or methamphetamine.

The truth is, drugs don’t have personalities or agendas. They don’t have friends. Most of the time they won’t even return your phone calls.  Every drug is complex, it reacts differently with different people, and there can be a wide range of effects, positive and negative, depending on dose.  If you eat too many “bath salts”, you might die, but you can die from eating too many actual bath salts, too.

For example, let’s look at a drug that’s both therapeutic and recreational: dextroamphetamine.  It’s an effective treatment for Attention Deficit Disorder, but it also has a very high potential for abuse.   Like every other drug, it has a threshold dose, where it starts to cause desired effects, an overdose, where it starts to make you sick or impaired, and a more concrete number, the LD50, where it kills half of you, or in less MySpace-goth terms, it was lethal for 50% of the lab rats tested.  The LD50 for d-amphetamine is 96.8 milligrams per kilogram of body mass, rather high when the prescribed dose is usually 5-30 mg, however overdose ranges very close to threshold.  Simply put, it’s easy to get high and a lot harder to die.  Perfect for a drug of abuse.

The difference is, while these drugs have tried and true dosage patterns, users of these new legal drugs barely have a reference, only a faceless online vendor who is telling you how to not consume it (wink).  Mistakes are made because nobody is providing the right information, not because the drug had a diabolical plot.  Bath salts didn’t want to kill those kids in the news stories.  Nobody would want George Stephanopoulos to win that easily.

A (Very) Brief History of Designer Drugs

That’s another term I can’t stand.  Designer drugs.  It acknowledges the specialized quality, but it makes complex chemicals sound like Gucci purses.  In all fairness, you can probably buy cheap knockoffs of both from the back of that sketchy Russian guy’s van.

Designer drugs are as old as drug design itself.  Some people start their history around the time of crack, but you’ve all seen the PeeWee Herman PSA, so I won’t get into it.  I’ll start with a special chemist who I admire for reasons very different than those of anyone holding glow sticks.  Meet Sasha:

Meet Sasha!

Alexander Shulgin is a psychedelic folk hero.  He’s also a man who pours his soul into science so profoundly that even an agent from the DEA once told me that his book brought her to tears.  That book was PiHKAL, a beautiful narrative co-authored with his wife, Ann, about their love and the art of chemistry.

Oh, it also gives explicit instructions for manufacturing Ecstasy.

Dr. Shulgin is best known for rediscovering an old discarded Merck patent for MDMA and exploring the compound for its therapeutic value (testing it on himself in careful incremental doses), calling the drug “Empathy”.  And he might have been on to something; studies today continue to confirm its effective use in psychotherapy for PTSD and anxiety.  Still debatable is its use in making dubstep sound like real music.

MDMA is perhaps the most famous research chemical (it actually was a chemical for real research) that became a legal drug pandemic after drug dealers at night clubs learned they could make a big profit with little consequence. But Sasha’s work here isn’t done.  Dr. Shulgin is also the designer behind a great deal of the designer drugs gaining popularity now. He synthesized, tested, and published his findings on several of these “plant foods” and “bath salts” (he absolutely did not use those terms, this is real science) many, many years ago, effectively setting the foundation for a whole world of legal highs. PiHKAL (with its sequel, TiHKAL) is the gold standard for synthetic psychoactive reference and the first book I pull from the shelf when asked about a new “bath salt”.  My copy is personally signed by Newt Gingrich.  I wish I was kidding.

Now Shulgin didn’t invent the entire getting-high-with-science idea so please don’t start blaming him, he’s just a scientist who wants to grow some cacti and teach people to love.  Blame ravers for taking therapy drugs out of context.

The concept behind bath salts isn’t surprising, people will always find new ways to alter their minds and most prefer to avoid legal issues.  There were PCP and LSD analogues in the 70s, ketamine and fentanyl-like opiates in the 80s, and even alcohol alternatives during prohibition.  With the power of the internet today, there’s a whole catalog of other legal chemicals that anybody can get their hands on: opiates, dissociatives, sedatives, steroids, and of course, the salts’ sister-terror, “spice.”

Remember how I told you to calm down?

Coming up in Part II, I get down to chemical business with what these drugs actually are, and later in Part III, I’ll talk about the law, the politics, and what is to be done.

Stay tuned my friends, and remember, don’t eat anything you don’t trust, whether mystery stimulant, or doctor-prescribed mystery stimulant.

Until next time, hold to your faces.

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About Maria Parrotta

Maria Parrotta is a writer, student, and daring pharmacovigilante on a mission to be an approachable source of honest, relevant information about drugs, healthcare, science, and technology. She is often found teaching impromptu chemistry lessons at social gatherings, building her fleet of tiny motorized robots, or recruiting members for her new "pharmcore" band. She sleeps in lab goggles and dreams of nothing but science.
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2 Responses to Understanding Bath Salts, Part I: The Irony of Drugs (or Enjoy Your Semi-Legal Bath)

  1. Eduardo says:

    Great article! Love how you break it down.

    A few points, first, profits werent the motivation for the pioneering rave movement’s embracing of ecstasy. If you look at what 1989 looked at in England where it began, it was the effect that was needed, and it worked and changed the world, to the point where the same compound now is just a casual high and not a revelation as such, since the message has already been absorbed and it has influenced society to the point where it doesn’t have the same treatment resistant PTSD it did 23 years ago. You’re welcome : ) I still think that a self selected group of thousands all experiencing this is a valuable experience, but the contexts where this can happen are not what they used to be. Perhaps because we don’t need it like we do, or perhaps apathy is easier now. Great article! Love how you break it down.

    A few points, first, profits werent the motivation for the pioneering rave movement’s embracing of ecstasy. If you look at what 1989 looked at in England where it began, it was the effect that was needed, and it worked and changed the world, to the point where the same compound now is just a casual high and not a revelation as such, since the message has already been absorbed and it has influenced society to the point where it doesn’t have the same treatment resistant PTSD it did 23 years ago. You’re welcome : )

    When profits became the motivation you saw weak pills, adulterated pills cut with heroin to rob you of the energy and joy you wanted to encourage you to buy more. It was ugly, dance floors full of people sitting and laying down, wanting to dance but the legs just didn’t have the energy. Some people knew and spread the info, some didn’t care, but the worst was those who never had a pure MDMA or mda experience.

    Also, i know its a joke, but Dubstep is real music, and even casual comments like that condone that kind of close mindedness. You know what other music was considered not to sound like “real music” by the mainstream in its time? blues, jazz, rock & roll, disco, house, techno, and hip hop. Its casual covert discrimination and arguably racist, since all those genres have black roots or were popularized by black people. Im not saying it is a big deal, but you are insightful and i thought you will be better served not alienating yourself from music lovers who like dubstep, which even in its basest form has revolutionized music with tangible energy.

    Thanks for this, off to part 2!

  2. Hi Eduardo!

    Of course the first ecstasy experimenters were a lot more informed, and therefore a lot safer, just like the first users of the “bath salts”, and in both cases, those experiments stayed off the radar of the public and law enforcement. The users had a positive experience because the environment was about harm reduction and caring about eachother’s wellbeing in general. It’s when the scene got fashionable that ecstasy became a profit machine sold in questionable pills to people who didn’t know anything about it, which is how people get hurt.

    Dubstep is kind of similar in that regard. Since I don’t know anything about how it was when it actually meant something (and I’ve lately gotten a bit of a peek into the original intention of the music/dance/experience), I was generally talking about the latest incarnation, which much like ecstasy, has been pushed as a mainstream trend with little significance and a whole lot of people with dollar signs in their eyes. It’s tragic, because that’s what the world sees and associates with the entire culture, but it wasn’t supposed to be that way at all. You need to go out there and bring it back to the roots!

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