Understanding Bath Salts, Part II: African Flowers and Stalinist Powers

Comrade Hoxha's been hitting the salts.My social function, besides providing living room chemistry lectures and restaurant-floor pill identification, is as the Chief Have-You-Heard-Of-This-Chemical Specialist.

About 2 years ago, a good friend from Northern Virginia employed my services. If you’ve never experienced the DC suburbs, it’s a typical scene. Strip malls, mini vans, and teenagers with huge drug problems.

I’m sorry, did I say huge drug problems? I meant nobody cares because daddy works for the Pentagon.

Anyway, this friend has seen some gratuitous substance abuse, but this time he heard some talk of a new drug. He asked me if I knew what “mephedrone” was, and to the bookshelf we go.

What Is This Stuff?

Mephedrone, and other chemicals (formerly!) sold as “bath salts” are almost always substituted cathinones. Basically, they’re cheap stimulants.

Substituted cathinones are based on a naturally occurring substance called cathinone, found in the khat plant. Khat has a long tradition of both psychoactive and therapeutic use in East Africa and the Arab world, where the leaves are chewed or made into tea.  It’s like coffee, except, you know, way older.

As with many African and Middle Eastern customs, the West decided they didn’t understand it, so it must be funding Somali warlords. At least this was the logic in the US when khat was banned in 1993.

Cathinone and all its derivatives have similar effects. Some synthetic cathinones, like mephedrone, release more serotonin in the brain, causing an “ecstasy-like” response, but they all act as stimulants. Cathinones are accepted to generally be more potent than ephedrine, but less than amphetamine. In fact, when ephedrine was the cool thing to study before WWII, Western chemists took a liking to amphetamines (especially methamphetamine), while the Soviets preferred the milder methcathinone. The USSR marketed methcathinone as an anti-depressant, and experienced the same patterns of abuse that we experience with amphetamines in the USA.

That’s right. The greatest threat to our children and the very fabric of our society: Soviet trucker speed!

Yeltsin and Clinton

“You’re tweaking so hard right now.”

So when you see these guys in lab coats on television telling you how “we have no idea what this drug is” or “nobody knows the effects,” they’re lying, or they don’t deserve that coat. The particular compounds in question have a very short history of human use, and there could be variations that I wouldn’t recommend testing on yourself, but the short-term and long-term effects of chemicals in this class have been well documented and a reasonable hypothesis can be made. Hypertension, insomnia, anxiety, and agitation? Likely. Face-chewing, goat-killing, “LSD-like hallucinations,” and zombie tendencies? Absolutely not. Take dose and personal history of drug reaction into account, then expect relative effects slightly weaker than Adderall.  That’s.  It.

Methcathinone has been illegal since 1993, long before substituted cathinones were an issue. In the golden age of bath salts (over a year before anybody wrote about it), the compounds sold were typically a combination of Methylenedioxypyrovalerone (or MDPV, and if you challenge me to say that 5 times fast you will lose) and the aforementioned mephedrone, the chemical referred to as “meow meow,” or in English, 4-methylmethcathinone.

See what they did there? They took that base, methcathinone, altered it slightly, and boom, a drug with similar or possibly more potent effects than the scheduled original, legal and ready to be sold to the masses.   Um . . . yeah science?

MDPV is a different alteration of the cathinone molecule, but with less serotonin and more norepinephrine. Less happy, more scary. The worst (actually true) stories coming from the “bath salts epidemic” are often attributed to MDPV, but unbeknownst to everybody in the media ever, that “legal drug” being “sold to children right there in every store” has been neither legal nor in stores for a long time.  The DEA scheduled both MDPV and mephedrone in October 2011, and they were permanently banned this July by Chuck Schumer’s synthetic drug legislation, which he called the “final nail in the coffin for legal bath salts.”

Are you kidding me?

First of all, congratulations, you banned already illegal drugs.  Companies selling branded “bath salts” changed their formulas, but they started down the tubes long ago. Synthetic drug laws got too real; between molecular variations and state-to-state differences, staying legal got tricky.  Customers would rather buy clearly labeled products from “research chemical” vendors over some unknown “Ivory Wave” concoction. This way, they knew the exact compound they were buying, they could clearly find laws that applied to them, and sometimes the product even came with a material safety data sheet and purity test results.

You got a little science on your drugs there.

Also, remember that little methcathinone molecule? It was illegal, but with a little cut and paste job, it was back on the market as mephedrone. Those little chemical alterations can infinitely produce new drugs faster than Schumer can say “methylenedioxypyrovalerone.”

The so-called “street chemists,” aside from being the concept for my next Metro station magic act, already replaced mephedrone and MDPV several times over. They’re now developing replacements of the replacements of the replacements. In your driveway!

And what were the chemicals they made?

There was methylone, ethylone, 4-MEC! Eutylone, butylone, and 3-FMC! Flephedrone, brephedrone, bupropion! Pentylone, pentedrone, and. . . Phthalimidopropiophenone?

OK, maybe research chemicals aren’t that whimsical, but infinite nonetheless.

Now stop it, science isn’t as scary as it sounds. Chemistry has always been capable of killing us in a million ways, and humans have always been capable of finding just as many ways to get high. Being cognitive creatures, we have the upper hand in choosing the concepts in chemistry that serve us, even if we can’t control the reaction itself. Above all, we have an instinct to survive. We make mistakes, we find the wrong chemicals, or we use them in the wrong way, but eventually we learn, we spread the information, and suddenly what was once a crazy killer zombie molecule is just another diagram in another book on your shelf, waiting for somebody to ask you if you’ve heard of it.

Join me for the next segment, Part III, where I get more in-depth on law, what we’re wasting time doing, and what we can actually do about this “crisis.”

For now, kill your neighbor’s goat.

I mean, stay informed, and stay safe, friends!

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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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One Response to Understanding Bath Salts, Part II: African Flowers and Stalinist Powers

  1. Pingback: Understanding Bath Salts, Part II (Appendix): Reference | Comrade in Pharms

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