Understanding Bath Salts, Part III: Living Above the Law

“Poison is in everything, and no thing is without poison. The dosage makes it either a poison or a remedy.”

We’ve come to the end of our mind-altering journey, and a new ban on synthetic drugs has finally saved the day.  The small talk crowd is over it: bath salts kind of lost their magic when the Man got involved.  Still, more potential users are discovering legal drugs with curiosities piqued by TV hyperbole.  What if a dangerous chemical really does become too big to control?  Save the knowledge-is-power-free-information hippie speeches for the Linux forums, we need action!  Harrumph!

I didn’t get a harrumph outta that guy.

What we need is thoughtful action.  Anger goes nowhere, scare tactics only make curious minds dangerously so, and as for prohibition, we all know how well that worked out in the 1920’s: you tell people they can’t have booze and they’ll just start making bath salts!*
*Mephedrone was first synthesized in 1929 by Saem de Burnaga Sanchez.

Into the Unknown: My Not-So-Scary Visit to the World of the Undead

I was compelled to write this series because drug policy has gotten out of hand when police hold ultimate authority to decide if researchers are doing drugs or doing science, and I don’t trust cops with chemistry any more than I trust a polymer engineer in a gang shootout.  My research of research chemicals started about two years ago in my very first graduate level investigative reporting class.  After spending days on a reading binge triggered by my friend’s mephedrone question, I presented a proposal to conduct a three month investigation into the online sale of legal designer drugs.  The class erupted in confusion and the professor leaned back with a smile– this was crazy talk, his favorite kind.  The FDA sent me everything they knew about other drugs and the DEA dodged my calls altogether.  My professor wasn’t surprised, the whole point is that the establishment doesn’t know, nobody’s talking to the users, but they’re the best authority on themselves.  Is asking for a press release more comfortable than asking a stranger if you can watch him buy drugs?  You bet.  But if telling a story doesn’t make you uncomfortable, your story isn’t good enough.

When the media caught on a few years too late, my big I-told-you-so moment gave me little satisfaction, mostly because of the perpetual red slap mark left on my forehead from the ludicrous fantasies these reporters (who obviously never met my professor) were calling “news”.  I’ve seen a stretch or two, but this was a total fabrication full of chemically impossible claims, fruitless interviews, backwards definitions, historical inaccuracies, and this running theme of writers who seriously need to ask their parents what LSD is.

It’s true, nobody asked the druggies, but I can report that they are in fact cognizant creatures with what appear to be souls.  These “new legal highs” have been around for over a decade, but they stayed underground because people very rarely got hurt, and nobody told their mom.  The users I interviewed knew they were taking big risks, but the scene I observed was less about chemicals and more about research.  At first I was surprised that a couple random underclassmen let me take notes on their drug activities, but they seemed happy to share their hobby; after all, they knew I wasn’t a cop, there was no crime committed, and the majority of their clandestine operation was nothing more than nerdy discussions about shamanism and Ken Kesey.  “The first thing you do is read the dose, duration, the law, some experience reports…We always got into the history too.  You at least need to read the entry in PiHKAL.  What? Newt Gingrich?  For real?  Pics or it didn’t happen!”  I know it’s been a while, but there’s something I still owe someone.

I’m Newt Gingrich, and I approve this psychedelic cookbook.

For years, legal drug dealers relied entirely on word-of-keyboard referrals within the internet-based subculture of knowledgeable drug enthusiasts.  The trouble only started when the secret got out and every stoner, student, raver, retailer, and curious cat wanted a ride on the Ivory Wave.  Economic desperation gives instant appeal to the bath salts promise of affordable escapism and boundless energy, but unlike the drugs’ pioneers, unseasoned salts users had no desire to learn the science, seek advice, or prepare experiments.  Gone were the days of psychonaut scholars, hidden in plain sight, sharing their exclusive knowledge of a strange chemical artform practiced in the DIY laboratories of rogue Shulginites– an underground world that, like a delicate molecule of LSD, has become damaged and meaningless when brought to light.  (that’s how you make an LSD reference when discussing completely unrelated drugs, folks)

How to Look (Slightly) Less Crazy than the Average Bath Salts User

I’d like to have a word with the outraged mothers out there.  Hi (please don’t hurt me).  I see you care about your children, but you can’t expect the government to protect them from the consequences of their own decisions.  I watched parents of overdosed teenagers gasp in disbelief that no law could punish the shadowy villain who made their kid do drugs.  These seething suburbanites vow to lead some crusade until legislation is passed that can bring evildoers to justice and keep their innocent children safe…ly behind bars for possession (you know that’s what happens, right?).   The legal system isn’t here to fight bad guys (perhaps you’re thinking of Batman), it exists to ensure justice, and justice is blind: honor students and drug dealers have the same privileges and the same responsibilities

You aren’t protecting any child’s future by demanding more laws– you’re ruining young people’s lives by slapping criminal records on them for making the same stupid decision that would have earned them “victim” status when it was your kid and the stuff was legal.  Some of you are even calling for broader, more inclusive laws that consider selling “drugs” that you don’t sell as drugs the same as selling drugs as drugs, a downright Seussical idea that would only be constitutional in a land where the Ecstasy berries are always ripe and mighty LSD trees grow high as the heavens (the award for Most Blatantly False Concept of LSD in Bath Salts Fiction goes to “plant based acid”!  You just won a lifetime supply of LSD plants, so nothing, because LSD is a synthetic drug loosely based on a fungus!  Ecstasy is also synthetic, and you almost had the hat trick with methamphetamine but here comes Shulgin with the assist!).  Synthetic drug legislation is so painstakingly detailed because simply the term “drugs” can have infinite meanings, citizens would be easily confused without legal boundaries, and the law be ruled void for vagueness.  Courts ideally reject vagueness because everybody has the right to know the law and receive a trial based on evidence, and I’m afraid “everybody knows these are drugs” is not proof.  You might not want to go around with no evidence claiming that a company is selling drugs either; because if they got bold (unlikely) they could sue you for slander.  If you find this frustrating, think of how vulnerable we all would be under your law without those picky protections:

Dear Police Department,

There’s a serious problem in our communities of young people using these drugs called “Macs” which they buy from something called an “Apple Store”.  These products are harmful to your health, and I know, because I made my assistant smoke an iPhone and he’s in the hospital now.  It’s clear that these aren’t real computers– the packaging is nothing but colorful gimmicks, the “commands” all come from one giant button, and I could program a hamster with more versatility.  The dealers shamelessly target children in their advertising, the software is outrageously expensive compared to anything I know, and these poor kids are becoming so addicted that they’re zombies, camping in front of stores and storming the gates just to get their next fix!  It’s obvious that you need to protect our children from these dangerous drugs.

Hey, maybe this idea of yours isn’t so bad…

Like Mormons and Girl Scout cookies, drugs are tempting and waiting at your door, but they won’t come in unless they’re invited.  A good drug policy works to stop the invitations by providing safe, compassionate addiction treatment and resources to address issues that lead to substance abuse.  This starts with mental health services and pharmaceutical companies that aren’t bathing in profits while patients dangerously self-medicate, but the concept can also be applied in your own home.  Our laws try to halt supply and take dealers off the streets, but the only drugs that disappear are the ones that nobody wants to buy.  Drug dealers get rich off existing demand, they aren’t out generating new interest with advertising and a catchy sales pitch.

You can have the amazing power of OxyContin for just 3 easy payments of $9.95*!

If you’re terrified of conspiring drug pushers out to destroy your family, you’re making your kids so nervous that they almost have to be high to deal with your crazies, and they figure it doesn’t matter if you see them as bath salts zombies waiting to happen anyway.  Teenagers have a tough job becoming independent and responsible adults, so it must be humiliating when mom thinks it takes an act of Congress to keep you from sticking stuff up your nose.  Your children know more than you think, and they will make more mature decisions if you trust them with your concerns directly instead of portraying them as a thoughtless victim-object for television crews. 

If you want a young adult to be honest about drugs, you need to establish a genuine, trusting relationship, and it goes both ways.  Don’t fake the “we never had these scary legal drugs when I was a kid” charade.  They know you did and they’re jealous you got all the good ones– the only reason they can buy legal drugs on the internet is because your generation ate so many legal drugs that they invented the internet.  Just tell the truth, if your case is solid enough (and unregulated stimulants are a pretty solidly bad idea), you have no use for exaggeration.  Let them know you respect their judgement, and assure them that regardless of the situation, you’re always there if they need you.  Even the most successful adults are afraid of making stupid decisions, but they’re not afraid to ask for help.  The president has his cabinet, businessmen have consultants, and even the Beatles sometimes just needed a friend’s assistance to…reach some top shelf reading material I’m assuming.

The Law Fought the Chemistry (And the Chemistry Won)

Laying down your own law yields much better results than marching on Washington.  The decision makers had a set agenda long ago, and the rest of us are too busy finding public offices for Marion Barry.

“Our mayor was really hard on drugs,” say District residents who struggle with syntax.

Ditch the petition unless your hobby is collecting mass produced letterhead spotted with the I-can’t-pay-rent tears of overworked interns, everyone here is too hammered to read it anywayThe DEA and the FDA are the major players in drug policy, and politicians (some of whom I’ve seen rolling a joint or two in fancy uptown restaurants) sell that policy as a moral issue to exploit a citizen’s most personal fear: physical safety.  I’m not Deep Throat here, we all know the Washington image is hypocritical nonsense, but the game gets dirtier (if that’s possible) when government officials line their pockets with unsubstantial panic alerts and blatant lies about your health.  They’re intimidating, they wear really clean suits, I know, but their power is superficial.  Remember that politicians are only experts in politics, the art of pretending to be an expert in everything else.

Even laws with overwhelming support go through a long political process.  Libertarians in particular waste a lot of time holding up drug legislation because they don’t believe in wasting time on drug legislation (or because Ayn Rand really loved speed).  The DEA can make faster moves by using their power of emergency scheduling, where an immediate one-year ban is placed on a substance they consider an “imminent threat” while they gather evidence to review the drug for permanent federal scheduling.  This process was first used with MDMA in 1985, sparking one epic battle between science and law enforcement.  Courts ruled twice that the drug’s significant medical value must be easily accessible to researchers and healthcare professionals (Schedule III or below), but the DEA decided twice that they didn’t care and put it right back in Schedule I anyway.  Apparently, yes they can do that.  

On October 21, 2011, the DEA emergency scheduled the common ingredients in “bath salts”: MDPV and mephedrone.  This fall, those drugs would be reviewed and surely added to the Controlled Substances Act, but Congress took full political advantage of bath salts hysteria and passed a superfluous law before the emergency ban even expired, when they could have been, oh I don’t know, making college affordable or something.

In July, the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act was signed into law, banning most remaining psychedelic 2C-x phenethylamines and “any substance that is a cannabinoid receptor type 1 (CB1 receptor) agonist as demonstrated by binding studies and functional assays”, so if it does something similar to marijuana in your brain, it’s illegal.  This could mean Solvay Pharmaceuticals can no longer profit from Marinol® the end of “spice”. 

As for bath salts, only mephedrone and MDPV are specifically listed, but you can sleep soundly at night knowing that they are now double illegal.  Meanwhile, the growing panorama of unregulated “research chemicals” remains off the public radar until one of these drugs gets mephedrone-famous.  My money’s on methoxetamine, and you heard it here first! (stay ahead of the media panic with my simple formula: read what they’re banning in the UK, wait a year, act surprised).  If one paragraph can prevent varieties of synthetic marijuana that don’t even exist yet, why are we still on this wild chemical chase when it comes to bath salts?

The first problem is that “bath salts” refers to a legal cover up strategy, not a drug itself.  We can only grasp at common denominators among formulas sold with the same product claim; it’s about as precise as defining an organized criminal as any moustachioed man connected to the waste management industry

Even if they ban moustaches, the victim is science.

Unlike the cannabinoid “spice” blends, bath salts are stimulants; their neurotransmitter action is too similar to your morning coffee to define in law.  If you use their common phenethylamine foundation, you risk a DEA raid on your chocolate stash.  You could eliminate most (but not all) bath salts with a ban on all cathinones, but you have to meticulously define what “cathinone” means (Wellbutrin and several other pharmaceuticals are cathinones) within the wide spectrum of similar ephedrine-based compounds, and we already have a law that treats you like a very congested drug cook every time you buy Sudafed.  I have no time for paperwork at drug stores, besides, I prefer the vapo-action of those mentholated inhalers*.  What I’m trying to tell you is, I snort levomethamphetamine, and it’s exactly what it sounds like.  Go around CVS reading the backs of things some day, it gets wild.  The point is, any drug has potential for both good and evil.  Now more than ever we’re finding amazing uses for what were once considered “drugs of abuse”, so remember that every chemical you ban because someone got high is another potential treatment that will never have a chance to cure cancer.
*my recommendation for instant, relaxing congestion relief.  It’s almost flu season!  What were we talking about?  Right, killer zombie drugs.

D.A.R.E. makes everyone think they can spot a “bad” drug from a mile away: obviously, dangerous drugs are always sold by that guy in the dark alley who approaches strangers in broad daylight to offer them handfuls of pills and random syringes.  If he hasn’t busted this guy yet, your D.A.R.E. officer is terrible at finding drugs and should try using the stuff between his ears.  No, literally.  Dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, is a highly illicit psychedelic drug found right there in your brain tissue.  That means, while I am absolutely NOT validating the claims of Jesse Ventura, theoretically the government does consider your brain more dangerous than crack.  Hold on space cadet, it gets worse.  This is a dangerous world we live in– bath salts all over the place, you’re tripping face non-stop, and to top it off, I think Mother Nature slipped something in your drink.  GHB, best known as the colorless, odorless, Schedule I “date rape” drug sensationalized in the 90’s, is a natural component of wine, certain beers, meat, human cells, and just for kicks, it’s in your clothes too.  You can also get your recommended daily intake of club drugs by consuming MSG, which metabolizes to GHB in your body’s endogenous drug labs.  Natural levels are far too low to prompt blackouts at the Panda Express, but some say these trace amounts are essential to mental wellness, promoting GHB as an organic miracle cure.  I don’t know, a roofie-yourself-to-better-health plan doesn’t sound like a best-seller, but then again, maybe loving your body means appreciating all of its natural flaws, limitations, imperfections, and illicit narcotics.

Some Structural Analogue of Justice

Like it or not, we were born to be on drugs.  That’s why no law can forbid the act of getting high or define molecules as “stuff kind of like that other stuff”, but oh no, we have that law.  If the language wasn’t too abstract to be enforced, that law could be useful in keeping our streets and internets free of dangerous almost-drugs.  But like my grandmother always said, almost only counts in bocce and the Federal Analogue Act of 1986!

  • (A) Except as provided in subparagraph (C), the term controlled substance analogue means a substance –
    • (i) the chemical structure of which is substantially similar to the chemical structure of a controlled substance in schedule I or II;
    • (ii) which has a stimulant, depressant, or hallucinogenic effect on the central nervous system that is substantially similar to or greater than the stimulant, depressant, or hallucinogenic effect on the central nervous system of a controlled substance in schedule I or II
    • (iii) with respect to a particular person, which such person represents or intends to have a stimulant, depressant, or hallucinogenic effect on the central nervous system that is substantially similar to or greater than the stimulant, depressant, or hallucinogenic effect on the central nervous system of a controlled substance in schedule I or II.
  • (B) The designation of gamma butyrolactone or any other chemical as a listed chemical pursuant to paragraph (34) or (35) does not preclude a finding pursuant to subparagraph (A) of this paragraph that the chemical is a controlled substance analogue.
  • (C) Such term does not include –
    • (i) a controlled substance;
    • (ii) any substance for which there is an approved new drug application;
    • (iii) with respect to a particular person any substance, if an exemption is in effect for investigational use, for that person, under section 355 of this title to the extent conduct with respect to such substance is pursuant to such exemption; or
    • (iv) any substance to the extent not intended for human consumption before such an exemption takes effect with respect to that substance.

What does it mean?  Are my benzocaine cough drops an illegal cocaine analogue?  Is love an illegal cocaine analogue?  Am I an illegal cocaine analogue!?

Don’t worry, the Analogue Act makes a good threat, but it has limited (not impossible!) practical use.  It was written at a time when MDMA and other new synthetic drugs were spreading fast, law enforcement didn’t know anything about them, and the people who did know used way too many big words.  Oh, how some things never change.  The act questionably bans anything chemically similar to an illegal drug, any bag of oregano sold to gullible high school kids, and any form of matter that makes you feel happy, fall asleep, or hear the voice of God in Pink Floyd albums.  Several cases upheld this law and set precedents for its undefined terms, but several others declared it void for vagueness.

The Analogue Act has a pretty big loophole: it only applies to substances intended for human consumption, so clearly not to substances with big labels that say “not for human consumption.”  Every package of bath salts is a little 500 milligram joke on the DEA!

Snorting Arbitrary Amounts of Powder from the Internet and Other Things that Make More Sense than Drug Laws

The chemicals in bath salts are relatively safe in doses comparable to similar common pharmaceuticals (as they tend to be substantially less potent than most ADHD medications), but the danger lies in a lack of information on safe use.  Unlike illegal drugs, these chemicals are often uncut binder-free lab grade material, so the dosage is an absurdly tiny portion of the product.  Vendors can’t legally tell you how much to use, and the stigma surrounding drug abuse makes it difficult for well-intentioned sources (who only want to keep your kids out of the hospital) to provide this information without being publicly condemned as a devilish minion of drug dealing predators.

The erratic effects of bath salts are likely the result of users blowing a month’s supply up their nose in a matter of seconds because of some notion that powder-form drugs are universally measured in “lines”.  This is not cocaine: a “line” of any synthetic cathinone of such potent purity is like replacing your cereal with Adderall pills.  Maintaining these superhuman doses for any length of time will rapidly increase one’s chances of stimulant psychosis (also common in caffeine users), which can lead to paranoia, suicidal thoughts, and making outrageously false claims that somehow pass as “journalism”.   News corporations profit just as much from sensationalist stories as the drug dealers they’re writing about.  Sensible drug news won’t get nearly this level of attention because there’s no profit in facts, people want narratives with sides to take and winners to invest their interests in.  How can you pull at purse strings if you can’t pull at heart strings? 

The media and political profit machines are making money with the exact same strategy as the designer drug market: if one page-turning lobbyist-funding drug epidemic is solved,  create a new, nearly identical one to sell!  But of course, package it as “public service”, not intended for profitable consumption *wink*.  That’s capitalism!  Even repackaged Soviet pharmaceuticals aren’t immune.  Lenin must be turning over in his um…glass box right now.

Zombie Lenin used to be so charming before the bath salts…

In 2004, the Analogue Act picked a fight with the internet.  In what was known as “Operation Web Tryp”, the DEA raided online research chemical vendors, making 10 arrests and closing 5 websites.  These companies sold the same kinds of drug analogues we see today, but they just weren’t sneaky enough about the “human consumption” thing.  This action was carried out as planned, but full force raids based on less-than-stable laws are too risky to be a first line of defense against mail-order drugs.  And this is the DEA, too–  they pretty much do what they want.

To get an idea of how Operation Web Tryp has deterred online drug analogue sales, enter the name of an unscheduled research chemical into any search engine.  I chose methiopropamine.  Right on page 1, after the basic resources telling me what it is, I got no fewer than 5 websites who wanted to sell it to me.  Web Tryp was a lesson learned for modern online vendors, who stay on top of the law with delicate precision.  Most are not based in the United States, they never possess regulated substances in their jurisdiction, and they maintain up-to-date legal databases to avoid shipping restricted products elsewhere.  Most importantly, these businesses are very strict about leaving no holes in their story of legal intended use.  A buyer agrees to terms and conditions, where they confirm they’re over 18, they will not resell the product, and they will absolutely never ever put it in their body.  Even whispering a word about consumption will cancel the sale and ban the customer, so if a teenager lies and overdoses on this product, the vendor has gone too far beyond the warnings required of other dangerous household items to be held accountable for inappropriate use.

Turn On, Tune In, Chill Out

So with all these fingers wagging, does anyone really know who to blame?  Let’s get past the witch hunt and make some progress.

If you’re determined to fight for innocent drug victims, consider donating to help women suffering from cartel violence in Mexico.  At least take a moment to think of them.  Our laws give us nothing but creative users on this side of the border while expanding the product line of bloody business rivals on the other.  There’s no need to make victims from a victimless crime.

Now that you know enough about bath salts to raise a suspicious eyebrow or two at your next PTA meeting, your only job is keeping them out of the orifices of the people you care about.  It’s been a long voyage through the salty seas of sketchy science, but I hope you found a little more peace of mind, and a lot more motivation to turn off the television when it tells you what your kids are doing so you can ask them yourself.

Now I don’t know about you, but after all this talk, I could use a nice, long bath.


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 III: Living Above the Law

  1. Eduardo says:

    Wow. Love it. Write more!

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