Despite a marketing whitewash and new state laws, “bath salts” remain Arizona’s latest dangerous designer drug of choice – and a thriving local industry.
It was like Silence of the Lambs meets The Walking Dead. Last Memorial Day weekend, Rudy Eugene, 31, was running naked through the sunny streets of Miami, swinging from the top of a light pole on the MacArthur causeway. Minutes later, a surveillance camera captured Eugene stripping a homeless man named Ronald Poppo naked and bending over him. What happened next would horrify the nation: Eugene bit into Poppo’s face and spit large, bloody chunks of his flesh on the ground. By the time police officers arrived, Eugene had gouged out one of Poppo’s eyes and gnawed off his nose and half of his face. When Eugene didn’t comply with commands to stop, officers fatally shot him.
News of the appalling assault went viral, spawning widespread headlines of “cannibalism” and “zombie apocalypse” – macabre gibes so prevalent the national Centers for Disease Control issued a statement denying the existence of a “zombie virus.” But the prime point of speculation from Florida law enforcement and media was that Eugene was possibly under the influence of a designer drug known as “bath salts.”
Eugene’s autopsy revealed undigested pills in his stomach, but his toxicology reports had not been released at press time, so the sources of his violent behavior remain unknown. But local authorities and toxicologists who’ve observed people under the influence of bath salts say extremely aggressive behavior is a common side effect. “The behavior with bath salts is more parallel to PCP, in my mind, because of just the crazed nature of it,” says Sergeant Tony Landato of Mesa PD. “It’s not just someone who’s a little more hyper or kind of crazy – it’s like they’re really out there.”
Whether or not bath salts played a role in the Miami attack, they’re causing plenty of chaos in Arizona, which, based on DEA information and proprietary sales figures, may be the biggest distributor of bath salts in the nation. What’s more, according to one former dealer, the salts are affordable, accessible, and legal. Despite recent legislative attempts at both federal and state levels to curb the sale of bath salts, statistics show a rising wave of use with no crest in sight. In Arizona last year, 247 cases of bath salts exposure were reported to Banner Good Samaritan Poison Control and Drug Information Center, compared with two exposures reported in 2010.
July 2011 - Johnny Salazar of Chandler was arrested after reportedly burning his 5-year-old son’s hand because the child touched a Bible. Salazar told police he was under the influence of bath salts, hallucinating, and that he believed his son was possessed by demons. Police confiscated a gun, a knife, some pills, and three vials of bath salts during Salazar’s arrest.
Dr. Frank LoVecchio, a toxicologist who treated some of those patients, has seen rashes of bath salts users in rock-bottom condition. “One weekend… we had about a half dozen people who had to be sedated and required medication that we often use to do anesthesia on people – general anesthesia,” he says. “In other words, they were so combative, had they not gotten [treatment], they would have just died of heat stroke or heat-related illness or other issues.”
LoVecchio recalls one patient whose frenzied state was eerily similar to Eugene’s streak through the Miami streets. “He was running around – naked – very, very agitated, and he was subdued by the cops. They were trying to control him, and he was tazed by them,” LoVecchio says. “He was paralyzed, controlled, sedated, and he took a day or two to wake up. But he did not even remember the cops arresting him, he didn’t remember getting tazed, he didn’t remember any of it. And it was just, like, really insane.”
A RUSE BY ANY OTHER NAME
Let’s be crystal clear: The “bath salts” sold in head shops and on websites of questionable repute aren’t anything like your mother’s Calgon or your kids’ Mr. Bubble. They’re weighed by gram, sold in packets with names like Ivory Wave, Cloud 9, White Lightning, Vanilla Sky and Meow Meow. They’re white and powdery like cocaine, and the fragrance is more reminiscent of “chemical fish” than “country lavender.” Unlike real bath salts, which sell for around $7 for 20 ounces, these “bath salts” go for anywhere from $25 to $120 a gram and are typically found only on websites and in head shops.
The same synthetic-speed compounds packaged as “bath salts” are also sold on websites and in head shops as “glass cleaner,” “carpet deodorizer,” “jewelry cleaner” and “plant food.” But the packaging and brand names – Snowman Glass Cleaner, Go Fast Carpet Deodorizer, Crazy Train Intimate Aroma Therapy Powder, Eight Ballz Bath Salts – suggest something way more intense than a spring cleaning. All packets are emblazoned with wink-wink disclaimers like “NOVELTY ONLY” and “NOT FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION,” a legal loophole also used in the marketing of “spice,” a.k.a. synthetic marijuana.
Despite the disclaimers, users have been consuming “bath salts,” most commonly through snorting, smoking, and injection. The American Association of Poison Control Centers reported 6,138 calls related to bath salts in 2011 (a significant spike from the 304 calls fielded nationally in 2010). Through June 8, 2012, the Banner Good Samaritan Poison and Drug Information Center received 70 calls regarding bath salts; 65 of those calls were actual exposures to the substance.
The chemicals in so-called bath salts are structurally similar to – and elicit effects akin to – illegal stimulants like methamphetamine. Users report a speeding, meth-like high after ingesting them, and toxicologists report a slew of negative side effects, including but not limited to increased heart rate, high blood pressure, hallucinations, and extreme agitation. “We’ve seen things such as stroke-like symptoms, where people didn’t get enough blood flow to their brain,” LoVecchio says. “We’ve seen things like heart attacks. We’ve seen things like kidney failure. There are people who’ve had lack of blood flow to their bowels and had to get a piece of bowel removed.”
September 2011 - Mesa police caught a man named Kent Humphrey trying to steal a car; he was arrested after refusing to surrender and throwing soda cans at the cops. It reportedly took eight officers to subdue him, and it was later confirmed Humphrey had consumed bath salts.
The DEA began testing and identifying chemicals in bath salts in 2010, and in October 2011, they instituted an emergency federal ban on three of the most commonly found compounds in bath salts: mephedrone, methylone, and methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV). The emergency ban gives the DEA one year (with a possible six-month extension) to establish if these three chemicals should be permanently restricted. All three substances are synthetic versions of cathinone, a chemical similar to amphetamines that’s found naturally in the Catha edulis (khat) plant, which is commonly chewed in Israel and parts of Africa. The DEA added cathinone to the Controlled Substances Act in 1993, as a Schedule I substance – meaning it has a high potential for abuse and no currently accepted medical use.
Mephedrone was first synthesized for academic chemistry research in 1929 but was largely forgotten until 2003, when an underground chemist going by the name “Kinetic” published the chemical formula on now-defunct counterculture website The Hive. Chemists Jacob Peyton and Alexander Shulgin patented methylone as an anti-depressant in 1996, but it was never approved for that use. MDPV was developed in the 1960s as a potential treatment for chronic fatigue; pharmaceutical company Boehringer Ingelheim filed a patent application for the substance in 1969 but never marketed it.
Despite the federal ban on these three chemicals, the market is still awash with dirty bath salts. That’s because every time one chemical compound is banned, manufacturers replace it with any number of other chemically similar (and largely untested) compounds. To date, chemists have discovered 81 substituted or synthetic cathinones, though authorities have seized and publicly identified only 12, and new derivatives continue to emerge. Many of the most frequently occurring compounds in bath salts were developed in academic and pharmacy labs decades ago. A 2011 article in Drug Test Analysis titled “A brief history of new psychoactive substances” by Dr. Andrew Kicman of King’s College London and forensic examiner Leslie A. King noted that the “manufacturers of new substances are now trawling the world’s scientific and patent literature in search of failed pharmaceuticals, or as they also became known, designer medicines.”
The bulk of synthetic cathinones are manufactured in overseas labs, primarily in China, then shipped around the world. The substances pass through customs in packages labeled “research chemicals,” then make their way to local distributors for packaging and labeling as novelty bath salts, glass cleaner, etc. Manufacturers take the chemical formulas for banned cathinones and tweak them slightly, producing substances that deviate from the illicit compounds by perhaps one or two molecules, but which purportedly produce the same speeding high. This would seem to be a good way to get around federal law – were it not for the Federal Analog Act, which states that any chemical “substantially similar” to a controlled substance be treated the same as the controlled substance. Those who produce, sell, and buy such chemically-comparable substances can be prosecuted, but only if it can be proven the substances were intended for human consumption.
“[Manufacturers] often mislabel to avoid detection,” says Ramona Sanchez, special agent for the Phoenix division of the Drug Enforcement Administration. “Because in order for it to be a federal violation, we’ve got to prove it was intended for human consumption. That’s why it takes time to go forward with charges, because you’ve got to show that not only are [these chemicals] analogous to other drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine or heroin, but that it was also intended for human consumption. That’s the way they circumvent the law, by putting that label. But everyone knows it’s just a cover-up to skirt the federal law. We all know they’re certainly not using it to put fragrance in their bath water.”
Three of the biggest bath salts and spice distributors in the nation are registered LLCs with the Arizona Corporation Commission: Revolution Distribution, Consortium Distribution (both in Phoenix), and Dynamic Distribution in Tempe. On paper, all three are “cosmetics and cleaning products” businesses. One of the most popular brands of “bath salts,” Eight Ballz, is a registered federal trademark of Consortium; the Wicked X brand is a registered trademark of Revolution; Wicked Herbals, a popular online store offering bath salts and “carpet cleaner,” states in its online FAQ that its packages are discreetly mailed with a return address for Dynamic Distribution.
September 2011 - Gilbert police attempted a traffic stop on Hashaun Houston of Phoenix. Houston stopped the vehicle briefly, sped forward, threw the car in reverse, jumped out and ran – leaving the vehicle to roll backwards and collide with the police car. According to the police report, Houston said he’d been smoking bath salts for two days.
In addition to presenting themselves as cosmetics and cleaning product companies, local distributors try to cover their legal bases by posting lab test reports about various bath salts brands to their websites that show negative results for any banned synthetics. Wickedherbals.com claims they cannot reveal what is in the bath salts they sell, but they post lab results showing what is not in the products. Eight Ballz tested negative for 24 substances including mephedrone, methylone, methedrone, methamphetamine, ketamine, and several barbiturates. But that only whittles the contents down to around 57 other cathinone substitutes that may or may not be present in the product, along with any number of mystery ingredients. And therein lies the big unknown: None of the “bath salts” products on the market list their contents on the packaging.
In September 2011, The Star Tribune in Minneapolis paid a lab to test 30 so-called “legal high” products, including 15 bath salts, that reporter Larry Oakes easily purchased over the Internet and at area head shops. The lab results read like a recipe for a killer chemical cocktail. The tests were conducted prior to the DEA’s emergency federal ban on MDPV; at the time, nine of the 15 bath salts were found to contain concentrations of MDPV anywhere from 2 percent to 36 percent. Two products, Charly Sheen and GoGaine, were a mixture of dental anesthetic Lidocaine and synthetic compound MDAI, which is typically non-neurotoxic but may become neurotoxic (altering the nervous system and damaging nervous tissue) when mixed with other drugs. One product, Sky Vanilla, was found to be 100 percent caffeine. Tests of two same-size packets of the bath salts Vanilla Sky showed that one packet contained 17 percent MDPV, while the other packet had 35 percent MDPV.
The bottom line with bath salts: The chemicals and their dosage are complete X factors. “With these drugs, you never know what the concentration’s going to be. You never know what the other side effects are going to be,” LoVecchio says. “Obviously, they’re not FDA-approved and they haven’t been tested.”
In February 2012, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed House Bill 2356 into law, which effectively bans seven of the chemical compounds commonly used in bath salts. In March, Arizona Senator Linda Gray and Rep. Frank Pratt introduced House Bill 2388, which would have given the Arizona Board of Pharmacy and department of public safety the authority to identify and restrict certain substances, rather than leaving it to lawmakers. The bill passed in the Senate but died in the House, where it was largely viewed as something that gave away too much legislative control. Gray says some representatives told her they would have allowed the bill to pass “if we had changed it to say that each time we find a new chemical, the governor is required to call us into session. Well, that could be every other month,” Gray says. “That’s why it was important to allow the pharmacy board – those experts who know the chemicals – to be able to identify and say ‘You can’t sell it unless you have a pharmacy license.’ Of course, your reputable pharmacists are not going to sell it.”
ARIZONA ON HIGH
“I made a shit-ton of money selling bath salts, and I don’t feel good about it.”
Joe Johnson (not his real name) sits at his computer desk and pulls up an email he says contains the original recipe for bath salts. For nearly three years, starting in 2009, the Phoenix resident sold spice and bath salts for a Valley-based national distributor. He provided PHOENIX magazine with proprietary documents showing recipes for bath salts, invoices for the receipt of raw chemical compounds, and staggering sales figures well into the millions, but did not want his name or the name of his former employer published. “I think people go to any extreme to escape reality, especially if their reality sucks and they have no money,” Johnson says. “And that’s a void that was filled. [Bath salts] are affordable, legal and accessible. Those three things are an equation for a hot fucking commodity.”
Profits were enormous – according to Johnson, the company would buy a kilo of MDPV for $2,000 and cut and parcel it into $50,000 worth of bath salts packages, which translated into about $300,000 in post-markup retail and street sales. Johnson said in one week alone he made nearly $20,000 in commission. “I sold a shit-ton of this stuff – in the streets, in duffle bags, like kilos of cocaine.”
Johnson says the company he worked for earned about $3 million in annual profits. Johnson’s sales sheets show he alone sold just under $1.4 million in bath salts to more than 150 retail outlets throughout the nation over a nine-month period in 2011. One of the reasons Johnson left his lucrative sales job this year was the collateral damage he started seeing. “Every tweaker on the block does it if they can’t get meth. Go stand in any head shop… they will have a line constantly of tweakers buying this shit. Because it has the same properties as meth. It’s addictive,” he says. “There are people cooking it up in spoons and injecting it. It’s out of control. I never thought it would get to that point.”
Last November, the DEA published a “Scheduling Update” stating that 127 shipments of chemicals used in bath salts had been encountered at a single United States point of entry, and that “most of these shipments originated in China or India and were being shipped to destinations throughout the United States such as Arizona, Alaska, Hawaii, Kansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Virginia, Washington and West Virginia.”
June 2012 - A Mesa man named Nathan Ritchey was arrested at Banner Desert Medical Center after spraying hospital employees with a fire extinguisher. Police said Ritchey was an admitted drug addict prone to blackouts who had been seeking treatment for bath salts.
Ramona Sanchez says the DEA is “looking into investigations in Arizona,” and that the investigations are less focused on bath salts users than on producers and distributors. “Our investigations target the manufacturers and importers and those that are distributing among our communities,” Sanchez says. “We’re concerned more so about the bigger rings, the people behind the distribution of these synthetic drugs, not necessarily the people who are purchasing them at the local level… It’s more concerning that possibly Arizona is one of those states that [the DEA] included in being a major distribution area for these synthetic drugs.”
Gray says she’s still concerned with the prevalence of synthetic drugs in Arizona, despite the state’s ban on many chemical compounds. “A lady contacted me and said her son, who was a scholarship winner for the universities and one of the top in his class, tried the drug, and he dropped out of college, because it’s so addictive,” Gray relates. She says when the mother looked at a package of bath salts her son had, she discovered it came from Tempe-based company Dynamic Distribution. “It’s right here in our backyard,” Gray says. “Prescott has had a big problem. [Yavapai County Attorney] Sheila Polk has been very aggressive in going after the shops, but they brag about, ‘Yes, you banned these, but we’ll have another one ready to go whenever the legislature bans them, and we can say these are the legal ones.’”
Two weeks after Governor Brewer signed House Bill 2356, authorities in Prescott issued search warrants for five shops suspected of selling bath salts. Several people were arrested for possession and sale; employees at one store also face fraud charges for allegedly letting customers purchase bath salts with food stamps. “So taxpayers are now paying for this,” Gray says. “And when [bath salts users] go to the emergency room, these are people who probably don’t have insurance, and then the taxpayers are having to take care of them… It’s interesting that some people say, ‘Well, just let them destroy themselves.’ But the rest of the taxpayers end up picking up the cost, because they end up in the hospital.”
Dr. LoVecchio says the hospital visits for bath salts users can be extremely costly. “These people have very, very huge, expensive hospital bills and huge work-ups. You’re looking for infection, making sure they don’t have meningitis. They end up getting CAT scans of their brain, they end up getting lumbar punctures many times, they end up getting lots of blood work.”
As this issue went to press, Congress had just passed a Food and Drug Administration bill containing provisions to ban 28 chemicals commonly used in bath salts; the bill was headed to President Obama for final approval. But with the endless array of synthetic analogs, it might make a mere dent. “[Labs] are about 10 formulas ahead of us,” Johnson says. “Every time we release a law outlawing that formula, they’re going to change two or three molecules in it and release it again... I don’t know if the bath salts game is ever going to disappear.”