wave of madness
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Wave of Madness
August, 2012, Page 24
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.”
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.”
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