Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

How Bath Salts Work


A Dangerous Trip: You're Soaking in It

Bath salts are a recreational designer drug, like ecstasy (MDMA, or 3,4,-methylenedioxymethamphetamine) or meth (methamphetamine, also known as speed, crystal meth or crank). They come in packets of powders or crystals, naturally colored tan or white, but manufacturers often dye them to resemble real bath salts (the colorful, candy-like appearance has prompted critics to accuse pushers of marketing to children). Most of the American supply originates in Europe and China, although local sources also cook it up in their homes, much like crystal meth [sources: CNN; Haiken; Olives et al.].

Users commonly sniff, snort or inject bath salts, or swallow them wrapped in paper "bombs," although smoking is not unheard of. Snorting and shooting appear to produce the most severe effects. People who take bath salts -- including an alarming number of kids and teens, whose brains are still developing -- report highs akin to cocaine, LSD and meth; doctors describe the negative effects as combining the worst aspects of all three [sources: DEA; Goodnough and Zezima; Harris; Volkow].

Before an emergency measure by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) made the drug's key ingredients illegal in the country, users could obtain bath salts at convenience stores, gas stations or head shops, buy them at dance clubs, raves and concerts, or acquire them from street pushers for about $25-$50 per 50 milligrams. And, of course, there's still the Internet [sources: DEA; Goodnough and Zezima; Haiken; Harris; Olives et al.].

Bath salts exemplify the challenges that synthetic drugs pose to lawmakers, police officers, emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and doctors, as well as the dangers they present to users. Because they were not initially developed as pharmaceuticals, the data describing their effects or interactions with other substances is still growing. Moreover, no general test can detect every synthetic drug, but tests have emerged that can screen for some of the most common compounds found in these synthetic stimulants [sources: Ameritox, AP; Fuentes; Hiaasen and Green].

The legalities surrounding synthetic drugs are similarly complicated. A chemical substance is not "born" illegal, so there's little to prevent its possession, distribution or use until the government institutes a ban. Synthetic marijuana (aka spice), which also brought numerous health crises into emergency rooms, was legal in America until the U.S. DEA used its emergency powers to ban five of its constituent chemicals [sources: DEA; Fuentes].

There are limits, of course. Even before the United Kingdom passed an act of Parliament outlawing key components of bath salts, its authorities could still have prosecuted people for peddling, providing or promoting the substances for human use, which is against the law under the 1968 Medicines Act. To get around this, producers labeled their packages as "plant food" and "not for human consumption," a practice that continues to this day [sources: BBC; Medicines Act; Reed].

So much for better living through chemistry.