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How Bath Salts Work

A Brief History of Bath Salts

Synthetic cathinones were first cooked up in France in the 1920s, after which the drug slumbered in obscurity until an underground chemist rediscovered it and published the recipe on the Web. The Web site was shut down in 2004, but not before khat-like substances entered the Israeli scene as the drug hagigat. No sooner had the Israeli government banned hagigat than manufacturers tweaked the formula and began peddling it under different names [source: Even; Haiken].

For those who struggle to understand, treat and contain synthetic drugs, such alterations constitute an all-too-familiar problem: Depending on a country's regulations, a small alteration in an illicit drug's chemical formula can suffice to break the law's hold over it [sources: Hayes; Rahman].

Mephedrone, the primary active ingredient in bath salts, entered the British club drug scene in early 2010 and soon rose to a popularity on par with cocaine, ecstasy and ketamine [sources: DEA; Goodnough and Zezima; Olives]. Users, who usually snorted the fine off-white powder, described its effects as a combination of cocaine and ecstasy, saying it made them feel more alert, confident and talkative. Its mental and physical effects closely resembled those of bath salts [sources: DEA; Reed].

Bath salts entered the British and American drugs scenes in 2010; by 2011, sales were booming. Poison control centers nationwide fielded 3,470 bath salts calls from January through June of that year, more than 10 times the previous year's total [source: Goodnough and Zezima]. The nightly news soon began reporting on frightening encounters with police, and hospitals and physicians were overwhelmed by troubling cases. By July 2011, 28 states had banned bath salts.

In October 2011, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration exercised its emergency authority to classify mephedrone, MDPV and methylone as controlled, schedule 1 substances, thereby making it illegal to sell them or anything made of them (sidebar). That same year, bath salts were associated with nearly 23,000 visits to U.S. emergency rooms (out of 2.5 million total that dealt with drug misuse/abuse. In July 2012, U.S. President Obama signed a federal ban on several synthetic drugs, and bath salts were one of them [sources: DEA; Harris; Hayes; Olives; Rahman,; Preidt].

Will it matter? Britain's earlier ban on mephedrone appears to have done little to stem the tide, and might simply have forced users to turns to less reliable sources, such as street dealers or Internet peddlers. A survey conducted three months after the ban revealed that two-thirds of users continued using the drug [sources: Olives; Winstock].