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].
Author's Note: How Bath Salts Work
When a new drug hits the clubs or the streets, especially one as hotly and sensationally reported as bath salts, I cannot help but be reminded of the outlandish picture "Reefer Madness"-era Hollywood painted of marijuana. Was bath salts, I wondered, an example of similarly baseless panic, or were we witnessing something truly chilling, like PCP?
It was no idle question. The popular backlash that such media campaigns often fuel can lead government agencies to overreach or overreact -- which might not sound like such a bad thing to non-drug users until they come after our coffee, cigarettes, antidepressants or cough medicine ...
Proportionality and principles aside, politically motivated bans also tend to sidestep the scientific process of determining effects and risks, as British medical journal The Lancet objected when the U.K. Parliament passed its emergency ban of mephedrone. In the case of bath salts, however, the stories rang with unnerving truth, in light of which the DEA's exercise of emergency powers seems justified.
Still, I found myself left with more questions than answers. How bad might synthetic designer drugs become? How can medical professionals deal with such extreme consequences to body and mind, and how can we control such chimeric chemistry?
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