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Illegal drugs now used almost as often as methamphetamines and molly (molecular MDMA), "bath salts" are a designer drug that lawmakers find impossible to control, despite their potentially deadly side effects.

Doctors all over the United States are scrambling for ways to treat the unusually long-lasting and severe side effects of a new recreational drug commonly called bath salts, looking like the household product of the same name.

Many users of bath salts suffer violent, psychotic reactions to the drugs, which have other effects similar to methamphetamines and cocaine.

What Are Bath Salts?

Typically available as tablets that are swallowed or as powders that can be smoked or snorted or mixed with water for injection, bath salts are synthetic stimulants made usually made in illegal labs. Most often containing the chemical mephedrone, bath salts are known by a variety of street names, including arctic blast, ivory snow, loco-motion, vanilla sky, white knight, and white rush. Typically street dealers and head shops sell 50-mg packets of the drug for $25 to $50.

Bath salts have been around in Detroit since the early 1990's, but they only became common in the rest of the US and in Canada and the UK about 2010.

What Do Bath Salts Do?

Most users of bath salts report that they get a high similar to cocaine, ecstasy, or molly from the use of the drug. From a pharmacological point of view, bath salts are a sympathomimetic, meaning they stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, the part of the nervous system that is involved in "fight or flight" reactions. By stimulating the sympathetic nervous system, bath salts constrict the pupils, raise blood pressure, increase the strength of each heart beat and accelerate the pulse, and slow down the passage of food through the digestive tract.

Like other sympatomimetics, bath salts can hasten ejaculation from males during sexual intercourse. Many men who use the drug take it so they can attempt intercourse again and again while on the drug.

The problem with bath salts is that some of its users become psychotic after taking the drug. The hot flashes triggered by the drug causes some to strip off their clothes and run down the street, and others to scratch their skin raw. Some users become belligerent and aggressive and have to be restrained, even put under general anesthesia, until they calm down.

What Is the Downside of Using Bath Salts?

Bath salts got the attention of public health officials in March of 2011, after a four-month period during whch 35 users of bath salts wound up in emergency rooms in Michigan alone. Of the 35 users whose reactions were bad enough to require emergency room treatment, 17 had to be admitted to psychiatric wards, and one was dead on arrival.

Not everyone who uses the drug has to go to the hospital, but many users experience overstimulation of the "fight or flight" functions of the central nervous system.

The drug can cause pounding heartbeat, wheezing, asthma attacks so violent that ribs are cracked, fever, and chest pain. Heat exhaustion may quickly occur when the drug is used in overheated clubs or outdoors on hot summer nights. Although users who die of the drug typically already had severe atherosclerosis, the drug can cause heart attack and stroke even in teens and young adults.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Goodnough A., Zezima K. An Alarming New Stimulant, Legal in Many States. New York Times. 16 July 2011.
  • Wood DM, Davies S, Greene SL, Button J, Holt DW, Ramsey J, et al. Case series of individuals with analytically confirmed acute mephedrone toxicity. Clin Toxicol (Phila). Nov 2010. 48(9):924-7.
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