The Science and tragedy of "Bath Salts"

At PBS NewsHour, Jenny Marder has a truly epic report on so-called "bath salts," a term commonly used to refer to a variable cocktail of drugs linked to a number of violent episodes throughout the US. Her investigative feauture is the most extensive and authoritative I've seen on the topic, a long read full of the stuff that makes great reporting great: nitty-gritty chemistry mysteries, personal stories about the people who use the drug, and big-picture questions about why the stuff is so widely available, and why it seems to be so destructive. Don't miss the slide shows and video that accompany the beautifully laid-out feature. There's even an instructional animated gif!

Users are often hyper-agitated, hot and sweating, she said. Their heart rate is dangerously high, their blood pressure is up, and seizures are common. Often even high doses of common sedatives don't help them. Doctors instead must turn to antipsychotics or other powerful medications.

Early on, doctors began noticing something else that was strange. Compared with other drugs, bath salts didn't follow a normal dose-response pattern. With cocaine or methamphetamine, the drug entered the bloodstream, and, within hours, began to wear off. Not so for bath salts. “Some patients were in the hospital for 5 days, 10 days, 14 days,” Ryan said. “In some cases, they were under heavy sedation. As you try to taper off the sedation, the paranoia came back and the delusions."

As Ryan was scrambling to grasp the scope of the problem in Louisiana, scientists 1,000 miles away were beginning to tease out the drug's chemistry. What was it about this substance, they wondered, that could make a man cut his own throat or a mother leave her 2-year-old in the middle of a highway?

Read: "Bath Salts: The Drug That Never Lets Go" (

(Disclosure: I've worked with Jenny before, on PBS Newshour stories with science correspondent Miles O'Brien).


  1. I’ll admit, that confused the hell out of me.

    I was wondering why my bath salts weren’t anywhere near as interesting as what was being described. :D

    1. The real victims are the people who buy this stuff and end up having a series of disappointingly unfragrant baths.

      1. At a truck stop in Green River, Utah, I impulse bought what I thought was just a cool mini-blowtorch butane lighter (I don’t even smoke). I later learned it was a style often used by meth heads so I threw it away rather than risk questions from the constabulary.

        So I could totally see myself impulse buying “bath salts” and dumping them in the tub if I didn’t know what they really were.

        1. I bought one of those in California in a hardware store, in a town with Very few if any meth-heads. I just thought it was a cool way of lighting candles, especially ones with sunken wicks. Now I can’t find a replacement where I live.

      2.  I’m still waiting for an out-of-town undercover officer on vacation from a Red State to kick in the windows of a Caswell-Massey shop in Manhattan and try to bust the entire staff for posession…

  2. Don’t have time to follow the linked video, but are ‘bath salts’ much like the drug called ‘cake’?

    1. It never caused me any paranoia or delusions, but I can’t get enough of that buttercream frosting.
      I hear bad things about fondant though.  Flesh necrotizing on the bone, gangrene.  Also delusions of granduer and psycosis that can lead to extraordinarily overwrought cakes that you can barely even eat.

      1.  No, cake specifically targets the fat cells of the human body, especially those around the stomach, buttocks, and thighs.  It is insidiously packaged in delicious varieties such as chocolate, vanilla, lemon, and in an especially sneaky form emerging from the American South, Red Velvet. 

        Cake is so addictive that eating just one high-grade slice of cake can lead to the urge to eat the entire cake, leading to feelings of bloatedness and sleepiness.

        Lately, cake dealers have been targeting children in a new campaign by increasing their supply of  miniature cakes, known as “cupcakes” (or “fairy cakes” in the UK).  This especially harmful form of cake has a higher frosting-to-dough ratio, making  them even more addictive than the full-sized item.  Also, as a standard “hit” is generally one cake, truly addicted users may lose track of how many cupcakes they have eaten.  Additionally, as vendors of cupcakes can carry many different varieties (or “flavors” in street parlance), a user may be tempted to try all the varieties available, leading to cake OD faster than if presented with a single-variety whole cake.

        Stop this menace now, just say NO to cake!

  3. Unfortunately, all of these adverse reactions where also attributed to marijuana by idiot drug warriors and are now objects of camp humour.  So the reaction of those at risk will be “Of course the government says that it will turn you into a homicidal maniac: they say that about *every* drug whose manufacturer doesn’t make large campaign contributions.”  There’s probably a lot of QA differences in any underground drug too so maybe the  Louisiana problems don’t appear elsewhere.

    1. I agree that thsis a big problem. In the UK we have some kind of group called FRANK, some government scheme no doubt.

      Their primary purpose seems to be to exaggerate the risks and effects of cannabis to the extent that anyone with any experience of the drug immediately knows that they’re lying out of their ass. BAM, there’s a whole new group of teens that don’t trust drug advice.

      The thing is, there are dangerous drugs, but if groups like this insist on making shit up about drugs that aren’t harmful then they’re basically just crying wolf.

      1.  Yep, I’ve had serious debates about the more potent hallucinogens with friends of mine, arguing that even if things like pot and MDMA were legalized, certain things, like peyote, should be regulated as medicine instead of treated as a ‘fun way to blow off a night’.

        In the right situation, with the right guide, peyote is a powerful medicine. Without that guide, it can really mess you up, and a sane drug policy would make sure we had centers and licensing for peyote therapists, making sure it’s safe and the people using it are cared for.

        But instead, we have a banhammer, and we keep using it, instead of making a distinction between intoxicants, way-powerful but safe with supervision, and ‘stupid as hell, don’t touch it or you’ll do damage to yourself’…

      2. That’s like the DARE program in America, which I went through at two different middle schools in my youth. The points that I recall most were the scare-mongering remarks from the DARE officer like: “Some people die the first time they try cocaine!” “Marijuana has made people so paranoid that they jump out of windows to their deaths!” Of course there was no citation of when these events occurred, under what circumstances, and the statistics on how frequently these events happen.

        The result: I knew more about drugs than I would have when I finally decided to experiment with them, I learned marijuana is interesting, but nothing I’d want to do often, and just a fad in high school and college for most people I knew.

        Experimenting with drugs kept me off drugs more effectively than scare tactics from a propaganda machine.

          1. Was she confusing DARE with Dungeons and Dragons?

            I never understood the cognitive dissonance of the moral prohibition against role-playing something that isn’t real like magic spells and mythical creatures when playing actual aggressive, violent sports is strongly encouraged as a healthy alternative.

            It’s a moral crisis to pretend to kill fictional creatures with “evil” magic but it’s okay to actively try to take off someone’s head in the name of sportsmanship. You can even get a free ride in college for it!

            If I were to ever get rich, I’d start a scholarship program for role-playing and game-makers…

          2. Those Chick tracts are one of the biggest pet peeves of my conservative Christian upbringing.

            The absurdity is that Chick tracts pretend that witchcraft and magic are real and thus real threats. The reality is that American teenagers’ experience with “magic” is largely industrially mass produced Lord of the Rings tarot cards and the Celtic teen witch’s guide to love spells for high school crushes and light as a feather stiff as a board. If magic were real, more people would be publicly into it instead of these teenagers growing up into 35 year old World of Warcraft players with full time jobs in the tech industry.

      3. I recently came across the Foundation for a Drug Free World (scientological scare tactics). Frank seems like a nice boy in comparison.

        1. I especially don’t like the FRANK ads because they’re done quite well – by a decent ad agency. They’re not the typical stiff approach and so are far more approachable, and ultimately, influential. Only so much harm can be done by over reaching with fear, but its still unpleasant propaganda.

          Off to check out the scientologist approach now!

    2. And here we see the downside of attributing all sorts of evil to any and all recreational drugs: eventually one may come along that really does turn its users into raving monsters, and no one will believe the warnings.

      1. It’s interesting… I’d agree with you on principle, but my own anecdotal evidence suggests otherwise.

        All the users I know understand and differentiate between classes and risk. They all seem to agree drugs like ketamine, crack, PCP, GHB, meth in any form, and the club varieties of Ecstasy are very dangerous, and can do a lot of damage immediately. They have a high risk profile. They also know drugs like heroin, regular coke and benzos are a bit safer, but still have their own risks, and potential for addiction, as well as disease transmission.

        And everyone knows weed has very little inherent danger, but can cause or exacerbate emotional problems too.

        Maybe it’s a function of familiarity and experience. It seems logical that training people to ignore obvious fear mongering causes them to take worse chances with unfamiliar drugs. But I don’t see it happening with people I know. They all seem to know the potential for harm, but sometimes take chances anyway, for whatever reasons. usually addictive personality types who can’t stand being sober.

  4. its chilling that these drug cocktails might have permanent effects. I have never heard of a fish hook molecule before.

    I bet that sort of technology could have some real medical uses if you wanted to make a drug effect permanent (if you needed one)… Like an anti schizophrenia drug or some other drug that people need to take but might not always take on time (or might just go off of).

      1. I think the long-lasting changes caused by taking LSD are akin to the changes caused by an amazing foreign holiday, or being kidnapped and tortured (depending on how the experience goes).

          1. Heh, I also meant with regard to flashbacks.  The LSD experience (good or bad) can be intensely emotional.  It’s not surprising for those experiences to have long-term consequences – elements of psychosis or something like PTSD.

            My point is that thinking in psychological terms is probably the way to explain these phenomena, just as with depression, schizophrenia etc.  Biochemical explanations are often bunk – I’ll leave you to ponder the case of “tianeptine”.  It’s an antidepressant which is as effective as SSRIs, but which is an SSRE (i.e. reduces serotonin levels).

      2.  I’ve smoked a lot of pot  in my years (though none in the last five or so), taken Ecstasy, and tried LSD twice. The only drug that had a lasting effect on me was one prescribed by a doctor. Paxil. I took my last pill sometime in 2004 and still have something I now realize might be Tardive dyskinesias. I took the drug for about one year. Now I have an involuntary facial tick that gets worse with stress and as it’s been 8 years now, has no signs of subsiding.

    1. Black pig’s tails and fish hooks swirling into the air below.
      A portent so bleak the horses bow their heads.
      The men can no longer look at each other.

  5. It’s still not as bad as Krokodil.

    But, hey, what do you expect? ‘Drugs’ are deemed legal or illegal in the US by their chemical structure, not what they do or even by class; each and every individual molecule as a whole is evaluated. So as soon as the DEA brands substance X as illegal, the parties responsible for its manufacture simply tweak the structure a little. Maybe they replace a Hydrogen with a Hydroxide or swap out an Amide or so on, and the new version, X.2 is legal and back on sale. There are numerous problems with this approach, not the least of which is that there’s no testing to ensure a high without going nuts. Then there’s questions purity, dosage, and actual effect (all of which falls under QA/QC, I guess).

    Now, why do the drugs persist in the body for so long? Well, that’s just biology. Enzymes work off of shape and charge, primarily shape. If you alter even a single functional group (hell, sometimes even replace a single atom in a chain) then the enzyme can’t bind as efficiently (if at all), which means it can’t metabolize the compound, and so the drug hangs around longer and you’re high out of your mind for days.

    I’ve also heard that this particular class of drugs is kinda rough on the user to start with, but that’s a different argument.

    *EDIT* – Can we please just make weed legal already so people can get pleasantly high and not commit suicide or tear each others’ faces off?

  6. In fairness, some of the “links” to violent episodes have turned out to be pure uninformed speculation – particularly the “face eating” incident, where the link (widely reported as fact by mainstream media) all traced back to one idle speculation by a police union representative, who had no connection whatever to the case. In the end, the toxicology report found there was no indication of taking ‘bath salts’.

    1. The latest article I read about that case indicated that the guy had just *stopped* smoking pot, which he was using to control his psychiatric symptoms.

    2. You’re correct. The zombie joke is funny, but most people seem to forget that “bath salts” had nothing to do with that case.

      I’ve done these “bath salts” (MDPV and mephedrone) a few times. I didn’t take them because I have no access to other drugs (they’ve never even been sold in stores where I live); I’ve taken a wide variety of drugs, everything from your basic MDMA, ketamine and coke to things like 5-MeO-DMT and methoxetamine. The thing is, as shitty as the media makes these drugs seem like, a lot of people really do like them. I personally didn’t care for mephedrone and thought that MDPV was alright, but I know several people, long-time users, who have just outright named MDPV as the best drug out there and started using it regularly. So it is not just a fad among stupid, desperate teens.

      As for whether MDPV is truly more dangerous than other, similar stimulants.. I don’t know. Drug-induced psychosis is not uncommon and it’s usually triggered when people binge on stimulants and then stay awake for days. It’s possible that these “bath salts” just seem more dangerous because they are new, mysterious and make the headlines much easier than meth or coke, which are old news. I’m not denying the possibility that MDPV (or mephredone, for that matter) could cause some actual damage though, but I’m not going to draw any conclusions before actual studies are done. One thing is certain, though; MDPV is highly addictive.

      The thing is, there is a whole world of so called “designer drugs” out there, mostly stimulants and psychedelics. They’re all different and all work differently; just because they are new doesn’t mean they’re automatically shit. If only they weren’t instantly banned so we could actually learn how they work. Some of them are certainly dangerous, but many could be safer alternatives to the drugs we already know (like methoxetamine to ketamine). Now it’s up to the users to be the guinea pigs.

  7. I always feel like I’m stuck in a political commercial on an election year when I hear this debate.  All sound bites, no real details.  “It will create jobs!” “It’s a gateway to more illicit substances!”  “Think of the tax windfall!” “What will cartels do?” “What will politicians do?”  Are there actual plans and studies by independent third parties around on the subject?

    Hearing the drug debate over and over again always gets me thinking about the logistics of regulation and enforcement.  If selected drugs were to be legalized federally, how would that be regulated, what constitutes abuse, and how is non-compliance with regulation enforced?

    Not looking for more walls of text here, just links.  Show an undecided the evidence and real plans.

    1. You make a good point. I think I will have a smoke and a beer while I think about how to regulate and control a substance…

      1. Sure, we could emulate existing regulatory structures.  But do we take the prescriptive/dispensary approach or a taxed good approach as with alcohol and tobacco?

        Are the current models effective?  Why or why not? 

  8. “What was it about this substance, they wondered, that could make a man cut his own throat or a mother leave her 2-year-old in the middle of a highway?”

    Probably the same thing that makes LSD, PCP, 2C-whatever, weed, shrooms, DMT, DXM, etc. users do that stuff: fearmongering by people who want to get reelected or expand their police budgets.

  9. “It’s so hard to understand how something sold over the counter can result in death”
    Unlike alcohol, tobacco, aspirin, ibuprofen, tylenol, etc.

    Not to mention fast food, cars, guns, soda, cell phones, swimming pools, fireworks, etc.

  10. I would like to know more about this:

    1) What in bath salts gets one “high”?

    2) How does one take bath salts – smoke them?

    NVM – read the article.

  11. Fuckin’ MDPV. Nasty shit. And if it’s it’s psycho cousin Napthylpyrovalerone, it’s even worse. Fuck, no. And I like weird new drugs.

  12. ” At the time of his death, he was in a drug program for marijuana abuse, actively attending group meetings and undergoing frequent drug tests. He was told that the drug was legal, a great high and wouldn’t show up on a drug test.”

    So what I’m seeing here is that the court-mandated marijuana “abuse” program is what forced him into trying bath salts.  Had he been allowed to smoke pot like a normal person and didn’t have to dodge unnecessary drug tests, he likely would still be alive today.  Thanks, war on drugs!

    1.  Seriously. That’s what bothers me so much about those type of programs. They could still say smoking marijuana isn’t good or healthy (debatable), or isn’t legal (because it isn’t), but the least they could do is give some scale. Like, smoking weed is not as bad as snorting a bunch of synthetic chemicals. He was so worried about a test for a nigh-harmless substance he turned to something else. Not to mention marijuana would show up but hey, maybe drugs that leave your urine/bloodstream faster, which are pretty much the harder ones, you could do! Ughh.

  13. Part of the problem stems not from the fact that this stuff is legal but that its manufacturers assume it won’t be for long.  With this in mind they avoid labeling its contents, they change ingredients or dosage without changing packaging, and the result is the same crapshoot one normally expects with street drugs. A quick scan through the relevant message boards shows that MDPV has been available for quite some time in the “research chemical” community, except these users purchased directly from labs who were careful about quantity, purity, etc. And there don’t seem to be any reports of mass psychosis among the crowd who experimented with it knowing what constituted a reasonable dose. True, these folks pride themselves on a patina of scientific rigor unlikely to be found in someone’s black-light basement, but it does provide evidence that knowledge is always a good thing.

    While the article is a little unclear (the quoted researcher doesn’t claim MDPV causes any kind of “permanent” state but the article seems to) reading between the lines I think the problem might be dosage.  If  the contents of a package can range from 50 to 2000 mg surely this explains the wide range of reported effects.  Imagine if a single light beer could contain anything from 1% alcohol to 80% alcohol – in this context beer would have to be labeled “The unpredictable scourge that causes no more than a slight euphoria in some, but instant death in others!”

  14. Oddly they show a molecule that is in no way like methylenedioxypyrovalerone – it doesn’t even have the oxygen or the carbon chain. I guess it’s just meant to be a divider, not illustration, but it seems confusing for an article that talks about its shape!

    The internet offers this instead:

    1.  There’s plenty of shonky suppliers from China (viz. Eric Chang), selling whatever they like as whatever they want it to be. I’ve had (real) Naphyrone, and wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. It’s the kind of shit suited to nothing but torturing prisoners. Hideous substance.

  15. Attention… The National Geographic company produced a 2 Season Documentary called Drugs Inc.
    The final episode is called Designer Drugs… It give a much better account then this report and introduces you to the orginators of this “drug craze” who invented a “safe” drug which was regulated to what we have toady.

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