After decades of misguided hysteria, the War on Drugs may have an epidemic worth freaking out about, and it’s spreading across state and demographic lines at the speed of the Internet. Natasha Vargas-Cooper travels the country to uncover the way-less-glamorous-than-it-sounds world of bath salts, which has already come to a strip mall near you.
About two years ago, bath salts — a lab-brewed drug that unpredictably mimics a freakish combination of coke, meth, and Ecstasy — suddenly popped into public consciousness with a rat-tat-tat of reports from emergency rooms and law-enforcement officials that sounded like the stuff of a D.A.R.E. officer’s most florid nightmare. By most accounts, the drug — then legal — first surfaced in Louisiana in mid-2010, quickly moved through the South, and then spread out in all directions. It was, in fact, in Louisiana where one of the first Code Red warnings about bath salts emerged, when a user lost her arm and part of her shoulder after she shot herself up and sparked a flesh-eating bacteria.
Not all drugs are created equal. Unlike, say, meth, bath salts transcend class. They most often establish a beachhead in college towns where head shops tend to cluster. To generalize, there are two types of users: college-age kids who want to get high without engaging in criminal activity and just plain drug addicts looking for a hassle-free fix.
In some sense, bath salts are an exercise in decriminalization. Buying drugs, especially hard narcotics, is often a seedy experience: You have to go to dangerous areas to obtain them, make the transaction with active, often violent, criminals, and then sweat at stoplights, hoping to make it back home without a felony possession charge. But the way the synthetic drug market currently exists, you can walk into a climate-controlled shop, slide your ATM card under the glass, and walk out. Or you can skip all that and just order online. The casualness of the purchase, the sterilization of the exchange, is part of what makes bath salts so pernicious and appealing. And the ease with which key chemical compounds can be disseminated, and thus adjusted to stay one step ahead of the law, ensures that the drug stays decriminalized.
The last four decades have seen plenty of whipped-up hysteria about various fad intoxicants of the moment. But the fear generated by bath salts seems well earned. Dr. Mark Ryan, director at the Louisiana Poison Center, called bath salts “the worst drug” he has seen in his 20 years there. “With LSD, you might see pink elephants, but with this drug, you see demons, aliens, extreme paranoia, heart attacks, and superhuman strength like Superman,” Ryan has said. “If you had a reaction, it was a bad reaction.”
Starting in late 2010, an influx of violent, irrational, self-destructive users began to congest hospital ERs throughout the States. A 19-year-old West Virginia man claimed he was high on bath salts when he stabbed his neighbor’s pygmy goat while wearing women’s underwear; a Mississippi man skinned himself alive while under the influence. Users staggered in, or were carried in, consumed by extreme panic, tachycardia, deep paranoia, and heart-attack symptoms. (Perhaps the most infamous incident tied to bath salts is Rudy Eugene’s horrific naked face-eating attack in Miami in May, although conclusive toxicology reports have yet to be released; still, the fact that this feels like the closest thing to a credible explanation for chewing a homeless man’s head for 18 minutes speaks volumes about the drug’s reputation.)
Because the chemicals most often found in bath salts — mephedrone, methylenedioxypyrovalerone, and methylone — were not outlawed initially, a nearly year-and-a-half period ensued where, to the horror of law enforcement, salts were sold legally and widely, not only in head shops, but in gas stations and convenience stores all over the U.S. In 2010, 304 calls were made to poison control centers nationwide regarding bath salts. A year later, the calls skyrocketed to 6,138.