Space & Innovation

Designer Drug Behind Rash of Deaths

A new stimulant drug that people are calling "bath salts" can have devastating effects.

A new, powerful designer drug gets its name from bath salts. Photo by SuperFantastic/ An increasingly popular designer drug has left some users injured and others dead. The highly stimulating substances, legal in some states, called bath salts, are believed to be the cause of a rash of recent deaths.

Bath salts are man-made stimulant drugs that resemble scented bath powders and sometimes plant products. Bath salts stuck as a name and the drugs can be smoked, snorted or injected. Sellers also call them names such as "Vanilla Sky," "Blue Silk" and "Ivory Wave."

Costing as little as $25 for a 50mg packet the drugs are available in some convenience stores or online. At least 28 states have banned bath salts. The drugs are labeled "not for human consumption," which helps them skirt laws.

Marketed, sometimes as plant food, the drugs hardly maintain a disguise. Giving hints for users, the label for "Frog-e Magic Plant Food" (see photo below) states that the product will "enhance your plant's health and happiness," but "...plants like people can overdose on a good thing." If you substitute the word "plant" for "human," it's more clear why only people 18 and older can buy this product.

So what happens when someone consumes or injects bath salts?

The drug has not been studied extensively yet, but doctors recognize signs similar to what's produced by a compound found in khat, a stimulating plant illegal in the United States. Most "bath salts" are thought to consist of methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV) and mephedrone, both illegal and closely resembling other schedule I hallucinogens. Tests in mice show that MDPV increases dopamine, but not as much as methamphetamines.

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Within minutes of using the drugs, a person's heart rate will spike and he or she may seem agitated, delusional or suicidal. Like other hallucinogens, the drug may result in more serious mental health episodes and extreme paranoia.

Doctors say the drugs can create long-lasting problems for users, according to a New York Times article. In cases observed in emergency departments, large doses of sedatives can't bring some patients down from their high. As of March 2011, the U.S. Poison Centers has received roughly 1,500 calls concerning bath salts, labeling the drugs' toxic effects akin to poisoning.

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One account in a Los Angeles Times article details a father who noticed his son behaving strangely after reportedly using bath salts. His son not only exhibited signs of psychosis, but he also injured himself and was found dead with a gun by his side. Officials suspect he committed suicide.

It's unfair to say all users exhibit these dangerous side effects, but authorities are taking the issue seriously to reduce accidental deaths.

The Drug Enforcement Administration hasn't issued a ban on the drugs, but a handful of states have made them illegal. Other areas in Australia and Europe have struggled more with the drug, according to a U.S. Office of Diversion Control factsheet.

The consensus is these drugs have the potential to do most users more harm than good. For more information about seeking help for substance abuse, check out the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration list of resources.

Second photo of bath salts drug packet by 666isMONEY ☮ ♥ & ☠/