Bath Salts and Teens: The Cold Hard Facts

In June 2012, Americans from coast to coast were shocked by a story about a vicious attack launched against a homeless man alongside a Miami highway. The perpetrator of this crime chewed off most of his victim’s face, and when ordered by police to stop his assault, he only growled and bared his teeth, forcing the officers to shoot him to death in order to save the other man’s life. Eventually, reports leaked claiming that the so-called “Causeway Cannibal,” identified as 31-year-old Rudy Eugene, was under the influence of a designer drug known as bath salts at the time of his psychotic episode. At that time, bath salts were legally available in gas stations, head shops and online, sold under such innocuous-sounding names as Bliss, Blue Silk, Cloud Nine, Ivory Wave, Ocean Burst, Vanilla Sky and White Knight. They were labeled “not fit for human consumption,” but this was only a ruse designed to elude legal restrictions. The people purchasing these white-powdered products were snorting, smoking or injecting them to get high, and no one selling these drugs had any illusions about what they were peddling. Because drug criminalization tends to take place on a piecemeal basis—one drug at a time—the makers of designer drugs try to stay one step ahead of the law by modifying their formulas repeatedly. This tactic for evasion became much more difficult for the bath salt industry following the 2012 cannibal attack, the fallout from which ultimately led to bath salts being outlawed at the federal level and in virtually every state. But bath salts are still around online where the rules are hard to enforce, reformulated and sometimes relabeled as plant food, insect repellent or herbal remedies. The world of designer drugs is an amorphous and ambiguous one, and there is nothing to indicate that bath salt chemical concoctions have gone out of style or out of circulation, despite the intense publicity and prohibitory legislation that followed on the heels of their rise to notoriety. It was eventually revealed that the Causeway Cannibal had not been taking bath salts at all, but only had marijuana in his system at the time of his violent outburst. Many other lurid tales told about the drug—how it has turned people into zombies, maniacs, vampires, murderers and so on—have also turned out to be urban legends, as it appears lack of knowledge about what bath salts really are has helped feed a hysteria that is not completely based on reality. This is an unfortunate development, because excessive fear mongering about drugs has a tendency to cause cynicism and mistrust once the truth comes out. When people (adolescents in particular) come to realize they’ve been lied to, or fed exaggerations, it works to discredit the anti-drug message while giving the demonized drug a “chic” factor that it would have otherwise lacked. Bath salts are made from synthetic versions of a drug called cathinone, a stimulant with an amphetamine-like ability to turbocharge the brain and send users into fits of delirious euphoria. Bath salts ramp up production of the pleasure-causing neurotransmitter dopamine, flooding the brain much in the same way a hit of cocaine would—except the drugs used in bath salts are up to 10 times as potent as cocaine. Some bath salt ingredients also mimic the effects of LSD or Ecstasy, causing hallucinations by boosting the brain’s manufacture of another neurotransmitter called serotonin. With such potent effects, it is not hard to see why bath salts are considered highly addictive, and why they have the ability to produce extreme reactions in some users. Bath salts haven’t been studied extensively (another reason misinformation about them has flourished), but based on medical reports it appears the list of side effects they can cause includes high blood pressure, racing heart rate, chest pain, panic attacks, paranoia, extreme agitation, suicide, violent behavior and sudden death. The chemicals in bath salts can also bring on a tumultuous medical condition called excited delirium, which is marked by hyper-anxiety, disorientation, serial hallucination, dehydration, breakdown of skeletal tissue and kidney failure. While none of this amounts to a zombie apocalypse, bath salts are still troubling and dangerous—exaggerations notwithstanding.

Teen Bath Salt Abuse by the Numbers

Thankfully, teen abuse of bath salts is not a major problem. A few thousand trips to emergency rooms and calls to poison control centers are being recorded annually in connection with synthetic cathinone consumption, but this number is miniscule compared to other illicit substances and teens are not over-represented among this unfortunate group of sufferers. The government’s Monitoring the Future project, which is dedicated to studying youth drug abuse trends, only began collecting statistics on bath salts in 2012, after the flurry of publicity that brought these substances to the media’s attention. At that time, yearly usage rates were at 0.8 percent for 8th graders, 0.6 percent for 10th graders and 1.3 percent for 12th graders, and in the following year, overall consumption rose only slightly for the former two categories while dropping 30 percent for the latter. These rates are surprisingly low given the hype connected to the bath salt phenomenon, but Monitoring the Future researchers discovered that fear of bath salts’ side effects were substantial even among the usually daring teen crowd.

Telling the Truth About Bath Salts

Bath salts are dangerous, addictive and bad news all the way around, but there is legitimate concern that teen cynicism will be triggered once kids realize synthetic cathinones won’t turn them into face-eating monsters. The good news is that treatment for bath salt addiction is effective, and teens who get involved with them can overcome dependency with the help of trained professionals. But as long as these products remain available on the black market, or on the fringes of legitimate business, they will represent a threat to the health and safety of teens everywhere.  

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