Ivory Wave, Vanilla Sky and Bliss may sound like products from the cosmetics aisle, but they are far from luxurious. They are street names for a dangerous drug known as "bath salts."
First appearing in the U.S. in late 2010, bath salts are a member of the "white crystal" family of designer drugs that includes crystal meth and PCP, and have quickly gained notoriety as cheap, potent, addictive, readily available and occasionally lethal. One researcher compares their impact, whether taken orally or by injection, to an amphetamine cocktail with a cocaine chaser.
"Bath salts" generally include three main components: mephedrone, methylone and MDPV, although the exact composition varies and inert ingredients are often added.
The drug is an "upper" like meth, but can cause users to become paranoid and harm themselves and those around them. In a remarkably short period of time, bath salts have left a gruesome trail of destruction and soared to the top of law enforcement priorities.
One bath-salts user in Louisiana committed suicide because he thought police were after him. Another user was found wandering the West Virginia woods in women's underwear after he stabbed a goat.
Because of the bizarre nature of the reported crime, Miami police last month at first thought suspect Rudy Eugene had abused bath salts before a cannibalistic attack on a homeless man. Toxicology reports later proved otherwise.
Lack of information
Federal regulators and law enforcement officials have been frustrated in part by the lack of information about the drug, which left bath salts readily available in convenience stores, gas stations and online. None of the standard drug-use surveys conducted in 2011 included questions about bath salts, and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the authority on drug usage trends, is not expected to release its findings until September.
"We lack sufficient data to understand the full scope of the problem," said Rafael LeMaitre, spokesman for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. "But we do know enough to know it is a big problem for the public."
So big that President Obama on Monday signed into law a broad food-and-drugs bill that includes provisions that put mephedrone and MDPV on the list of so-called "Schedule I" controlled substances, effectively making the drug illegal.
Bath salts first popped up in the U.S. in October 2010. A year later, before the federal ban, the Drug Enforcement Administration placed a one-year ban on the three main components of the drug while the Department of Health and Human Services studied its effects. During that temporary federal ban, 41 states outlawed Cathinones, a broad category of substances that includes bath salts.
In the meantime, though, the drug was not hard to find. Falsely packaged as a standard bath salt, it sells for anywhere from $15.99 per gram to $35 per gram. Often, the package lists the ingredients of regular bath salts instead of drugs, causing a headache for producers of the luxury toiletry.
However, it is distinguishable from regular bath salts by the label common across all packages marked "not for human consumption." This allows colorful and opinionated websites such as BathSaltsDrug.com and Ivory-Wave.com to sell their product without fear of any consequences, as long as there is a small disclaimer at the bottom that children under 18 are not allowed to use the website.
Meth + coke
Because the drug is so new, standard drug tests can't check urine or blood for it, making it increasingly popular with athletes, transportation workers, military personnel and anyone else who gets drug-tested regularly.
"It's certainly hot right now," DEA spokeswoman Barbara Carreno said. "Part of that is because, besides not being detectable by drug tests, it's very, very potent."
Louis J. de Felice, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University's School of Medicine, conducted one of the first studies on the drug, sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. He found that the drug causes the brain to release more dopamine, while at the same time trapping the dopamine in the brain — effects similar to both amphetamines and cocaine.
"You could probably mimic the effects of bath salts if you take amphetamines, wait 20 seconds, and then take cocaine," he said.
In the long term, though, Mr. De Felice suspects the drug may cause Parkinson's disease by killing neurons. It also affects the parts of the brain that deal with cognition and mood, which explains the suicidal tendencies officials have reported days after users take bath salts. Mr. De Felice said the drug could lead to accelerated memory loss and schizophrenia-related conditions.
Bath salts originated in China and India, where most is still produced. They were shipped to Europe until they were banned there, after which they became popular in the U.S. While the main focus for now is on stopping imports, Mr. LeMaitre said, it is only a matter of time until they are produced in the U.S.
In fiscal 2011, U.S. Customs and Border Protection seized 28 shipments of bath salts totaling 74 pounds. In the first eight months of fiscal 2012, there already have been 32 seizures totaling 70 pounds.
Most bath-salts packages contain the three main ingredients in powder form, undiluted and unmixed with each other, said William Wagner, lead chemist for the Border Protection's Laboratories and Scientific Services in Chicago.
Finding a new market
Agents seized the first package in 2008, when the drug was sprayed on plant material and sold in aluminum packets. After about a year and a half, the Border Patrol began seizing mostly pure powder on its way to an individual.
"Presumably, whoever's importing it is going to be reselling it," Mr. Wagner said.
At that point, experts suspect, other substances are added to dilute the bath salt, a common practice with other drugs.
In 2010, there were about 300 bath-salt-related calls to poison control centers across the country. By 2011, that number had risen to more than 6,000, reaching their peak in June. Based on information through April, the number of cases has receded in 2012, and are on pace for about 3,000 calls.
Because of the lack of data about the drug, calls to poison control centers are the most reliable way to track bath-salt usage, and experts cannot speculate about the patterns of those calls.
Because it is a designer drug produced in labs rather than coming from a natural source (as marijuana and heroin do), bath salts come in many varieties and often in potencies the user can't be certain of. In extremely potent forms, users can remain high for hours and feel the effects for days afterward.
It is thought to have caused a man in Canada to repeatedly slam his face into a fence and a New Jersey man to stab himself repeatedly before throwing his intestines at police.
"There's a lot of word of mouth going around on the Internet," Ms. Carreno said. "It's making people curious."
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