Last week, I came across news reports from neighboring Spartanburg County about two arrests. One person had been arrested for reportedly discharging a firearm into his house; the other, under unrelated circumstances, for allegedly harassing her neighbors. The common thread between these arrests was that both suspects were allegedly under the influence of the same, unusual drug at the time of their offenses: bath salts. Later in the same afternoon, a friend told me that he had recently fired an employee because she showed up to work high on — what else? — bath salts.
Now, I will be the first to admit that when it comes to being informed about trends among the drug culture, I’m not exactly on the cutting edge. First and foremost, I don’t take baths. I’m more of a shower-man myself. I’m not really familiar with bath salts, even when used as intended. So certainly, I had no idea that bath salts could be used as drugs, let alone that bath salt abuse is becoming a matter of national concern.
At first, the idea of abusing bath salts seems kind of comical. Before doing much research, I assumed that the demographic of the average bath salt abuser was a bored, suburban high schooler who had grown tired of sniffing magic markers and glue. I imagined it was inexpensive, recreational, and ultimately non-threatening. I mean, it’s bath salt. How dangerous can it be?
Turns out, my initial impression was almost dead wrong. I was right about the inexpensive part. The market rate for a hit of bath salts appears to be $20. However, by all accounts, the high is incredibly powerful, and therefore, incredibly dangerous. Common side effects include increased heart rate and blood pressure, agitation, and chest pains that mimic heart attacks. And these are the more pleasant side effects. Other common side effects include delusions, hallucinations, and extreme paranoia, all of which cause the user to experience a form of self-destructive psychosis. For example, there are reports that one user, acting under a psychotic delusion, tried to carve his own liver out of his body with a mechanical pencil. These are in addition to adverse effects to the user’s heart, brain, and kidneys.
Now before you’re tempted to clean all bath salts out of your home, here’s the good news. There are true bath salts and there are dangerous bath salts. Many bath salts are appropriate for their intended use and cannot be used as a cheap high. We’re not talking about those bath salts. By contrast, the bath salts that are the problem – which we will call “dangerous bath salts” — are not really bath salts at all. They have no effect if they’re poured into your tub and cannot be used as bath salts. In fact, in addition to being improperly marketed as “bath salts,” the very same dangerous bath salts are sold as plant food, pond scum cleaner, and insecticide (it’s not clear whether these are effective uses or just other pretexts to sell the purported bath salts for a more sinister reason). As a general rule of thumb, if you’re trying to buy real bath salts, you probably can’t buy them at any place that sells dangerous bath salts, and vice versa.
So what makes the dangerous bath salts dangerous? Typically, there are three active ingredients: (1) mephedrone; (2) pyrovalerone; and (3) methylenedioxpyrovalerone (MDPV). These stimulants share many of the same adverse side-effects as cocaine, meth, and LSD. In fact, the dangerous bath salts are generally referred to as synthetic cocaine. These sinister ingredients are not in the true bath salts.
The dangerous bath salts are also of concern because of their easy availability. It is not unusual to find the dangerous bath salts for sale at malls, convenience stores, and “modern” smoke shops (which generally sell no tobacco). And of course, the dangerous bath salts are widely available on the Internet, making their purchase very easy indeed.
The dangerous bath salts apparently burst onto the drug scene roughly seven years ago, making their first wide appearance in European clubs. More recently, as in the past two years, the dangerous bath salts have jumped the Atlantic and taken the United States by storm. States are beginning to prohibit the dangerous bath salts, to the extent they contain any of the chemicals identified above. And effective this first week of October, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration is instituting an emergency nation-wide ban on the same chemicals. Normally, I consider “I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help” to be one of the most alarming phrases in the English language. But in this case of these dangerous bath salts, government action cannot come fast enough.
As if the inherent risks presented by the dangerous bath salts are not disturbing enough, we have the audacity of the manufacturers’ marketing strategy. Many packages of the dangerous bath salts come marked with the phrase “Not Intended for Human Consumption.” It’s easy to find this warning disingenuous. Since the dangerous bath salts have no bath-related use, we must presume they are intended for consumption. Other than the disclaimer, we are not aware of any other warnings on the packaging that inform users of the foreseeable adverse side effects of ingestion, such as psychotic delusions, suicidal tendencies, or the urge to carve your vital organs out of your body, even though these side effects are well-known.
Not surprisingly, products liability litigation is beginning to spring up around the country. See, e.g., Vance v. K&B Quick Stop, Inc. et al., 11-C-32 (Lincoln County, W.V.). It should be noted that under conventional theories of product liability, it is not just the manufacturers of dangerous bath salts who can be sued; it may also be those who are involved in distribution or sales.
The manufacture and sale of the dangerous bath salts complicates the business of the legitimate bath salt industry. There may be people — kids or other risk seekers — who want to experiment with bath salts, but don’t know that there’s a difference between hygiene-related bath salt and drug-related bath salt. They may think it’s all the same. And consequently, they may want to try to ingest legitimate bath salts. The manufacturers and sellers of those salts must now be mindful of the reasonably foreseeable possibility that their products may be ingested, even though it’s not an intended use, and take precautions against that risk.
Ultimately, we are hopeful that state, local, and federal policy initiatives will stem the rising tide of bath salt drug abuse, and that the use of bath salts can be restored to its rightful and exclusive venue, in the bathroom, right next to our rubber duckies.