In movies and TV shows, we are often shown depictions of a volatile new drug that’s wreaking havoc. In some stories, that drug changes normal people into monsters. In 2012, a real-life drug was gaining popularity in urban areas like Miami and the media declared it a “zombie drug.” The name came from a news story that covered a man that attacked and began to cannibalize his victim. Reports of violent crimes involving a substance called “bath salts” caused a small panic that this dangerous new drug might trigger some kind of zombie outbreak, a story right out of a movie.
While the media most likely went overboard with news reports, bath salts are not without significant danger. Learn more about bath salts and synthetic cathinones and how addiction to this dangerous drug can be treated.
Bath salts refer to a street name for designer drugs sold on the black market and sometimes the grey market (legally ambiguous trade). Designer drugs are synthetic versions of existing drugs created as a way to work around drug laws. The idea is to take an existing drug like MDMA (ecstasy) that has been outlawed and create a similar chemical compound that has not yet been documented and restricted. Still, it’s illegal to sell unregulated psychoactive substances so designer drugs are often sold, not as drugs, but as other products like plant food, fertilizer, or bath salts.
Bath salts can technically refer to any legally ambiguous designer drug but it most commonly refers to synthetic substances in the cathinone class of drugs. Cathinone is a naturally occurring substance found in the khat plant native to East Africa.
Cathinones are chemically similar to amphetamines and they also act as a stimulant in your brain and body. Like cocaine and methamphetamine, bath salts affect the brain by altering dopamine communication. It not only stimulates the release of dopamine but also blocks the reuptake (reabsorbing and recycling excess chemicals) of other “feel-good” chemicals like serotonin, epinephrine, and norepinephrine. This allows those chemicals to continuously and excessively bind to receptors. The result is a feeling of euphoria, strength, power, and energy. However, it can also come with unpleasant symptoms of panic, paranoia, headache, heart palpitations, and hallucinations.
It’s difficult to regulate these synthetic designer drugs because as soon as legal authorities are able to identify and regulate a chemical substance, illicit drug manufacturers can have created several more by slightly modifying the chemical structure. This also makes designer drugs incredibly dangerous. Even slight changes in a chemical can cause huge differences in the effects of the resulting drugs. There may be hundreds of variations on one type of drug, some with mild effects while others are extremely potent.
The most common cathinone found in bath salts is a substance called methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV), which a norepinephrine-dopamine reuptake inhibitor.
The drug was first developed in the 1960s but it hasn’t seen much medical use. It was relatively unknown until the mid-2000s when it began showing up as a designer party drug.
Bath salts can be snorted, injected, smoked, or injected; however, injection is the most dangerous option. Injection introduces 100 percent of the substance directly into your bloodstream. Since it’s impossible to know the proper dosage, that method of delivery is the most likely to lead to a dangerous overdose.
While there is still much to learn about the different types of synthetic cathinones that are being circulated on the streets, there is scientific evidence to suggest that bath salts can be addictive. Rat studies show that rats that are given cathinones will repeatedly and compulsively self-administer the drug. Addiction is a condition that occurs when the reward center of the brain mistakes the pleasurable effects of drugs as some kind of life-sustaining activity. Everyday occurrences can trigger the release of dopamine and other feel-good chemicals.
Though it comes with some extremely unpleasant, and sometimes dangerous, side effects, cathinones can cause intense euphoria and energy. The profound positive feeling can have a significant effect on your reward center. When a substance abuse disorder reaches your limbic system (your brain’s reward center), you will feel cravings and compulsions to continue using that get out of control.
If you’ve been using bath salts or some other type of synthetic stimulant, there are a few signs and symptoms you should be aware of that can point to an addiction. The first sign that substance use is turning into a substance use disorder is tolerance. This occurs when you start to feel diminishing effects after taking the same dose of a drug. As your brain gets used to the flood of dopamine you experience when taking bath salts, you will need heavier doses to feel the same high as when you first started.
When your brain starts to rely on the change in the chemical process that bath salts initiated, you will become dependent on the substance. Drug dependence is a problem based on neurochemical communication. The way your nervous system communicates is disrupted and changed by a chemical substance until your brain adapts and relies on that substance to maintain balance.
The disease of addiction goes beyond a chemical problem. If you become dependent on a drug, you may still be able to stop using, especially in a detox program. After an addiction sets in, you may still use despite the presence of negative consequences. Even after detox, addiction can cause cravings and compulsions to use the drug again. You may be able to recognize addiction in yourself or someone else by the following signs:
Addiction is difficult to overcome without help. If you or someone you know is suffering from addiction to bath salts, they may need help from an addiction treatment program to quit. Though it’s complicated, addiction is a treatable disease and you may be able to enter lifelong recovery.
Though bath salts are both chemically and psychologically addictive, treatment can help you achieve long-lasting abstinence and recovery. There are a variety of treatment options that can be effective for treating bath salt addiction. Depending on your specific needs, the level of care appropriate for you might vary. When you enter a treatment program, your level of care will be determined based on the criteria outlined by the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM).
The ASAM criteria look at six dimensions to determine where you should start your treatment process and how you should progress through the full continuum of care. This continuum refers to the levels of care from detox to outpatient services that you go through throughout addiction treatment. The criteria are as follows:
Intoxication and withdrawal. If you first enter a program while currently intoxicated or if you have recently stopped using, you are likely to experience withdrawal. Symptoms of withdrawal can be dangerous if they are left untreated, especially if you used nervous system depressants like alcohol or benzodiazepines.
Medical needs and conditions. If you present with injuries, diseases, or medical conditions that need immediate attention, you will need a higher level of care than someone with no co-occurring medical conditions. Addiction, especially when it involves injection and street drugs, is often associated with diseases and medical disorders that need to be addressed as a first priority.
Mental health. Emotional, behavioral, or cognitive issues can be a significant challenge in addiction treatment. Higher levels of care can help treat mental health issues during treatment.
Readiness to change. As you continue through treatment, your readiness to change should progress. Not everyone enters treatment believing they actually need addiction help. Some therapy option can help you work through the stages of change.
Relapse potential. The potential you have to keep using or relapse is an important factor in treatment that needs to be addressed. Some clients are chronic relapsers and need special provisions to avoid using after treatment.
Recovery environment. Your living environment before and after treatment is an important factor in your recovery.
The media has pointed to bath salts as a possible explanation for some violent crimes in the past decade. In some parts of the country, bath salts saw an increase in use during the 2010s. This resulted in a string of crimes relating to synthetic cathinone analogs. When violent disturbing incidents like the Miami cannibal attack occurred, law enforcement and reporters assumed that the actions were clear signs of someone under the influence of bath salts. However, toxicologists and investigators were unable to connect the drug with the crime.
Though it may not be the zombie drug the media once claimed, bath salts can be very dangerous, particularly because they are so unpredictable. Cathinones cause a profound effect on the body, releasing neurochemicals that ramp up nervous system activity. It can also cause extreme panic hallucinations. The combination of a bad trip and increased energy and excitement can be dangerous. Other hallucinogens may also decrease nervous system activity; even if they cause paranoia or panic, users are likely to stay where they are. Stimulants that cause panic and hallucinations may cause you get up and move to escape or fight a perceived threat. This can lead to violence, accidents, falls, and injuries.
Bath salts can cause a range of other adverse side effects, some of which can be medically dangerous, especially to people with other medical conditions. Bath salt side effects include:
Part of the danger of bath salts come from their unpredictability. With so many chemical variations, it’s difficult to anticipate how any given hit of bath salts will affect you. There may be yet undocumented chemical compounds for sale in illicit drug markets. At the time of the Miami incident, Al Lamberti, the Broward County sheriff pointed that investigators may not have been able to identify the drug as bath salts because the specific chemical compound had not yet been studied. That is the other danger of synthetic designer drugs. While they are intended to confound lawmakers and enforces, they also confuse doctors and emergency room staff. If you experience medical complications because of an unknown bath salt analog, your doctor may not know much about the drug that’s causing your symptoms.
Bath salts are a particularly dangerous illicit drug that can be addictive or cause some sort of substance use disorder. If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction to bath salts or any other synthetic designer drug, seeking help as soon as possible can be life-saving. Call the addiction specialists at Maryland House Detox at (888) 263-0631 to learn more about your addiction treatment options.