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What are ‘bath salts’?

There are so many urban myths that exist to do with drugs and drug culture. It is difficult to work out how and where many of them originated, whereas others can be pinpointed exactly, as is the case with so-called ‘bath salts’.

What is repeatedly mentioned in media stories to do with the new range of ‘legal highs’ or ‘synthetics’ is the story of a US man who reportedly stripped a homeless man naked and then attempted to chew his face off whilst under the influence of ‘bath salts’. Witnesses described the man as a “zombie” and when the police finally arrived on the scene and intervened they shot and killed him. The attack was caught on video and, not surprisingly, the media had a field day. When the story broke there had been no toxicology conducted so no-one really knew what had caused this bizarre attack but that didn’t stop the police or media from making wild claims. Nicknamed the ‘Miami Zombie’, Rudy Eugene became the poster boy for the new ‘legal high’ that was being sold as bath salts that few understood or knew very much about. There had been a number of bizarre crimes linked to the drug previously but this one was too good to miss …

When toxicology results were finally released the only substance identified in Eugene’s body was cannabis. No illicit drugs or alcohol and absolutely no bath salts! Even though the results were widely disseminated, the story of ‘the man who tried to eat someone’s face off’ continues to be mentioned in media coverage dealing with the new range of ‘synthetics’ currently available – the latest offender being the Sunday Mail last weekend (an appalling piece that discusses another bizarre incident that may be related to these products, even though no toxicology has been conducted).

To the average Australian reading stories about people using bath salts as a way to get ‘out of it’ it all must seem pretty strange – don’t you find these products sitting in your medicine cabinet? Do parents have to lock them away just in case their teenage child gets the urge to go clubbing on the weekend? A year or two ago UK parents faced a similar issue with the tabloid media reporting that ‘plant food’ or ‘fertilizer’ were being ordered online and then taken by clubbers for a drug effect. Why in heaven would anybody start using these products in this way?

Well of course they’re not. ‘Bath salts’, ‘plant food’ and even ‘swimming pool cleaner’ (another product named by the UK media) are terms used by manufacturers to disguise a whole new range of synthetic substances and sell them online and thus hopefully avoid authorities. Prior to this, these substances were often sold as ‘research chemicals’. These are a range of substances that are designed to have similar effects to illicit stimulants such as amphetamines, ecstasy and cocaine, most of which we know little, if anything, about. Plant food proved to be a drug called mephedrone and bath salts appears to be MDVP for the most part (although mephedrone has also been identified in some products, as well have some other similar compounds).

We need to be extremely careful about the warnings we issue about these drugs. We know next to nothing about them and having the media report on bizarre crimes and link them to these products without hard evidence is extremely dangerous. Young people, particularly young drug users, believe little of what authorities tell them about drugs – issuing warnings when we’re not absolutely certain of the facts is problematic. You can only ‘cry wolf’ so many times – when we have something we really need them to listen to, there is a real danger that they will completely ignore us. I am certainly not saying that these products and the compounds they contain are not dangerous – without doubt there are surely a range of risks associated with their use – but linking them to bizarre incidents without proof is not the way to go.

Let’s be honest and tell those considering using them that we know nothing about the risks involved with their use. These drugs are so new they haven’t been tested on animals, let alone humans. If you decide to use them you really are being a guinea pig for the future. Isn’t the truth scary enough?

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