I think it is more an article of faith than a empirical  fact that liberalizing drug laws or legalizing certain drugs would cure a lot of our society’s ills. I say that as a person who very-much supports the idea of drug legalization, at least for pot and a few other limited drugs.

But as I watch the bath salts and fake weed controversies evolve, I wonder whether they don’t offer empirical evidence that our fantasy of legal drug Nirvana may be just that. Out of a list of reasons to legalize weed, two that jump out as the more common ones are that:

  1. Making drugs illegal doesn’t really stop people from doing them, and
  2. Illegal, unregulated drugs are inherently dangerous, because you don’t know what you’re buying

13WHAM’s Evan Dawson has a report up that shows that cracking down on the sale of synthetic, nominally legal intoxicants is having a significant impact in the Rochester area:

13WHAM News combined the number of local calls to poison control about bath salts with the number of emergency room visits related to bath salts. Here are the totals, month-by-month, which show a surge in bath salts, followed by a steep decline after the ban:

March 2012:  23
April 2012:  30
May 2012:  42
June 2012:  81
July 2012:  104
August 2012:  29
September 2012:  19
October 2012:  3

In a bubble, we had what seems to be a pretty significant problem by July, which seems to have been eliminated by October. It is impossible to tell whether this is just a fad that ran its course – perhaps sped by crackdowns – or a legitimate case for illegality as a preventative measure. Certainly, High Times and head shops have always been filled with “alternative” drugs. I can’t say I ever knew anyone who tried them. Certainly, things changed.

But the second argument – that legal drugs will be less harmful – is clearly in doubt as well. In fact, the only reason this story was ever a story is because people were getting hurt. Hurt by things sold over the counter, entirely legally.

American history prior to the passage of the 18th Amendment bares both these truths out: use of legal drugs from alcohol to cocaine and opiates was legion throughout the country. For a Rochester perspective on just how overrun our alcohol culture was in the mid-1800’s, read A Shopkeeper’s Millennium: Society and Revivals in Rochester, New York, 1815-1837. There is no credible measure by which our current levels of drug and alcohol abuse compare to those days. And because our 19th century drug and alcohol problem was as much as anything a manufacturing problem, there are numerous examples of less than ethical mixtures, including but not limited to using cocaine and opiates in just about every “curative” you could sell at the drug store.

Perhaps what this says is that “decriminalization” is less desirable than legalization – bringing illegal drugs under the same legal regime as alcohol. Anyway, just food for thought on a Thursday afternoon.

Bath salts. They’re pretty scary.

But are they quite as scary as some would have you believe? Over the years, the spread of nominally-legal drugs like those labeled “bath salts” or others that simulate the effects of marijuana have crept to near-ubiquitous popularity in head shops all over the country. All while most of us weren’t really watching. Now that the media is watching, sometimes the reports can get a bit ridiculous.

This blog is certainly not above discussing the topic. We’ve talked about fake weed, we’ve explored the common components of bath salts. And we’re not even remotely above having a little bit of fun with face-eating zombies. Still, our objective at this blog is to inform about the science behind the headlines, and I feel certain we’re not sensationalizing anything. Then, there’s this poll from Zogby:

IBOPE | Inteligência Plurality of Adults Say Law Enforcement Not Doing Enough to Combat ‘Bath Salts’ drug Craze

The poll finds 51% of US adults familiar with bath salts, and 47% unfamiliar, a third of which are not at all familiar with the drug (32%). When asked if law enforcement is doing enough to prevent the use of bath salts, 22% they were doing enough, 37% say law enforcement could do more and 41% are not sure.

Ok. Quick math… (carry the one)…

So, 59% of Americans have an opinion on a subject that only 51% of Americans say they’re familiar with? At what point do we simply discard a poll altogether? I would have thought this was it, but instead, Zogby runs with the headline, “Plurality of Adults.” And by plurality, they mean 37% of Americans – a number unlikely to win any election this side of Canada. The reality of this poll is: nearly half the country doesn’t know what the hell Zogby pollsters are talking about and somehow, six percent decided to say, “fuck it,” and render an opinion anyway.

But it drives a sense of urgency. It drives the narrative and more importantly, it drives readership. “A plurality” of your fellow citizens think this is a big deal, so you probably should, too.

Zombie stories have been all the rage for decades, dating as far back to the 1932 film, White Zombie, to the cult classic, Evil Dead, and the fairly recent soon-to-be classic, Zombieland. It should come as no surprise, then, that when the dubbed “Miami Zombie” story hit headlines, we, the general public, would naturally eat it up – pun intended?

By now, we have most likely heard many recounts of the tale many times – naked man attacks homeless man beneath a Florida causeway, devours the flesh of the homeless man’s face, barely acknowledges being shot at by police until in the end, one man is dead, and one man is alive, but without a face.

Nearly every aspect of this gruesome and unfortunate turn of events has been covered: drug abuse, synthetic legal drugs, homelessness, police brutality, even voodoo.  However, while Epsom salts may have undeservingly received a bad rep thanks to “bath salts” making a rapid advance into the common knowledge/household names realm, there’s one crucial piece to this puzzle that has somehow more or less been forgotten. What exactly are these “bath salts”, and why would they make someone act out the most terrifying of zombie tales in real life?

MDPV (short for methylenedioxypyrovalerone – cheers to acronyms!) and mephedrone are two of the main ingredients used to create bath salts. These two chemical drugs are both cathinones, forms of which are found naturally in the Catha edulis plant. Both chemicals are similar to amphetamines, and illegal in the US.

Contrary to recent popular belief, neither of these chemicals acts as a hallucinogen. Neither is there any evidence that they cause a hunger for human flesh, as is so much a part of the current memeosphere. Mephedrone is a stimulant and MDPV is both a stimulant and psychoactive drug, meaning the drug crosses the blood-brain barrier and causes changes in neurochemical function, resulting in amplifying effects on mood, thought, perception, and behavior. Who would have thought?

According to Doctor Anthony Ocon of New York Medical College,

 “These two drug components making up bath salts are thought to cause euphoria, a rush feeling, and heightened libido – those are the effects people seek them out for. However, they also cause paranoia, psychosis, erratic behavior, insomnia, memory disturbances, and resistance to pain – which could explain why the gentleman in Florida was initially unresponsive to being shot”.

These chemicals are entirely man-made, and have had cameo appearances in laboratories since the 1960s and 1920s respectively. While the  recreational use of them is something of a novel concept, their intended use when they were originally developed is actually quite mundane: MDPV and mephedrone are synthetic fertilizer additives. Clearly, our nation’s corn crop has been having a much better time of it than we might have thought!

Bath salts, improperly named and with the warning “not for human ingestion” on their packaging to bypass the FDA, are currently legal, relatively inexpensive, and conveniently sold at many stores and shops throughout the U.S. Contrast this with marijuana, which is illegal because it is clearly a much larger threat and the answer to what is wrong with our country. Bon appetit.