The tag line for a new U.S. Navy video warns, "BATH SALTS: It's not a fad...It's a NIGHTMARE." Can't it be both, like mullets or platform shoes? In fact, the video's basic credibility problem is that it presents the quasi-legal stimulants as both increasingly popular and uniformly unpleasant. The video (below) opens with a young seaman receiving a package, snorting some of the white powder it contains, and heading out to a bowling alley, puking off a bridge on the way. At the bowling alley, he punches his girlfriend in the face because she suddenly looks like a demon. He runs back to his residence, where his roommate also looks like a demon. Eventually he is taken, unconscious, to a hospital, where he is later strapped down, kicking and screaming, and injected with a large hypodermic needle. The seaman's screams fade to the calm, soothing voice of Lt. George Loeffler, a psychiatry resident at the Naval Medical Center in San Diego, who tells us:
When people are using bath salts, they're not their normal selves. They're angrier. They're erratic. They're violent. They're unpredictable. People will start acting really weird. People will start seeing things that aren't there, believing things that aren't true. Some people describe people spying on them, trying to kill them in their families. Other people talk about seeing demons and things that are trying to kill them. One of the most concerning things about bath salts is hallucinations, these paranoid delusions; they will last long after the intoxication is gone. What we found with some of our patients…is that days, if not weeks, after the last time they used bath salts, the paranoia…stick[s] around....
Physiological effects of bath salts include chest pain, high blood pressure, fast heart rate, difficulty breathing, brain swelling, seizures, something called "excitatory delirium," where people lose control, and there are a number of instances of death directly related to bath salts....
Bath salts not only will jack up your family and your career; it'll jack up your mind and your body.
As usual in anti-drug propaganda, the most extreme experiences are presented as typical, leaving the audience puzzled as to why anyone would ever try this nasty stuff. Although the drug users encountered by a hospital-based psychiatrist are hardly a representative sample, Loeffler does not hesitate to suggest that if you are stupid enough to snort bath salts, you will hallucinate, punch your girlfriend in the face, and end up strapped down in a hospital for days or weeks, raving about the dark forces out to get you. If you're lucky.
Frank Owen's experience with bath salts (specifically mephedrone, a.k.a. 4-Methylmethcathinone), which he snorted while researching his recent Playboy story about the "Miami Zombie," was somewhat different:
At first, other than a tightness in my chest and a slight numbness in my limbs, I didn’t feel anything. But then my central nervous system lit up and I became as buoyant as foam floating on the surface of a fast-moving river.
Colors became more vivid and music more distinct. It was as if I could reach out and caress the texture of the sound coming from the speakers. I felt energized yet strangely relaxed. The drug that mephedrone is most commonly compared to is ecstasy, and I definitely felt a sense of increased connectedness to the other partygoers. My wife, who refused to take bath salts, saw it differently. "If you want to fuck, let’s go home and fuck, but stop stroking me," she said. "It's really irritating."
As far as I know, Owen did not respond by punching her in the face. Mephedrone experiences described at Erowid vary widely, including good, bad, and indifferent responses, but there are more reports similar to Owen's than there are cautionary tales featuring paranoia, let alone violence or hospitalization. This is not a random sample either, but it is a more accurate reflection of reality than Loeffler's presentation, since it gives you a sense of why people might want to use a drug that supposedly ruins your mind, body, family, and career.
At one point Loeffler concedes this sort of thing does not happen to everyone who uses bath salts. "Some people may be fine after taking one," he says, "but they don't know what's going to be in that next packet....You have no idea between two packets of bath salts what compounds are in it, what concentration it is." That kind of uncertainty is a result of government policy, since these stimulants, even if they are not completely prohibited (as mephedrone and MDPV now are under federal law), cannot be legally sold for human consumption. Hence buyers face quality and consistency problems similar to those seen in a black market. Speaking of which, the rise of these products would be inexplicable were it not for the legal restrictions on more familiar stimulants such as cocaine and amphetamines. So to the extent that some of them really are less predictable or more dangerous than the banned substances for which they substitute, the government is perversely pushing drug users toward riskier behavior.