On Saturday The New York Times finally noticed the quasi-legal speed substitutes sold as "bath salts," just in time to fan the hysteria before these products are completely banned. Under the headline "An Alarming New Stimulant, Legal in Many States," Abby Goodnough and Kate Zezima report that "bath salts," which contain stimulants such as methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV) and mephedrone (a.k.a. 4-methylmethcathinone), make people "so agitated, violent and psychotic that a small army of medical workers [are] needed to hold them down." Other examples that Goodnough and Zezima offer to illustrate the drugs' effects: "a man in Indiana who climbed a roadside flagpole and jumped into traffic, a man in Pennsylvania who broke into a monastery and stabbed a priest, and a woman in West Virginia who scratched herself 'to pieces' over several days because she thought there was something under her skin." They also quote the Pottsville, Pennsylvania, police chief, who recalls "two instances in particular where they were acting out in a very violent manner and they were Tasered and it had no effect." He says "one was only a small female, but it took four officers to hold her down, along with two orderlies."
Goodnough and Zezima liken "bath salts"—which remain legal (though not for human consumption) in a dozen states and have not yet been banned by the federal government—to PCP. The comparison is apt, but not in the way they think. In the 1970s and '80s PCP (phencyclidine) was widely reputed to transform ordinary, mild-mannered people into raging Incredible Hulks with superhuman strength who were amazingly resistant to police restraint. (Similar things were said about cocaine in the early 20th century, marijuana in the 1920s and '30s, and crack in the 1980s and '90s.) But in a 1988 review of 350 journal articles on PCP in humans, the psychiatrist Martin Brecher and his colleagues found scant evidence for "the assumption that [PCP] provokes violent behavior in humans with predictable regularity." Writing in the Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology, Brecher et al. noted that high doses of PCP can produce "severe agitation and hyperactivity," coupled with "cognitive disorganization, disorientation, hallucinations, and paranoia." Combined with the drug's anesthetic effect, which makes users less sensitive to pain and therefore harder to restrain, such acute reactions contributed to PCP's scary reputation. Yet in their search of the literature, Brecher and his coauthors found only three documented cases in which people under the influence of PCP alone had committed acts of violence. They also noted that between 1959 and 1965, when PCP was tested as a human anesthetic, it was given to hundreds of patients, but "not a single case of violence was reported." They concluded that "PCP does not live up to its reputation as a violence-inducing drug."
The point is not that no one ever behaves in the manner described by Goodnough and Zezima after snorting, injecting, or smoking "bath salts." But it should be obvious that such reactions are far from typical; otherwise why would anyone be interested in using these products? Why would they have "grown quickly in popularity" after they "started turning up regularly in the United States last year"? It may be true, as a couple of Goodnough and Zezima's sources suggest, that "bath salts" are inferior to other drugs with which they compete. "If you take the worst attributes of meth, coke, PCP, LSD and ecstasy and put them together," says the director of the Louisiana Poison Center, "that's what we're seeing sometimes." The director of the Northern New England Poison Center concurs. "If you gave me a list of drugs that I wouldn't want to touch," she says, "this would be at the top." If so, why do we have drug laws that push people toward more dangerous, less predictable ways of altering their consciousness?
[Thanks to Max Minkoff for the tip.]