What You Should Know About Bath Salts

Not LSD. Won't get you high enough to eat somebody's face.

With Rudy Eugene’s vicious attack last week on Miami-area homeless man Ronald Poppo making national headlines, a class of designer drugs known as “bath salts” are on their way to becoming a household name, and they’ve got little in common with your grandma’s Epsom treatments. Since police began speculating that Eugene was under the influence of bath salts during the attack, media coverage of the drug has skyrocketed—albeit with an unfortunate, misinformed and possibly detrimental connection: LSD.

According to the intrepid journalists covering the Eugene/Poppo tragedy, bath salts, which are a pseudo-legal mimic of illegal stimulants like cocaine and speed, are apparently the “new LSD,” offering users ultra-intense, drug-addled experiences that approach levels of euphoria surpassing even that of the beloved ’60s psychedelic. But let’s get one thing straight from the start: There is no new LSD. LSD is the new LSD. And, of course, eating three-quarters of someone’s face is never normal, regardless of what substance happens to be in your body at the time.

Marketed with brand names like Cloud Nine, Blue Silk and Ivory Wave, manufacturers of this newer class of research chemicals manage to skirt the Federal Analog Act (except for in the few states where they are banned) by placing “Not for Human Consumption” warnings on packages of the whitish-yellow powder. The active ingredient is different depending on the brand, but most types of smokeable bath salts contain methylenedioxypryovalerone (MDPV) or mephedrone (or derivatives thereof), two synthetic substances that are more chemically similar in structure to MDMA than LSD. Users can snort, inject, smoke or rectally insert the powders to achieve ends such as euphoria, alertness, occasional hallucinations and sexual stimulation. Side effects can include paranoia, psychosis, tachycardia, panic attacks and death, but that apparently hasn’t stopped people from taking their chances with a packet.

Though they were invented in the early-to-mid-20th century (1969 and 1929, respectively), these chemicals didn’t make it into the recreational use sphere until around 2004, when bath salts began hitting the shelves of head shops and gas stations across the country. Since then, media attention has been paid to a number of bizarre incidents reportedly centering around the drug, including several in the tri-state area. Because bath salts are a relatively new presence in the recreational drug world, very little is known about the effects of their long-term use—although a recent study in Neuropsychopharmacology indicates that MDPV and mephedrone manipulate the brain in a similar way to Ecstasy, albeit without the serotonin level drain attributed to regular use of that drug.

LSD, on the other hand, is a much older drug in terms of recreational use and—while it is partially synthetic—poses much less of a risk to its users despite being extremely potent. Effective after just a 100-microgram dose (smaller than a grain of sand), LSD is a psychedelic that can provide the user with both closed and open-eye visuals, synaesthesia, loss of ego, increases in empathy and time perception alteration. Since its discovery in 1938 by Albert Hofmann, scientists have found a host of therapeutic purposes for LSD, including end-of-life anxiety alleviation, treatment of alcoholism, remedying cluster headaches and managing PTSD. There has never been a death attributed to an LSD overdose, but some negative side effects include anxiety, confusion, diminished attention span and, on occasion, psychosis of varying severity. However, given LSD’s therapeutic potential in concert with its relative safety and desirable subjective effects, the potential risks very rarely outweigh the potential benefits, unlike with bath salts.

Simply because both drugs can cause hallucinations does not mean that one is a new form of the other—that’s like saying smoking pot is the new exercise because both things make you tired. Bath salts clearly are based in the stimulant world, home to the likes of cocaine and methamphetamine, while LSD is a classical psychedelic in the company of mescaline and magic mushrooms. Even looking at the history of the two classes of drugs, the comparison doesn’t make sense: LSD and other entheogens have traditionally been used to meet philosophical, spiritual and therapeutic ends. Stimulants like meth or bath salts? Not so much.

To put it simply, if bath salts make you feel “10 feet tall and bulletproof” as former addict Freddy Sharp recently told CNN, then LSD makes you feel like a minuscule part of an interconnected and ever-expanding universe. They are, in effect, polar opposites.

The truth is that Eugene probably would have committed this attack or a similar one regardless of whether he snorted bath salts or dropped acid or even remained completely sober. There is no drug in the world that will turn a completely normal, mentally healthy person into a slobbering, brain-dead cannibal—there needs to be a pre-existing condition or mental disorder for the drug to exacerbate, an aspect that may have existed in Eugene’s case. Authorities aren’t even sure that Eugene was on bath salts at the time of the gruesome attack, so they may not have played a role, but to compare them to LSD is at best an uninformed choice, and at worst is blatant fear-mongering looking to stir up Manson-era drug hysteria. This is especially true in an era when long-persecuted drugs like LSD are on the scientific and cultural upswing, as unfounded associations could derail important ongoing medical psychedelic efforts.