Saturday night's "naked zombie" cannibal attack in Miami shocked the nation, but it's not the first time a seemingly uncontrollable incident has been attributed to a drug known as "bath salts."
Far from making your luxurious soak more pleasant, bath salts is the street name for a drug containing synthetic stimulants such as mephedrone or methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV). It has no relation to "actual" bath salts. The drug can be snorted, injected, or swallowed. According to the Drug Enforcement Agency, bath salts have similar effects to amphetamines, cocaine, and LSD. High dosages can cause panic attacks and hallucinations.
The drug is sold online and in certain adult bookstores, head shops, and convenience stores under brand names such as "Lady Bubbles," "Ivory Gold," and "Ivory Wave." Sometimes the drug is sold as a form of plant fertilizer with warnings such as "not for human consumption" or "for novelty use only." According to the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation, most commercial bath salts are made in India or China and can retail for as little as $40 a gram—less than half the price of cocaine.
Late last year, the DEA took emergency measures to make the drugs temporarily illegal, and last week the U.S. Senate voted 96-1 to ban the chemicals used to make bath salts and other synthetic drugs. Several states, including Florida, have already banned bath salts, but according to Paul Melton, an investigator with Florida's Pinellas County Justice Coordination, manufacturers can simply make a new compound that skirts the law. This quasi-legal status makes it an attractive option for people addicted to prescription drugs but unable to procure hard street drugs, he says.
"We're seeing more strict measures coming down on prescription drugs. As you tighten the legislation there, people turn to other drugs," he says. "Bath salts are sold in head shops, convenience stores—when people try to buy [cocaine or heroin], they can get shot or robbed. It's easy to go to a store and buy this stuff."
In a press release, Susan Collins, the Maine Republican senator who sponsored the federal bill that would ban synthetic drugs, said bath salts and other chemical compounds are a "national threat that requires national action." That became clear Saturday, when Miami police shot and killed a man who was found eating the face of a homeless man—the victim of an alleged bath salts high.
But according to various news reports, people high on bath salts have been arrested in various fits of violence over the past 18 months. Bath salt-users have been found barricaded in attics, stealing cars, attacking priests, and staying conscious through several stun-gun blasts. One man in Pennsylvania told police that he thought he was being chased by electricity while on the drug.
"A common effect of these synthetic products is that they cause psychotic episodes—anxiety, paranoia, they're all documented effects," Melton says. In his county, he "regularly" deals with synthetic drug cases and that there have been an increasing number of people abusing bath salts over the past year.
"Does it cause someone to eat someone's face, I can't say that," he says. "But it certainly could cause anxiety and delusions that could lead to something like that."
According to CNN, the DEA found two reports of the drug in 2009. In 2011, they fielded more than 900 cases in 34 states.
Jason Koebler is a science and technology reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org