Zombie Attack: The Truth Behind The Bath Salts Craze

In light of recent incidents involving users of bath salts, the phrase “zombie apocalypse” is trending all over the web, according to CNN [1]. But, aside from the frenzied media’s take on the recent face-eating attacks, what’s the real story behind so-called “bath salts”? Journalist Natasha Vargas-Cooper set out on a road trip across the U.S. from Ohio to Las Vegas to get the story straight on what she calls “a D.A.R.E. officer’s most florid nightmare,” and I quote here from her recent piece in Spin. Getting beyond the “zombie”-laden headlines of mainstream media outlets, she gets her hands dirty with real people making the drug, selling it, consuming it, testing it, and busting it.

The unique threat of bath salts lies in the freaky reactions it brings about in users. Bath salts have been shown to induce extreme paranoia, violent behavior, and “superhuman” strength, all of which make them a nightmare drug for law enforcement. As per the recent “zombie” media craze, the drug has also been linked to multiple instances of cannibalism, most notably 31-year-old Rudy Eugene’s naked face-eating attack on a homeless man in Miami in May and a Mississippi man who skinned himself alive in January. Vargas-Cooper interviews the family of a teenage boy who hung himself while high on bath salts and also witnesses two junkies’ uneasy highs on the synthetic stimulant.

In her article, Vargas-Cooper details a massive drug bust known as Operation Synthetic Drugs being undertaken by Drug Enforcement Agency and the FBI. She describes bath salts as “a lab-brewed drug that unpredictably mimics a freakish combination of coke, meth, and Ecstasy,” which first appeared in Louisiana in 2010 and has since spread across the nation under names like Cloud Nine, Ivory Snow, Vanilla Sky, Purple Wave, Panic, Bliss, and Charlie Sheen. Dealers started using the blanket name “bath salts” as a cover for the lookalike but unrelated crystalline drug, which is made from compounds like mephedrone, methylenedioxypyrovalerone, and cathinone, chemicals that are readily found in many plant foods. Due to Internet anonymity, the drug has been widely distributed with impunity by online dealers as its harmless household cousin before being banned in October 2011. Detailing one massive drug raid in Ohio, Vargas-Cooper writes:

Selling and possessing bath salts in Ohio is a felony, yet due to loopholes in state and federal laws, the anonymity of the Internet, and the pace at which the chemicals can be altered, prosecuting anyone above a street-level seller and buyer currently poses a stiff challenge…

In some sense, bath salts are an exercise in decriminalization. Buying drugs, especially hard narcotics, is often a seedy experience: You have to go to dangerous areas to obtain them, make the transaction with active, often violent, criminals, and then sweat at stoplights, hoping to make it back home without a felony possession charge. But the way the synthetic drug market currently exists, you can walk into a climate-controlled shop, slide your ATM card under the glass, and walk out. Or you can skip all that and just order online. The casualness of the purchase, the sterilization of the exchange, is part of what makes bath salts so pernicious and appealing. And the ease with which key chemical compounds can be disseminated, and thus adjusted to stay one step ahead of the law, ensures that the drug stays decriminalized…

Because the chemicals most often found in bath salts — mephedrone, methylenedioxypyrovalerone, and methylone — were not outlawed initially, a nearly year-and-a-half period ensued where, to the horror of law enforcement, salts were sold legally and widely, not only in head shops, but in gas stations and convenience stores all over the U.S. In 2010, 304 calls were made to poison control centers nationwide regarding bath salts. A year later, the calls skyrocketed to 6,138. [2]

Finally, the Drug Enforcement Agency instituted an emergency one-year ban on bath salts in October 2011 so that possession of the drug is now a felony. However, the ban will soon expire, and a permanent ban requires legislative approval, which had stalled in the Senate until last week. As terrible as the drugs sound, many libertarian-leaning politicians think drug enforcement should remain a state issue and fear that outlawing them would only escalate the costly and ineffective “War on Drugs,” which already demands enormous federal resources and oversight [3].

Yet, in the states where bath salts are already illegal, their sale has merely been driven underground and now requires massive raids to unearth. In the article, one forensic scientist at the Drug Enforcement Agency’s headquarters in Virginia explains that because of the drug’s varying forms and ingredients, no producer or distributor of bath salts has yet been brought to trial. Similar problems marked the epidemics of crack in the ‘80s and meth in the past two decades, so wiping out the use of bath salts before they become a staple drug is crucial. As hokey as the zombie face-eating hullabaloo sounds, it undoubtedly helped push the permanent federal ban on bath salts through both chambers of congress, which is the strongest move we could have made to prevent a zombie apocalypse.


[1] “Zombie Apocalypse” Trending as Bad News Spreads Quickly, CNN
[2] Bath Salts: Deep in the Heart of America’s New Drug Nightmare, Spin
[3] Miami Attack May Push Action on Bath Salts Ban, Roll Call

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