This Is Your Brain on Bath Salts: What It's Like to Do the Scary Drug du Jour

In the past 18 months, the designer drug known colloquially as "bath salts" has been touted in the media as the latest threat to melt a generation of teenagers' minds. The mass-marketed fear comes complete with anecdotal horror stories of people's behavior under the drug's influence, each more disturbing than the last, and the hysteria reached its crescendo this week when bath salts were blamed for a Miami man's turn as a face-eating cannibal. But is this drug really as scary as it's being reported, or are we just in the midst of yet another societal panic, fueled by sensationalized accounts of a substance about which we still know very little? To find out, we found several people who have ingested bath salts and were willing to share their stories.

"Bath salts" (known alternately as "plant food" or "meow meow") are sold in powder form that can be eaten, snorted, smoked, or injected. The street names don't describe one specific drug, but rather could refer to either mephedrone (a synthetic stimulant) or methylenedioxypyrovalerone (known as MDPV, a stimulant and psychoactive drug). Each of these purports to produce effects similar to the euphoria of MDMA (Ecstasy) and the alertness of cocaine or amphetamines. They are not hallucinogens. Although the drugs were first developed in 1929 and 1969 respectively, they didn't become popular for recreational use until around 2004, and didn't come to mainstream attention until 2011, so little is known about long-term use. However, a recent study published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology found that the designer drugs have a similar affect on the brain as Ecstasy, but without the link to long-term depletion of serotonin that's associated with MDMA. So if scientific studies show that bath salts are less harmful to the brain than MDMA, why are people seemingly flipping the fuck out?

In the past year, the media has reported on several incidences of bizarre, violent, and disturbing behavior, attributing these psychotic episodes to bath salts. (A cross-dressing goat killer, a priest-stabber, a man who believed he was being chased by electricity, a festive trespasser, a man who believed his 5-year-old was "possessed," etc.) Most recently—and most shockingly—is the story of Miami man Rudy Eugene who stripped naked in public and then attacked a homeless man, eating part of his face. It has been widely reported that Eugene was high on bath salts. But that's just a theory by law enforcement officials.

The greatest allure of bath salts was simply the ease with which one could buy them — they were legal, sold in head shops and gas stations with the disclaimer that they were "not for human consumption." But Florida, where the attack occurred, banned the drug in early 2011, and the DEA temporarily banned the drug nationwide in October 2011, pending further study. If Eugene had been taking bath salts, it's possible that he bought the drug online. Either way, it will take weeks before Eugene's toxicology reports confirm what, if anything, was in his system, but at this point the results don't really matter: People are terrified that bath salts will ruin our world by turning half of us into violent monsters and the other half into their victims.

There are elements of this hysteria over bath salts that are similar to the horror stories and myths that were used as scare tactics against LSD, and marijuana before that. Sure, every drug has its danger, but if people are really choosing to do bath salts, then it must also have some sort of benefit, like it's fun or something. Right?

Lex Pelger, a scientist and writer who is working on a book about "the history of psychoactive compounds" has experimented with bath salts. He says that he uses stimulants to help him write and that "they're tools like every other material, both dangerous and helpful." According to Pelger, he's never had any "visuals" or hallucinations while on the drug and believes that some of the reports in the news are scare tactics that aren't truly representative of the typical experience.

"For every story of someone going crazy, there are thousands of [people] who just had fun for a few hours on the weekend and maybe got laid," he said, pointing to studies that show that alcohol is still the most harmful drug around.

So what is making people act so bizarrely on the drug? Pelger suggests sleep deprivation—a side effect of taking too much of the drug—is what contributes to some of the psychosis that is being reported. Or it could be an undiagnosed psychological disorder. An episode of the show Intervention showed a man's bizarre behavior (and "demon hunting") while using bath salts, but it was later revealed that he suffered from schizophrenia.

Of the several people — who asked to remain anonymous — we spoke to who had tried bath salts, we learned that there are some common themes:

  • Almost everyone used the drug as a concentration or study aid.
  • The most attractive aspect was its cheapness and availability.
  • It wasn't that strong.

That last point is where some people get in trouble. Because the drug has been described as "MDMA-lite," people feel mild waves of euphoria after taking the drug. Because it's so new and nobody is quite sure of the proper dosage (and because you get so much for your money), people tend to take more than they should, and re-dose shortly after the initial ingestion, thinking they will increase the effects. Instead, they find themselves regretting their decision. One woman told us of her week-long experiment with MDPV:

Not having a milligram scale, we used a less accurate one and kinda eyeballed it, snorted, went to the park and it worked how I had expected it too. The effects were mild stimulant. I was able to eat, concentrate, do stuff normally but more energetic.

The next afternoon I am kinda crabby and tired…and convinced myself that a small bit will wake me up and make me happy again. And then things started to get weird. I lost my ability to eat or sleep that night and then got caught up in a yo-yo cycle: Not much sleep, way tired, take more the next morning. This went on for like five days and I became increasingly sleep-deprived and incredibly shaky. Like a visible tremor in my hands and stuff, more and more anxiety and increasing amounts of paranoia. I ended up getting Xanax from a friend to calm me down. Nothing worked. I could not sleep at all, took more in the mornings because I could not miss work, and became increasingly paranoid that someone was watching me in my apartment, and started to think something was in the shadows moving on the wall (found out shadow people seem to be a specific delusion a lot people abusing MDPV seem to share), and it is so hard to explain, but it was horrifying. It's like, if i didn't look close enough and I relaxed all of a sudden I was going to be face to face with something that was going to scare the absolute shit out of me. I started staring at my cat to help gauge its reaction/expressions to hopefully alert me when this *thing* was actually there in the house.

I think the majority of bad effects and incidents…are caused by unmitigated redosing and sleep deprivation. If these drugs were administered once, and not touched again until they were completely removed from the body there would not be these crazy problems, but that rarely happens.

Erowid, a site that documents "the complex relationship between humans & psychoactives" has a number of user-submitted experiences on MDPV—sharing the amount they've ingested and the time that has lapsed—that are pretty illuminating. Some are positive, some are negative. The negative experiences, however, all involve a considerable amount of re-dosing and lack of sleep. Essentially, these are binges that go on for at least three days, which is when the hallucinations begin to kick in for some people:

After I had finished off the gram, which was at the three day point, I started having very vivid hallucinations of people being in my house who refused to leave. These people were characters from the TV show Oz, in particular Vern Schillinger and his son Hank. Anyone who has seen the show will know what kind of guy this is, and what kind of mocking smile he has. I was extremely frightened and panicked.

Another man documented the three-day binge he experienced with his friend and his friend's girlfriend, which started out rather pleasant:

It hit me in about 30 minutes. I didn't feel any come up, I just noticed I was all of the sudden up. It was extremely pleasent, no rush like Cocaine, and I remember thinking that's great and absolutely no problem. That means I won't be chasing some elusive feeling of pleasure that can never be felt again. It affects me like Ritalin and Drew agrees with this list: hyperfocus, increased vigilance, outstanding memory recall and utilization, adept mental agility, and enhanced creative expression in very readable writing. It's excellent for studying and engaging in social bonding, for both of us.

But then they decided to re-dose and re-dose again and then smoke the rest of it. The girlfriend had a psychotic meltdown, while the other two just felt horrible:

She became acutely psychotic, paranoid and delusional in the 15-30 min after her dose. Drew and I suffered the worst stimulant side effects of our life for about an hour. The best I can do when my mask-the-feeling meds don't cover all side effects up is try to ignore them. Focus on something else. We took 20mg of Promethazine and 2 tabs of 15mg Tylenol 3's. There was nearly an hour straight of Tachycardia with elevated blood pressure. Feeling my heart pound in my chest sucks. There was the most uncomfortable and intense feelings of: tense chest and torso, coarsing and sinewy feeling along every nerve system in my body, bruxism, elevated body temperature, twitchy eyes, seeing spots, bouts of watery eyes, malaise and general unease, racing thoughts, incoherent and rambling speech and scattered thought processess, not psychotic or delusional though, but more would have put us close to it.

Those who don't re-dose, however, still felt the effects of a comedown that wasn't worth the initial high:

The effects come on noticeably but light. It is sort of like a low dose of MDMA. However, I actually don't feel like talking to other people, so for me it doesn't seem that much of a social drug. It inspired me to get some work done in my garden which required a trip to a Home Depot. I had no trouble riding my motorcycle for the 40-minute round trip, but I felt somewhat standoffish when having to deal with the store clerks. Back at home, I enjoyed the day of planting, but there was a bit of angst forming around the edges. Increasingly, I felt the fast approach of a strong come-down that I could tell was going to leave me substantially lower than the base state I started out the day at. I did not intend to redose, so I got to experience that crappy low, which felt as though it was worse than the mild high I had gotten in exchange.

The overall verdict? Bath salts will most likely not put you on a violent cannibal rampage. In most instances people will just get a decent study aid, a little bit of energy and some mild euphoria followed by a headache. The potential is there for paranoid delusions for those who compulsively abuse the drug. The biggest danger, perhaps, is that the drug's euphoric properties are weak enough to trick people into doing more, and then doing more, and then doing more, and then demon hunting. But for the most part, in those worst case scenarios, people on bath salts are literally afraid of their own shadows, and being so preoccupied with being chased by monsters, it's not that likely that they'll become one.