While all illegal drugs have undesirable, dangerous and sometimes severe consequences, it’s also clear that they’re not fatal across the board. Because of this, it can be easy to dismiss the recent horror stories regarding “legal highs” — including drugs known as “bath salts,” “spice” or “herbal incense” — as exaggerations designed to sell newspapers and frighten America’s mothers. However, this is not just false hype. Bath salts are fundamentally unlike any other controlled substance, and that difference makes them more dangerous than any other drug on the market.
Traditional illegal psychoactive products have a known composition. Although a user of marijuana or any other illegal drug may have the unintended experience of buying a laced product, for the most part marijuana is marijuana. Heroin — despite the nasty propensity for fatal overdoses — is heroin. The side effects of these drugs are well documented. A user of these substances might be putting their health in serious danger, but the risks are known (or, at least, available) to the drug user).
The problem with synthetic drugs is there is no way of knowing the main ingredients you’re getting. When someone buys a packet of bath salts (which contain cathinones) or a gram of herbal incense (usually plant materials enhanced with synthetic cannabinoids), they cannot know what’s inside that white powder or sprayed on those dried herbs. The substance might end up shutting off the user’s dopamine receptors, causing hallucinations that last for days. Or it might land them in a mental hospital for months. Some variations of the drugs have led to strokes or even killed people.
And now, researchers in Japan have found what they believe is the first designer drug that’s a hybrid of a cathinone and a synthetic cannabinoid. From addictioninfo.org, which reported on their study, being published in Forensic Science International:
“Mass spectrometry and a little mixing of their own revealed to the scientists that the two chemicals had also blended to create a third thing, a freak admixture, half fake marijuana, half designer amphetamine, and 100% new under the sun. This combination drug is so new it does’t have a short name yet. It’s called (N,5-dimethyl-N-(1-oxo-1-(p-tolyl)butan-2-yl)-2-(N?-(p-tolyl)ureido)benzamide).”
What’s particularly unsettling is that the scientists, from Tokyo’s National Institute of Health Sciences, obtained the hybrid drug over the Internet, discovering it among the designer drugs they purchased online for their study. (They also ended up with 12 new synthetic cannabinoids previously unseen on the market.)
As we wrote in an earlier post, designer drugs are synthetic alternatives to controlled substances, and in the US, a new version will go unregulated until the Drug Enforcement Administration becomes aware of it and issues a ban. Then, manufacturers will tweak the chemical composition a little bit more to create a new “legal high.” So, for example, the K2 incense sold last month might have contained an entirely different drug than the one in the foil package on sale today. These products are in a constant state of flux: a revolving door of untested and unknown psychoactive chemicals. LegitScript has identified more than 1,800 of these sorts of products — with names like Lava Blue Incense, Monkey Meltdown and Tranquility Bath Salts — and we add more to our product database on a regular basis. We work with search engines like Google, Bing and Yahoo to keep consumers safe by limiting the amount of advertising these products have on major Internet platforms. (As a general matter, we help prevent these substances from being advertised at all.)
That bath salts and synthetic marijuana are perceived as less harmful than traditional psychoactive drugs is unfortunate. The effects these drugs can have become known only after the fact, with a marked increase in calls to poison control centers (60 percent of which involve users under 25 years old) and evidence that using them can lead to serious kidney damage. The Japanese researchers addressed this, writing that “the recent trend seems to be to mix different types of designer drugs such as cathinones (stimulants) or tryptamines (hallucinogens) with synthetic cannabinoids in illegal products. Therefore, there is the potential for serious health risks associated with their use.”
The bottom line is that just because a product is technically “legal” (which itself is debatable) does not mean it’s safe. Bath salts and synthetic marijuana are just as, or arguably more, dangerous than any illegal drug on the market.