Menus Subscribe Search
hannibal-poster

Theatrical release poster for Hannibal. (POSTER: UNIVERSAL PICTURES)

Bath Salts, Zombies, and Crossbows: An Update

• June 18, 2013 • 1:03 PM

Theatrical release poster for Hannibal. (POSTER: UNIVERSAL PICTURES)

Scientists are working to study the make-up and effects of bath salts, while ER doctors are struggling to treat its victims.

It’s been about a year since the dangerous new synthetic drug, packaged and disguised as “bath salts,” entered America’s mainstream consciousness. Last summer the drug was blamed for a series of bizarre, violent, and seemingly random attacks of cannibalism; it felt, for a few weeks there, like the beginning of a zombie apocalypse.

It should be noted that the drugged-out perpetrator of the first and most well known of these attacks, on a homeless man on a Miami highway overpass, later turned out to not actually have been on bath salts. But still: local news sites across the country are positively shrieking with reports of bath-salt-fueled violence. The drug has been shown to cause hallucinations, insomnia, and outbursts of anger. Here’s one from the past week, from Erie, Pennsylvania:

A Boggs Township man was behind bars Friday after police charged him with a series of brutal assaults on a woman that culminated with three days of alleged bath salts-fueled violence last week.

Pennsylvania State Police at Rockview said Justin D. Hinds, 35, allegedly beat the woman with a crude weapon made by affixing a nail to a heavy flashlight, threw a cell phone at her face, breaking a tooth, and pointed a loaded shotgun at her.

What’s the appeal of this drug, exactly? Cathy Coonz, a behavioral specialist, explained the side effects in a recent presentation to one West Virginia community. From the West Virginia Inter Mountain:

Bath salts are appealing to users because they may induce euphoria, increased sociability and music appreciation, sexual arousal and pleasant hallucinations. However, users also frequently experience extremely unpleasant side effects such as paranoia, profuse sweating, delusions, intense thirst, vomiting, violent or psychotic behavior and self-mutilation, Coontz said.

Not the best trade-off, eh? But despite the media attention the scariest bath salts fatalities have continued to receive, people are still experimenting with this stuff. Meanwhile, ER doctors, law enforcement agencies, and scientists have all struggled to keep up.

A research team from the University of Virginia, hoping to increase our collective understanding of the sinister salts, compiled data about its use and effects for the latest issue of the Journal of Addiction Medicine. The researchers, led by addiction medicine specialist Dr. Erik W. Gunderson, found that the drug’s effects are similar to those of cocaine and amphetamine, though the compound may be slightly different. Short-term “acute toxicity” has led to both suicides and homicides, and in the long term, the drug does appear to be addictive.

Since the drug is so new, and since manufacturers keep tweaking the recipe to circumvent each new ban on its ingredients, ER doctors and poison control centers don’t always know how to test for its presence in a patient’s body, or to respond to overdose situations. The UVA report recommended that, when in doubt, treatment for bath salt toxicity should resemble the treatment of other more familiar stimulants. According to Science Daily:

Substituted cathinone products are still new, so there are no formal guidelines for medical treatment of acute toxicity. Experience suggests that physical symptoms resolve after a few days, with supportive care. However, psychotic effects such as hallucinations may persist for a longer time. Intoxicated patients need close psychiatric observation and monitoring to keep them from harming themselves or others.

Another dangerous aspect of this drug is the propensity of its users to want to use other types of readily available drugs in combination, to calm themselves down or counteract the insomnia it causes. For instance, the UVA team found in a case study of one man’s three-week-long bath salts binge that his symptoms were exacerbated by his use of Benadryl to try to “come down” and sleep each night. He was hallucinating people in his yard. The drug’s interaction with the Benadryl only made things worse. An excerpt of the case study:

…the hallucinations had increased after taking diphenhydramine, which prompted him to climb onto his roof with a crossbow. He fired 2 arrows into the yard after giving the figures “the opportunity to identify themselves.” He had transient suicidal ideation later in the night, which occurred after the number of people increased from what were “always” there, 3 individuals dressed in white to 6 to 7 individuals. His plan was to use the crossbow.

Luckily, the cross-bow-wielder eventually made it to an emergency room and got help. It took about 24 hours after his last bath-salt ingestion (he was snorting the drug), until he seemed to be thinking clearly again and his heart rate was back to normal.

The UVA report ended with an extreme understatement: “a greater understanding of the behavioral pharmacology, health effects, and management of substituted cathinone use remains urgently needed.”

Lauren Kirchner
Lauren Kirchner is the Web editor of The Baffler. She has written for the Columbia Journalism Review, Capital New York, Slate, The Awl, The Hairpin, and many others. Follow her on Twitter @lkirchner.

More From Lauren Kirchner

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 1 • 6:00 AM

Why Someone Named Monty Iceman Sold Doogie Howser’s Estate

How unusual names, under certain circumstances, can score success.



August 29 • 4:00 PM

The Hidden Costs of Tobacco Debt

Even when taxpayers aren’t explicitly on the hook, tobacco bonds can cost states and local governments money. Here’s how.


August 29 • 2:00 PM

Why Don’t Men and Women Wear the Same Gender-Neutral Bathing Suits?

They used to in the 1920s.


August 29 • 11:48 AM

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.


August 29 • 10:00 AM

True Darwinism Is All About Chance

Though the rich sometimes forget, Darwin knew that nature frequently rolls the dice.


August 29 • 8:00 AM

Why Our Molecular Make-Up Can’t Explain Who We Are

Our genes only tell a portion of the story.


August 29 • 6:00 AM

Strange Situations: Attachment Theory and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

When college women leave home, does attachment behavior make them more vulnerable to campus rape?


August 29 • 4:00 AM

Forgive Your Philandering Partner—and Pay the Price

New research finds people who forgive an unfaithful romantic partner are considered weaker and less competent than those who ended the relationship.


August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


August 28 • 12:00 PM

The Ice Bucket Challenge’s Meme Money

The ALS Association has raised nearly $100 million over the past month, 50 times what it raised in the same period last year. How will that money be spent, and how can non-profit executives make a windfall last?


August 28 • 11:56 AM

Outlawing Water Conflict: California Legislators Confront Risky Groundwater Loophole

California, where ambitious agriculture sucks up 80 percent of the state’s developed water, is no stranger to water wrangles. Now one of the worst droughts in state history is pushing legislators to reckon with its unwieldy water laws, especially one major oversight: California has been the only Western state without groundwater regulation—but now that looks set to change.


August 28 • 11:38 AM

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.


August 28 • 10:00 AM

The Five Words You Never Want to Hear From Your Doctor

“Sometimes people just get pains.”


August 28 • 8:00 AM

Why I’m Not Sharing My Coke

Andy Warhol, algorithms, and a bunch of popular names printed on soda cans.


August 28 • 6:00 AM

Can Outdoor Art Revitalize Outdoor Advertising?

That art you’ve been seeing at bus stations and billboards—it’s serving a purpose beyond just promoting local museums.


August 28 • 4:00 AM

Linguistic Analysis Reveals Research Fraud

An examination of papers by the discredited Diederik Stapel finds linguistic differences between his legitimate and fraudulent studies.


August 28 • 2:00 AM

Poverty and Geography: The Myth of Racial Segregation

Migration, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality (not to mention class), can be a poverty-buster.


August 27 • 4:00 PM

The ‘Non-Lethal’ Flash-Bang Grenades Used in Ferguson Can Actually Be Quite Lethal

A journalist says he was singed by a flash-bang fired by St. Louis County police trying to disperse a crowd, raising questions about how to use these military-style devices safely and appropriately.


August 27 • 2:00 PM

Do Better Looking People Have Better Personalities Too?

An experiment on users of the dating site OKCupid found that members judge both looks and personality by looks alone.


August 27 • 12:00 PM

Love Can Make You Stronger

A new study links oxytocin, the hormone most commonly associated with social bonding, and the one that your body produces during an orgasm, with muscle regeneration.


August 27 • 11:05 AM

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”


August 27 • 9:47 AM

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.


August 27 • 8:00 AM

A Skeptic Meets a Psychic: When You Can See Into the Future, How Do You Handle Uncertainty?

For all the crystal balls and beaded doorways, some psychics provide a useful, non-paranormal service. The best ones—they give good advice.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

Being a Couch Potato: Not So Bad After All?

For those who feel guilty about watching TV, a new study provides redemption.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.