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 17 • 12:00 PM

Understanding ISIL Messaging Through Behavioral Science

By generating propaganda that taps into individuals’ emotional and cognitive states, ISIL is better able motivate people to join their jihad.


September 17 • 10:00 AM

Pulling Punches: Why Sports Leagues Treat Most Offenders With Leniency

There’s a psychological explanation for the weak punishment given to Ray Rice before a video surfaced that made a re-evaluation unavoidable.


September 17 • 9:44 AM

No Innovation Without Migration: Portlandia Is Dying

Build an emerald city. Attract the best and brightest with glorious amenities. They will come and do nothing.



September 17 • 8:00 AM

Why Don’t We Have Pay Toilets in America?

Forty years ago, thanks to an organization founded by four high school friends, human rights beat out the free market—and now we can all pee for free.


September 17 • 6:32 AM

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists’ appetites.


September 17 • 6:00 AM

The Grateful Dig: An Archaeologist Excavates a Tie-Dyed Modern Stereotype

What California’s senior state archaeologist discovered in the ruins of a hippie commune.


September 17 • 4:00 AM

The Strong Symbolic Power of Emptying Pockets

Israeli researchers find the symbolic act of emptying a receptacle can impact our behavior, and not for the better.


September 16 • 4:00 PM

Why Is LiveJournal Helping Russia Block a Prominent Critic of Vladimir Putin?

The U.S. blogging company is showing an error message to users inside Russia who try to read the blog of Alexei Navalny, a prominent politician and critic of the Russian government.


September 16 • 2:00 PM

Man Up, Ladies! … But Not Too Much

Too often, women are asked to display masculine traits in order to be successful in the workplace.



September 16 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Brilliant 12-Year-Old?

Charles Wang is going to rule the world.


September 16 • 10:09 AM

No Innovation Without Migration: The Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance wasn’t a place, but an era of migration. It would have happened even without New York City.


September 16 • 10:00 AM

A Law Professor Walks Into a Creative Writing Workshop

One academic makes the case for learning how to write.



September 16 • 7:23 AM

Does Not Checking Your Buddy’s Facebook Updates Make You a Bad Friend?

An etiquette expert, a social scientist, and an old pal of mine ponder the ever-shifting rules of friendship.



September 16 • 6:12 AM

3-D Movies Aren’t That Special

Psychologists find that 3-D doesn’t have any extra emotional impact.


September 16 • 6:00 AM

What Color Is Your Pygmy Goat?

The fierce battle over genetic purity, writ small. Very small.



September 15 • 4:00 PM

The Average Prisoner Is Visited Only Twice While Incarcerated

And black prisoners receive even fewer visitors.


September 15 • 2:00 PM

Gambling With America’s Health

The public health costs of legal gambling.


September 15 • 12:23 PM

The Scent of a Conservative

We are attracted to the body odor of others with similar political beliefs, according to new research.


September 15 • 12:00 PM

2014: A Pretty Average Election

Don’t get too worked up over this year’s congressional mid-terms.


September 15 • 10:00 AM

Online Harassment of Women Isn’t Just a Gamer Problem

By blaming specific subcultures, we ignore a much larger and more troubling social pathology.


Follow us


Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists' appetites.

3-D Movies Aren’t That Special

Psychologists find that 3-D doesn't have any extra emotional impact.

To Protect Against Meltdowns, Banks Must Map Financial Interconnections

A new model suggests looking beyond balance sheets, studying the network of investment as well.

Big Government, Happy Citizens?

You may like to talk about how much happier you'd be if the government didn't interfere with your life, but that's not what the research shows.

Give Yourself a Present for the Future

Psychologists discover that we underestimate the value of looking back.

The Big One

One in three drivers in Brooklyn's Park Slope—at certain times of day—is just looking for parking. The same goes for drivers in Manhattan's SoHo. September/October 2014 new-big-one-3

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