This is Part One in a short series by our South Island manager Finn Boyle about cathinones and the importance of nuanced language when we talk about them.

Calling cathinones ‘bath salts’ is oversimplification

Cathinones are here to stay. We need better language to help manage their presence in our drug market.

Cathinones are a very wide and diverse family of stimulant drugs. Calling them “bath salts” is misleading. Calling a wide range of substances the same name gives the illusion that all cathinones will have the same effect.

Just as not all viruses cause the same kind of illnesses, not all cathinones cause the same kind of experience. Lumping all cathinones under the ‘bath salts’ label makes effective communication around this topic confusing and difficult.

We need to move away from the label “bath salts” and start using language that allows for the variety within the cathinone family.

Where did the ‘bath salts’ thing come from anyway?

In the early-mid 2000s a new type of stimulant emerged. Methylone, also known as bk-MDMA, the first popularised drug in the cathinone family. Methylone, it turns out, is relatively low-risk as it has a similar chemical structure and effect to MDMA.

Other chemists and legal systems soon caught onto the existence of methylone.

As has played out in every story of ‘Drug Market vs Prohibition’ since the alcohol prohibition era 100 years ago, a predictable game of cat and mouse began.

Law-makers tried to legislate against the new substances and chemists played with the structure of the molecule just enough to maintain similar user effects but different enough to avoid being classified as a controlled substance.

Throughout this cat and mouse story, chemists and distributors sold new/novel substances in a quasi-legal way. Marketing them as “not for human consumption” meant that the substances didn’t break any drug laws.

So, cathinones imported into the US began to be sold legally by being called ‘bath salts’. In the UK it was ‘plant food.’ Cathinones are neither of these things.

All this happened in the US and the UK, but New Zealand inherited the term through moral-panic based US news media around Alpha-PVP.

‘Bath salts’ could mean anything

‘Bath salts’ as a label means nothing.

Hundreds of products containing hundreds of ingredients have been sold under this moniker, including pleasant-smelling things that you put in your bath water, inert things that do absolutely nothing, mild stimulants that make you chatty for a few hours with no real ill effects, and foul-tasting things that keep you awake for days or could kill you.

Over about a decade where this was common practice, a countless number of substances were sold in packages labelled as ‘Bath salts’ or ‘Plant Food’.

The majority of these substances were cathinones. Sometimes they would be blended with synthetic cannabinoids, herbal ingredients and other more socially acceptable stimulants such as caffeine.

The Potency Effect

Also perfectly in line with that old Drug Market vs Prohibition arc is the trend known as the Potency Effect, The Alchian-Allan Theorem, or ‘the iron law of drug prohibition‘.
It states

‘Criminalisation and prohibition of a drug will induce a market effect which rewards higher-potency forms of the drug.’
E.g why import a tonne of unrefined Milk of the Poppy when you could bring in a tonne of Heroin with the same logistical challenges and 1000x the potency/profit?

Slow, unresponsive legislative systems around the globe have tried to keep up with pharmacological innovation by defining and regulating against specific compounds such as methylone. Drug producers have been incentivised to develop more varied and higher potency substances – leading to substances such as the very dangerous n-ethylpentylone.

Thanks to the innovation of drug manufacturers we now have a large family of cathinones that have varying effects, all being called ‘bath salts’.

Some drugs in this family such as methylone are relatively low-risk. Others such as n-ethylpentylone, alpha-PVP, or eutylone are high-risk.

When cathinones are sold as MDMA things go bad

Cathinones are often sold deceptively or unknowingly as MDMA. They are often cheaper and more available than MDMA or other amphetamines, especially since COVID-19 hit.

This is incredibly problematic. If people unknowingly take a cathinone in place of MDMA and have a difficult time, telling a medic that they’ve had ‘bath salts’ could mean they’ve had a miscellaneous drug, or they could have eaten something from in their Nan’s toiletries cabinet.

Using the term ‘cathinone’ lets the medics know immediately that they’re dealing with one of a particular family of drugs and need to give medical care accordingly.

We’ll talk about the main problems that arise from the press continuing to use ‘bath salts’ in Part 2.

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