Washing away the Bath salts Myth – Part Two

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

We highly recommend you read Part One which explains the history of cathinones how meaningless and misleading the term ‘bath salts’ is.

Lazy Language and the Responsibilities of Media

The Local Context:

In early July 2020, a flurry of articles and news pieces told the story of a drug-crazed young person clawing their own eyes out.

Reportedly, this person had taken what was only ever described as ‘bath salts’.

It may be that this person had taken a cathinone such as N-ethylpentylone, which has caused hospitalisations in NZ and around the world. As far as we know, no one actually tested this drug and identified it properly.

It certainly wasn’t done by KnowYourStuffNZ as some media first implied (later redacted). Nor was it tested by Police. Given the rapid media releases, it probably wasn’t identified in medical toxicology screening either.

Read the Herald article
Read the Stuff article

Predictably, the sensational headlines made a splash. Reporting on events like these is not inherently bad, but the lazy and inaccurate reporting is. Our drug market is cloudy and confusing enough without media compounding that.

This media attention had two main effects as seen from the perspective of KnowYourStuffNZ:

  1. On a positive note, the stories raised awareness of the risks of taking unknown substances (the person believed they had taken MDMA). That week, we had a large influx of people using our service in Dunedin. More people being curious and informing themselves? CHOICE!
  2. The myth of ‘bath salts’ is perpetuated along with a lack of nuance and useful information. This leads to greater harms further down the track.

As discussed in Part One of this series; some cathinones such as methylone are relatively low-risk and we know a fair bit about them. Others, such as n-ethylpentylone and eutylone are very dangerous, especially if people don’t know they’ve taken it.

The International Context and how we got here

Cue: American Media Shitstorm

Florida Man takes ‘bath salts’ and proceeds to eat faces
The Miami Cannibal aka ‘the Causeway Cannibal’ is an infamous example of gratuitous headlines claiming that ‘bath salts’ are leading to sensationally violent events.

Watch the CNN news clip about the Miami Cannibal

But here’s the twist: The Miami Cannibal tested negative for Cathinones or any other drug other than Cannabis.
Read the Boston Globe article with the drug test results

International media has had a feeding frenzy on this unsubstantiated “wave of drug-related violence”. There is a severe lack of high quality journalism investigating drug use/markets internationally, but especially in Aotearoa.

Names are important

Why does this all matter, you might ask?

When you call a substance by its individual name people know what they’re dealing with. They know how much to take, whether or not to take it after the kind of day they’ve had or what they might have already taken or what kind of experience they want to have.

If something is called a ‘bath salt’, and ‘bath salts’ have a presumed effect, the person runs the risk of expecting one type of reaction while getting something potentially far worse because they’ve taken a different substance.

But they’re all bath salts, amirite?

The time of Cindy:

Cindy wanted to use MDMA on the weekend. Cindy bought her MDMA from a trusted friend, but she was well aware that often even dealers don’t know exactly what they are selling. She decided to test it.
Cindy had heard that using reagent testing only to identify MDMA can be inaccurate and easily duped, so she took it to KnowYourStuffNZ to have it tested on a spectrometer.

It turns out that Cindy’s tan/brown crystal ‘MDMA’, which all her mates looked at and said “yeah, that’s good gear. I know cause its brown” was actually mephedrone.

Mephedrone: 4-MMC, 4-methyl-methcathinone aka Meow Meow, M-Cat or…’bath salts’.

Cindy learns that mephedrone is a reasonably well known drug which is part of the cathinone family. She learns about the unique profile of mephedrone, with its high intra-nasal bioavailability (very strong when snorted), short effect period (real short peak, quick come-down) and considerable neuro-toxicity (long term use = harm to your brain).

Cindy also learns how this is different from many cathinones and that each one needs to be considered individually for its effect and risk-profile. Cindy chooses to use her mephedrone because she decided that although the long-term and chronic effects are potentially harmful, she thought that experimenting with it once, after being informed about its effects and used in a safe, controlled environment, would be unlikely to cause significant harm.

The time of Jimbo:

Cindy told this story in full to her buddy Jimbo but he was playing Zelda at the time and didn’t really take it all in.

What he did remember from Cindy’s tale is that sometimes people call cathinones like Cindy’s mephedrone ‘bath salts’.

This sparked Jimbo’s memories of all those media headlines about cannibals and eye-gouging, so he thought he knew exactly what she was getting herself into.

Later that weekend Jimbo was hanging out with his other mates who also had some brown rocks they presumed to be MDMA.

They decided to test it but they hadn’t really planned ahead so KnowYourStuffNZ wasn’t open that day and they didn’t want to wait. They went to the local head-shop to buy an MDMA test kit which showed that they didn’t have MDMA either! Their kit gave various yellow/orange results which seemed to indicate their sample actually contained a cathinone.

No one had heard much about cathinones but they did recognise the little bracketed “bath salts” next to it!

But Jimbo knew that Cindy was pretty sensible and she was planning to use her ‘bath salts’ – so they can’t be that bad – right?
Plus, they had paid like $300 for a gram of this and they weren’t about to go ask for a refund from the random dude they bought it off.

So they racked up some lines.

That’s when Jimbo remembered what Cindy said about high potency when snorted. So they made the lines a little smaller than usual. Half an hour later, Jimbo and his mates were barely feeling anything. They figured that maybe their bath salts were cut or just “shit gear”.

So they racked up some bigger lines and snorted them.

This cycle continued into the wee hours of the morning. After a few lines, Jimbo and his mates started to really feel the effects. It certainly wasn’t the familiar, empathic high of MDMA, but they were wired and couldn’t stop talking about their great business plans, so it was pretty fun.

However even after they stopped snorting lines, the effects kept building and building. 6 hours later Jimbo was over it and ready for bed. But his high was not abating.

Now, as you might have guessed, Jimbo and his mates weren’t taking the same thing as Cindy.

While Cindy knew her cathinone was mephedrone and learnt about the specific effects. Jimbo and his mates just knew they had ‘bath salts’ and expected to have the same high as Cindy.

In fact, Jimbo and his mates had the novel cathinone called eutylone.

Eutylone: n-ethyl butylone, bk-EBDB or…’bath salts’

If Jimbo knew that this particular substance is actually a cathinone and not a ‘bath salt’, which includes a number of common, widely available stimulants, perhaps Jimbo would have wanted to know about the specifics of his gear:

If Jimbo had known what the unique profile of eutylone is he would have known that we don’t know much about eutylone.

It’s quite new and there’s almost zero evidence-based information available. From what we learned with the eutylone outbreak over the 2020-2021 season:

  • We now know eutylone has a slow onset and long effect-window (it keeps you awake for ages)
  • We now know eutylone, especially in high doses, causes strong stimulant effects and undesirable effects such as increased heart rate and body temperature, agitation and short-temperedness, vomiting, and seizures. In extreme cases the lack of sleep can cause psychosis
  • We now know eutylone in high doses can still make you feel sick up to 10 days after taking it

But Jimbo didn’t know this. So Jimbo endured the next 48 hours of tooth-grinding anxiety and agitation as the stimulant slowly worked its way through his system. Jimbo eventually felt overcome by the walls closing in around him as he sweated his nuts off in a shivering fever.

Jimbo considered running down the street naked, screaming about Hitler. He also considered what it would be like to eat someone’s face – cause that’s what all the news stories said about bath salts.

Thankfully, like most people who take eutylone, Jimbo didn’t do anything too regrettable and didn’t end up in hospital. Supported by his friends, Jimbo made it through his harrowing experience relatively unscathed.

Call the substance what it is

If journalists genuinely want to inform people about dangerous substances they’ll use the right names. If it’s an unknown cathinone like C86 was back in 2019, then they’ll say ‘unknown cathinone’.

If it’s a known cathinone, they’ll say ‘eutylone’ or ‘n-ethylpentalone’ or ‘alpha-pvp’ or ‘mephedrone’ or whatever the hell it’s called. Known substances have known risks. No decent journalist would use ‘opioid’ if they’re talking about oxycontin, or ‘miscellaneous white stuff’ if they’re talking about ketamine.

If the journalist is a sensationalist that wants to get everyone rarked up, they’ll use the term ‘bath salts’.

‘Bath salts’ isn’t something that requires any actual research into the story and has a history of cannibalism, self-mutilation, and basically being the monster under the bed to shock people into clutching their pearls. It’s the low-hanging fruit of headlines.

These ‘journalists’ don’t give a toss about the damage they do by being deliberately vague. Don’t give them your clicks.

Washing away the Bath salts myth – part one

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.

75% of people will refuse drugs if proved to be cathinones

75% of festival goers that brought their drugs to be checked by KnowYourStuffNZ have said that they will not take drugs they have bought if they turn out to be eutylone in place of MDMA.

KnowYourStuffNZ checked people’s drugs at festivals over New Years Eve. Data from these shows that 75% of people said they would not take their drugs when they found out they had eutylone instead of MDMA. 15% said they would maybe take it, and 10% said they would still take their substances despite finding out it was eutylone and not MDMA. In contrast, 90% of people that found they had MDMA said that they would take it.

This is a big change from previous years. Last year just over 50% of people said they would not take their drugs if they proved to be something other than what they were hoping for. This makes clear that people want to avoid eutylone if they have the information to help them make that decision.

Drug checking by KnowYourStuffNZ in the days leading up to New Years’ Eve showed that nearly 40% of “MDMA” was actually eutylone, an unpredictable and often unpleasant stimulant from the cathinone family.

As KnowYourStuffNZ couldn’t do drug checking at all the festivals over New Years’ Eve, they urged people to buy reagent tests from retailers and test their substances themselves. While not as thorough as spectrometer analysis, reagent tests can show when MDMA has been replaced by a cathinone.

The widespread availability of eutylone prompted a flood of messages to the group. Half were from people that had used a reagent test, found they had been sold cathinones instead of MDMA, and discarded their drugs as a result. The other half were from people that either hadn’t tested their drugs and they had turned out to be eutylone, or had tested them, found them to be eutylone, and taken them anyway. These messages described instances of vomiting foam, insomnia, and extreme anxiety.

“The messages we’ve received show how much worse it could have been,“ says KnowYourStuffNZ Managing Director Wendy Allison.
“Being able to get the message out early and fast meant that by New Years Eve, people knew about eutylone and were helping each other avoid it. While we weren’t able to have a physical presence at every event, the law change and the publicity around made it much easier to get the message out.”

New Zealand Government legalises drug checking

Today the Government announced that it will legalise drug checking in New Zealand. After six years of testing by KnowYourStuffNZ, we are glad to escape from legal limbo and be recognised as a necessary service to help keep people safe.

The new legislation lets drug checking be provided by appointed service providers at festivals, events, and other locations.

KYSNZ team

In the past it has been a legal risk for festival organisers to have our service at their event. The law has meant that organisers have had to turn a blind eye to drug use at events. Pretending drug use isn’t happening is a terrible way to address drug use. This law change means that event organisers no longer have to lie and can be more honest about harm reduction and caring for the welfare of festival-goers.

For this summer season, this means that KnowYourStuffNZ can be more open about our service at festivals. We may be able to say what festivals we’ll be attending and have some signage that actually says what we do. There are practical changes as well – our volunteers will be able to handle the test substances which should speed up our service and reduce queues.

In the longer term, we see this change as being part of a more open and honest approach to drugs. We look forward to drug checking being available to all who can benefit from it. That goes beyond festivals where, let’s face it, we’re serving a mostly well-off, young, and white crowd. Our overall goal is to be part of reducing harm for everyone and anyone who uses drugs.

Our path over the past six years has been to do the right thing, even if the law was unclear, and to gather evidence about the effects drug checking has on drug use and harms. When we went public about our work, we expected to be shut down or even arrested. Instead, public opinion has supported our work. We’ve had no legal difficulties and we’ve grown from a one-person show to a national organisation. Our evidence based approach has made clear the benefits of drug checking and justified the legal changes that we see today.

A very large number of people and events have helped to make this happen. Once we’re over the current buzz, there will be time to thank everyone. That’s a long list:

  • our volunteers for their hard and unpaid work,
  • the festivals that have taken a legal risk to have us on-board,
  • our partners and supporters,
  • the NZ Drug Foundation and High Alert for being part of this journey,
  • the politicians who have been willing to stand by us,
  • the journalists who have helped us tell our story,
  • and above all our clients for trusting us and doing the right thing to keep themselves and their friends safe.

For now, we’ll just thank the Minister and the Government and get busy getting ready for this summer season.

KnowYourStuffNZ is a not-for-profit social enterprise funded by donations from the community. If you value our work, please donate.

Introducing High Alert

We’ve been advocating for a drug Early Warning System for New Zealand for years, and it’s finally happened! Introducing High Alert – where you can check for warnings and notifications about what’s out there and help keep yourself safe.


So, who’s behind High Alert?

It’s a collaborative effort between a network of organisations who regularly encounter and respond to drug issues. Known as Drug Information and Alerts New Zealand (DIANZ), this group works together to reduce drug related harm. DIANZ issues alerts and notifications when something is identified that poses significant harm to people who use drugs, and gathers and analyses data from a variety of sources in order to monitor drug trends. .

KnowYourStuffNZ is part of DIANZ. We support the work DIANZ is doing by providing information about potentially dangerous substances we have found, and helping with decisions, alerts, and notifications.

Key info about High Alert:

· It acts as a central point for all drug related data, which will help to quickly and effectively respond to immediate and future risk in drug harm.

· Anyone who has experienced unexpected or concerning effects from drugs can share their experience through High Alert. This will help keep others safe. Data collected via the website is entirely confidential. It won’t be used to pursue prosecution.

· Alerts and notifications will be published on the website to inform the public of any increased health risks presented by new drug trends or novel substances.

· Education and specific harm reduction advice based on the latest trends will also be published on the website.

· All of this aims to reduce drug-related harm.

The High Alert website publishes alerts and general harm reduction information for people who use drugs, health practitioners, and the general public. It also allows people who use drugs to report unexpected or concerning effects from drug use with no risk of prosecution.

Note: we will continue to provide our own alerts when public safety requires a speedy response to emerging dangerous substances, such as over New Years. However, we encourage you to check High Alert regularly – it’s been a long time coming and we’re happy it’s finally here!

Visit highalert.org.nz to find out more.