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.

Ugh. More bloody cathinones

Cathinones being substituted for MDMA could be on the rise.

The last couple of KnowYourStuffNZ drug checking clinics have discovered an increase of people’s “MDMA” either being

  • a cathinone with no MDMA in it, or
  • a cathinone with just enough MDMA to mask it and spoof reagent tests

We anticipate that this could be the case nationwide, and advise being more cautious than usual when dealing with MDMA this summer.

Cathinones: a shit time for a long time

Known by the press (and no-one else) as ‘bath salts’, cathinones are a family of stimulants that are often sold in place of MDMA. We’ve found them in both pressed pills and in crystal form.

The more common ones that we’ve found in people’s drugs are

We have also on rare occasions found; mephedrone (4-MMC), mexedrone, MDPV, and Alpha-PVP.

Cathinones have the same euphoric onset as MDMA, but it wears off far quicker than MDMA. Because of this, people will often re-dose. This is where they run into trouble.

Cathinones are usually more potent than MDMA. What the person thinks is a manageable amount of MDMA for an adventure can be a dangerous amount of cathinone.

This can lead to anxiety, paranoia, gastric distress, seizures, or respiratory failure. Mephedrone in particular has been linked to a number of deaths in the UK and Europe.

Cathinones have a duration of between 2 and 5 hours, and the after effects generally last in your body between 6 and 24 hours. These after effects can make it very difficult to sleep. Redosing will extend the after-effects. One person who presumed they had weak MDMA and took several doses experienced what they called “48 hours of hell” from what turned out to be eutylone.

Dunno about y’all, but we’ve got better things to do than spend 48 hours staring at the ceiling having anxiety attacks and regretting our life choices.

How do I find out if I’ve got a cathinone?

You come and see us and get your drugs checked, obvs. We do both a reagent test and run a sample through the FTIR so we can tell you whether you’ve got anything horrible in your MDMA.

If you can’t get to one of our drug checking services, you can buy reagent tests from the Hemp Store or Cosmic. They can tell you if your MDMA contains MDMA. They can’t tell you if your MDMA also has things that aren’t MDMA in it like the FTIR spectrometers can, but it’s better than nothing at all.

I think I’ve taken a cathinone, what do?

If you start feeling anxious or sick, or you get the shakes, or you’re short of breath, go to the medics immediately. Tell them what you’ve taken, and how long ago. They won’t judge you and they aren’t narcs — their only concern is making sure you’re safe, and helping you if you aren’t.

Please don’t roll the dice with your drugs this summer. Cathinones are incredibly dangerous, and we’d rather see you regularly in the checking tent summer after summer than in hospital even once. Come and see us soon, eh?

We have our own Bill! But what does that really mean?

The Drug and Substance Checking Legislation Bill passed last week, and I’m pretty sure you could hear KnowYourStuff volunteers cheering from outer space. The Bill amends the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 and the Psychoactive Substances Act 2013. It means we can go to events and give harm reduction advice openly and legally.

Out with the old

Section 12 of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 made it an offence to “knowingly allow premises to be used for the commission of any offence against that Act.” This meant that party organisers couldn’t knowingly let people that were going to take drugs into their events.

If festival organisers were to officially acknowledge that KnowYourStuff was going to be giving harm reduction advice at their event, they would have been admitting that people were going to take drugs there. Festival organisers that let us come to their events faced being arrested or worse if they were open about our presence.

The legal risk put many of the larger commercial events off inviting us to do checking. Doing checking and harm reduction under the radar like this meant that we didn’t reach as many people as we wanted to. People went without harm reduction advice and put themselves in danger with potentially harmful or adulterated substances.

We also faced a problem if we found something particularly dangerous that we wanted to send to a lab for testing. If our team leaders were stopped between the testing tent and the approved lab by the Police they could have been charged with possession or supply of a controlled substance.

In with the new

The new Bill adds an entire section to the Misuse of Drugs Act. Sections 35DA through to 35DI explain who is and isn’t allowed to provide checking services, and how it’s allowed to be done. Also under which circumstances a test result isn’t admissible in criminal proceedings. The Bill makes amendments to 7 sections of the Psychoactive Substances Act 2013 relating to possession of “psychoactive substance that is not an approved product”.

We get appointed by Dr Ashley Himself

Under the new law, the Director-General of Health needs to appoint all drug-checking services. This includes us at KnowYourStuff. This should happen pretty quickly, and then we’ll have a notice that we’ll display when we’re doing testing.

What does this mean for you?

There’s a couple of changes that affect you directly if you’re coming to us for harm reduction advice:

  1. Organisers are allowed to tell you when we’re at their events (Section 12 1(A))
    You can check ahead with an event to see if we’ll be there. Events can publicise whether or not KnowYourStuff will be offering harm reduction advice in their guides.

  2. We can be more public about where we’re going to be (Section 12 1(A))
    We can have more publicity about when and where we’ll be offering harm reduction. We still need permission from an organiser to say that we’ll be at their event, but if we have their blessing, then we can tell you where to find us.

  3. You’re allowed to give us your stuff for testing (Section 35DD)
    If you’re giving us a small sample that you know will a) get reagents poured all over it, and b) have infrared radiation shot through it with the FTIR spectrometer, it won’t count as supply of a controlled drug. But this is for samples to be tested ONLY. If you get stopped with a giant stash and claim you’re bringing it in for testing’ the cops will know you’re taking the piss. We only need about 10mg of a sample.

  4. Your tested stuff can’t be used as evidence against you in criminal proceedings (Section 35DI)
    The results from our testing can’t be used as evidence in any court cases against you. Police don’t tend to target Know Your Stuff clients and have avoided all of our testing events for the last six years. There’s no reason for them to start now.
    Police can, however, seize what you have on you and test it at their own lab separately. We don’t help them with that.

Overall, this is a major step forward for drug harm reduction. The Bill, now an Act, means that we can give you the information you need to make better decisions about what you do and don’t put into your bodies. This has been the culmination of six years of pushing for change and it feels good to change the world.

We’ve shown that treating people like grownups and giving them information and agency often leads to them making good choices. This is a big step forward for New Zealand’s stated intention of treating drug use as a health issue rather than a criminal one.
We may sit smugly in our victory now, but there is still more work to be done.

For now, we hope this new Bill will lead to better, more mature conversations in other drug harm reduction circles, a safer, more caring party scene for the people we love, and better outcomes for New Zealanders.

Read the new Bill at the New Zealand Legislation website

Despite the law change, KnowYourStuff is still run by volunteers and reliant on donations to stay afloat. If you support our service and want it to be available for all to use, you could really help us out by donating.

Support KnowYourStuff

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.