Bath Salts in the Wound

How a Plague of Ladybug Attractant Ravaged Roanoke, Virginia

By Rob Fischer

When the Amped craze was at its peak, the parking lot outside of D.K. Tobacco was reportedly filled with cars all day, with some users lingering there late into the night.

Roanoke-area law enforcement learned about bath salts at a monthly summit in March, when Amped first arrived in stores. Vice squad units bought samples of bath salts for testing, but the results came back negative; they contained no illegal substances. A forensic chemist was summoned to explain how these drugs skirted the law. “The message was that there wasn’t any particular consistency in the chemical makeup of the stuff,” Chief Mason said. “It was being manufactured overseas in China, India, and Russia, and they were successful in staying ahead of the law by adjusting the formula.”

In May, bath salts gained national attention as the purported reason for Miami resident Rudy Eugene freaking out and gnawing the flesh off a homeless man’s face. Later, blood test results revealed that there was no trace of bath salts in his system—just marijuana. But bath salts have become increasingly popular among adventurous drug users in the US for at least the past three years. National poison-control centers fielded 6,138 bath salts-related calls in 2011, up from 300 the previous year. Active ingredients in bath salts tend to be “substituted cathinones,” synthetic variations of the natural stimulant found in khat, a plant popular in Africa and the Middle East and akin to coca leaves in Bolivia. At the end of last year, the DEA announced an emergency ban on the two most popular active compounds in bath salts—MDPV and mephedrone—which only served to flood the market with dozens of other substituted cathinones.

Immediately before the springtime zombie scare, a coalition of local and federal law enforcement held a press conference in Roanoke to inform the community of the dangers of bath salts. Standing beside a poster board pinned with various brands—Amped, White Water Rapids, Go Fast, and Snowman to name a few—authorities explained that bath salts were similar to methamphetamines or cocaine and were illegal under the Federal Analog Act. Under the law, an analog is any substance that mimics the effects of illegal drugs; producers try to dodge the law by marking packages not for human consumption. The DEA and the US Attorney’s office told police that they could not enforce the law on the street, but they could help police confiscate bath salts from stores before a Virginia-wide ban went into effect.

In June, local police and the DEA served letters from federal prosecutors to seven tobacco stores, demanding that they relinquish their bath salts supplies. By and large the stores complied, though one owner told me if authorities returned he’d snap their necks.

Salem police chief Jeff Dudley relayed the catastrophic effects that Amped and other drugs have had on Roanoke and the surrounding communities.

Amped’s manufacturer, Wicked Herbals, is based in Tempe, Arizona, and serves as the sales hub for a number of other bath salts labels produced in the area. Eight Ballz, Bullet, Blow, White Water Rapid, Bliss, and Snowman are all available for sale on the company’s website and are based on very similar formulas. On a recent visit to Tempe, I found bath salts to be a booming industry for producers and retailers alike. One long-time Phoenix-area smoke shop owner estimated that in the past three years over 200 businesses have opened in the area with a singular mission. “They don’t sell anything else. They only sell this,” he said, pointing to his glass case filled with colorful packets of bath salts. A competitive market benefits the customer. In his store in Arizona, a half gram of Amped is $12.99.

The bath salts business relies on an international network of ingredient suppliers. Largely based in China, they market their products under the guise of “research chemicals.” Compared to legitimate chemical companies in the US, China’s gray market distributors sell active ingredients in much larger quantities for a fraction of the price. These bootleg substances are correspondingly poor, and often not even those synthesizing them are fully aware what goes in and what comes out. Substituted cathinones are created by adding or subtracting a few molecules. Sales teams keep stateside distributors abreast of the nearly endless options available for purchase. Most bath salts end up containing three elements: a substituted cathinone, a bulking agent, and a topical anesthetic.

Wicked Herbals’ original formula contained a relatively weak substituted cathinone called α-PPP. The product was consistent, but many users found its effectiveness diminished after a couple uses. Looking for a more intense compound, developers decided to use α-PVP as the active ingredient in Amped. An online forum containing an exhaustive catalog of synthetic drugs initially reviewed α-PVP positively—“very, very fun”—but included an addendum: “Edit: After a few months of having this in my town, I’m convinced it’s pure evil. A lot of people start smoking it everyday out of nowhere and became complete assholes and started stealing things. This shit is fucked, and not all that much better than MDPV. Surely neurotoxic.” Regardless, α-PVP became the industry standard for most of the Arizona-based labels.

Over the last year and a half, state legislatures have scrambled to add α-PVP to an ever-expanding list of controlled substances. As of July 1, more than 41 states had banned almost 90 known varieties of substituted cathinones. Everyone on the supply chain is monitoring the shifting legal landscape, but almost no one—not producers, retailers, police officers, nor public officials—believes the situation will be resolved anytime soon. There’s too much money involved, and, so long as new active ingredients continue to be developed, new forms of bath salts will be perfectly legal.