Remember 2012, when the biggest threats to our liberal democracy included a cool and calculating president’s semi-secret extrajudicial-killing campaign—and bath salts? It was a simpler time.
(It was also shrill and sensationalist misdirection: The opiate crisis was in full swing five years ago, and it was obvious prescription pain pills were fueling this “fastest-growing drug problem,” but when choosing between covering face-eating zombies and the ongoing, undeniable, and well-documented decay of American communities, news organizations went with the zombies.)
But bath salts and related uproar never went away. They just migrated overseas.
In New Zealand, bath salt-like compounds are now popping up with alarming regularity in other popular street drugs, including tabs of purported ecstasy sold on the music-festival scene.
First, a refresher: “Bath salts” generally refers to any one of a number of drugs categorized as “synthetic cathinones.” Cathinones are alkaloids. Common everyday alkaloids include nicotine, caffeine, cocaine and morphine. Naturally occurring cathinones include khat, a shrub native to the Horn of Africa chewed for its mild stimulating effect, similar to a cup of strong coffee (and added to list of banned substances in the UK and U.S. as a result).
There is no problem drug laws can’t create.
With the demand for cocaine and MDMA high, drugmakers turned to synthetic cathinones to fill out their pills, since these chemicals—marketed and sold as “plant food,” “phone-screen cleaner” and other “not for human consumption” uses, according to authorities—could, for a time, evade government screenings.
Problem: like fake weed, synthetic cathinones are much stronger than natural, plant-based varieties and lead to unintended, severe consequences, like delirium, agitation, paranoia and hallucinations.
The New Zealand Drug Foundation runs a program called “KnowYourStuffNZ.” The organization is present at music festivals, where volunteers offer to test would-be partiers’ pills. About 30 percent of drugs contained ingredients that weren’t as advertised. That’s not entirely surprising with street drugs. Much worse, as director Wendy Allison told New Zealand media, this summer, is that fake cathinones popped up in what was supposed to be ecstasy with alarming regularity.
As Stuff.co.nz (no relation to KnowYourStuff) reported:
The group found a cathinone called n-ethylpentylone was present at every festival and event where testing was carried out last summer.
All the event-goers who supplied cathinone samples believed they had been taking ecstasy, Allison said. …
Ecstasy was generally considered safe when mixed with alcohol, but cathinones could be fatal if mixed with alcohol or other drugs. …
Last summer was the first time testers had identified so many cathinones, and in such high quantity, she said.
Bath-salt-like drugs sold as ecstasy is not a new phenomenon in New Zealand. Media rang similar alarm bells in the spring, prior to the bath-salt laden festival season.
We here at this publication are as resistant to scare campaign as anyone, but we’re also no fan of synthetic drugs taking the place of relatively benign cannabis and MDMA. What’s going on in New Zealand for bath salts to seize and hold such sway over the drug scene?
It appears that it’s analogous to the script America’s opiate crisis has taken: prescription pain pills give way to heroin, and once heroin is policed away, leaving a user base with an obvious gap to fill, suppliers turned to cheap synthetics, available over the internet, shipped via the mails.
What to do? Easing restrictions on less-dangerous drugs like khat, pot and MDMA would appear to be a smart, reality-based sensible harm-reduction move, if politically toxic. In absence of that, testing is an obvious first step.
In Vancouver, when drug users had testing available, they used less and didn’t always use fentanyl-laced heroin. The New Zealand Drug Foundation paid for the testing machine that was on hand on the festival circuit, which could tell users what was in their shit within 10 minutes.
If authorities were serious about “public safety,” free drug testing would be de rigueur.