This is the year of the knockoff. A witch’s brew of new synthetic drugs, most of them stimulants, peddled as either bath salts or “spice” concoctions, has offered users new forms of Russian Roulette, and has irrevocably changed the face of international drug dealing. 2012 was also the year hysteria took over. Myths began to accumulate, and everywhere you looked, somebody was supposedly doing something psychotic due to the new synthetics.
By 2012, amphetamine-type stimulants, including synthetic bath salt derivatives, had become more popular worldwide than either cocaine or heroin, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). This international eclipsing of the plant-based “hard drugs” of the past represents a major paradigm shift in the landscape of the illegal drug trade. The stunning market growth of synthetic stimulants is not hard to understand. Bath salt drug products soared in popularity throughout 2012 due largely to the belief among users that the drugs were: 1) quasi-legal, 2) non-addictive, 3) relatively safe, and 4) invisible to drug tests.
By the end of the year, it had become clear that none of these things was still true.
To begin with, bath salts—just like Spice and other cannabis spinoffs—are no longer legal. And many of the drugs found in bath salts appear to be addictive. Some carry known health hazards. And, although it was the desire to finesse drug testing that gave a major push to this new class of recreational chemicals, major bath salt ingredients can now be detected
in routine urinalysis. Researchers have teased out the main culprits in both categories of synthetics—for synthetic marijuana, it’s the JWH family of research chemicals. For stimulants, it’s the cathinones, compounds like mephedrone and MDPV, members of a family of psychoactive alkaloids that includes khat, the chewable form of speed popular in East Africa.
There are new drug tests out there that can detect many of the major ingredients in both bath salts and spice-style cannabis products. And that marks a major change that law enforcement hopes will cripple growth in this fast-moving industry.
“Increasingly, and especially in the U.S. military, testing firms are including these compounds in their methodology,” says Dr. Kroll. More drug test kit manufacturers are sure to ramp up production in the near future, but it is a costly effort. “Folks probably aren’t aware of how hard it is to develop methods to detect all of these compounds,” adds Kroll.