Cathinones: Please Don't Call Them Bath Salts

‘Bath salts’ is a bullshit term – an abomination of accuracy. The swirling morass of misinformation being tossed around after the Florida cannibal case is disheartening to any scientist. Cops call bath salts ‘the new LSD’. Media reports with unattributed quotes refer to them as ‘PCP on crack’ or ‘synthetic cocaine.’


As a nod and a wink cover story, these drugs are just as often labeled ‘plant food’ when sold by head shops, truck stops and ‘research chemical’ sites.  Additional legal coverage is provided by warnings in small type: “Not for human consumption.” But everyone from the manufacturer to the vendor to the user knows these ‘bath salts’ to be powerful pyschoactives – both cheap and mostly legal. Formally, this category of drugs is known as synthetic cathinones.


The cathinones class of drugs contains roughly 30 synthetic variants derived from the cathinone molecule. Each drug has its own flavor - the effects range from the pleasant to the useful to the rotten. Cathinone is the active ingredient in the khat plant of Africa and its leaves have long been chewed for energy. Referred to as ‘the natural amphetamine’, the synthetic cathinones have a long history of medical use and recently became a popular party drug. Despite the vociferous claims of danger by shrill yellow journalists, the synthetic cathinones have been implicated in only a tiny number of deaths considering their widespread use across the raves of England.


One of the dangers is that media reports falsely imply that ‘bath salts’ are one uniform drug of horrific intensity. Additionally, the innocuous packaging of ‘bath salts’ with names like Ivory Snow and Lunar Sky do not list the ingredients which can vary greatly.


The synthetic cathinones most frequently sold are mephedrone (meow-meow), methylone (bk-MDMA) and MDPV. These are vastly different materials. The dosage of MDPV is around 10 mg while mephedrone is 200 mg. As one psychonaut put it, “overdosing on anything by a factor of 20 will fuck you up.”


The Good Doctor’s anecdotal research found that users described the most common synthetic cathinones to be party drugs of medium quality - “a dirty mix of a coke-like stimulation and the empathy induction of MDMA.” The comedown is harsh but not unreasonable and the greatest danger is ‘fiending’, a compulsive urge to redose. Decide how much you will take before the first line goes down.


Most importantly, before experimenting with any psychoactive, infamous or esoteric, learn everything possible. Here’s the Good Doctor’s primer on the history, biochemistry and anecdotal findings on the synthetic cathinones - a misunderstood group of headtwisters.


And please, tell your friends to not call them cathinones - not bath salts. It will save me much huffing and puffing and give the good name back to the legitimate artisanal bath salt manufacturers who are getting nasty calls in the night.


The Good Doctor’s take


My anecdotal research indicates the following as the most interesting synthetic cathinones:

Mephedrone – the most popular, quite stimulating and a good drug for working

Methylone (bk-MDMA) – the most empathogenic of the cathinones


These are widely used as tools for writing and fun for partying. As with most drugs (legal or prohitibited), when consumed responsibly, the user pays the annoying but common physical cost of coming down. In the case of cathinones: a serotonin ‘happiness hangover’, sleeplessness and a general malaise that night or the next day.


As always before an adventure, be well fed, drink plenty of water and understand that you’ll likely have a lousy next day just like after a night of drinking.


Many of these are legally available or inhabit enough of a legal gray zone that they can be bought from the dozens of research chemical websites across the internet (use to check the reliability of your vendor). A user on DrugsForum posted a chart on the legal status of the synthetic cathinones across the United States.


There’s at least a dozen available to order at my last survey: 3-FMC, 4-FA, 4-BMC and plenty of other confusing letters. By the way, here’s two nasty little compounds you can cross off the list immediately: MDPV & NEB. To learn about a new material: check the popular ones on Erowid and go to Bluelight forums for the lesser known. On the drug forums, amidst the nuggets of lyrical trip reports and thoughtful advice, be prepared to read through many pages of chemist geekery and repeated questions - that’s the price you pay for exploration. 


The most important thing to remember about synthetic cathinones is the widely reported urge to re-dose, known as fiending on the Erowid reports. The Good Doctor suggests deciding on how many doses to take before you start and to weigh them out ahead of time. Don’t bring any extra to the club because once trapped in the cycle of re-dosing, it’s easy to fall into the nightmare scenario of ramming lines until three days have passed. There lies the greatest danger: the lack of rest leading to stimulant psychosis. Or as one user pointed out and the end of the Velvet Underground demonstrated, “Anyone who is awake for three days. drugged or not, is out of their mind.”


The most popular method of ingestion is insufflation (snorting) though it burns a good bit. For the oral route, it can be mixed into a drink or bombed – wrapped in a paper and swallowed. Remember that different methods of taking a drug vastly change how much to ingest. Always consult the Erowid dosage charts.


Never eyeball your dosages! If you can’t shell out fifty bucks for a cheap milligram scale, you shouldn’t be taking esoteric drugs.


The history:

Cathinone is the active ingredient of the khat plant (Catha edulis) – an African shrub that can grow to the size of a tree. With a long history of medical and spiritual use, a pharmacopia from 1065 recommended the khat leaves as an herbal remedy for lung problems - wise considering their bronchial dilation properties. The Egyptians declared khat a divine food that caused apotheosis – ‘a glorification of the user to a divine level’.


The khat plant is sometimes called a “natural amphetamine” because of its historical use by Africans who chew the leaves for energy. This practice is similar to the chewing of  cocoa leaves by South Americans or the drinking of coffee in the West. All three of these natural stimulants have a long history of suppression by political and religious authorities. Great Britain once banned coffee shops as hotbeds of political dissension. A recent report estimated that 10 million people worldwide chew khat on a daily basis (Odenwald et al, 2010). Galkin and Mironychev (1964) found up to 80% of the adult population of Yemen use the leaves for their daily jolt of energy.


In the late 1920’s, the first synthetic cathinones were derived from the cathinone molecule found in the khat leaves (similar to Shulgin creating the medicine MDMA as a synthetic derivative from mescaline - the active ingredient of peyote). In the USSR in the ‘30s, methcathinone, the cathinone equivalent of methamphetamine, was used as an antidepressant. In the United States in the ‘50s, Parke-Davis introduced the still prescribed amfepramone as an appetite suppressant in the late 50’s. Also in current medical use, the synthetic cathinone bupropion is the active ingredient in both the the smoking cessation aid Zyban and the widely prescribed depression medication Wellbutrin.


Methcathinone was first reported as a drug of abuse in the ‘70s in the USSR and the ‘90s in the States. In 1980, the WHO classified khat as a drug of abuse and the FDA banned importation two years later. In 1993, the DEA placed the cathinone molecule into Schedule 1 defined as a high potential for abuse with no currently accepted medical use.


The synthetic cathinones are now back in the news with the media hullabaloo over bath salts. I have no need to debunk the case of the Florida cannibal because the always informative Narco Polo already laid out some obvious fallacies. Most importantly, as Dr. John Kelly points out (author of this excellent review of cathinone derivatives), the detection of synthetic cathinones is “a challenging area because of the structural similarities of the compounds, and is constantly changing with the emergence of new compounds." The post-mortem toxicological tests are available but still novel and expensive. The tests do not appear to be often undertaken by local police forces in the few cases of fatalities where synthetic cathinones have been implicated. (However, I cannot say this with certainty and would appreciate any additional evidence about the proved medical contradictions and users harmed by this class of drugs). For example, in the case of the Floridian Rudy Eugene, the cops trumpeted bath salts before any toxicological reports could have been done. There is no evidence and little indication that Rudy Eugene used ‘bath salts’ and he already had a long history of violent behavior.


Narco Polo’s post on the doctor who tried bath salts and liked it serves as a more common example of the use of synthetic cathinones. A 2010 Mixmag survey of 2,000 UK respondents found mephedrone to be the fourth most popular drug after cannabis, MDMA and cocaine. The demographics of this magazine leans towards ravers: 41.7% reported using the drug and 33.6% imbibed in the last month.


The usage of synthetic cathinones by UK ravers spiked higher in the fall of 2009 according to a review paper ‘Consideration of the cathinones’ by the UK’s Advisory Council of the Misuse of Drugs. This report stated the majority of synthetic cathinones originated in China. Authorities found the rates of purity high for the few number of seized samples that were tested. The paper attributed the recent rise of synthetic cathinones to the availability in head shops and the inexpensiveness compared to the rising price and falling quality of cocaine and MDMA. Or as an Oxford lad said, “It was cheap and everybody got it off the Internet. There was no reason to not keep jamming down the lines - especially since the comedown was such shit.”


The drugs first became popular in Louisiana before sweeping across the rest of the country. The Good Doctor remembers ‘bath salts’ for sale at numerous New Orleans corner stores and got a ride from a trucker who loved the drugs for their legal and stimulating effects that powered his rig down the road. An American artist in the Crescent City reported mephedrone take taking over certain dance scenes. “People would start Friday night and just keep partying until Sunday.”


Overall, the harm of mephedrone and khat were rated low on Dr. Nutt’s comparative chart of the danger of drugs: a multicriteria analysis that scored a drug’s harm to the user and the cost to society by a council of scientists and drug addiction specialists (peer reviewed paper in Lancet).  Dr. Nutt was the chairman of the UK advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs - aka the England’s Drug Czar and chief scientist on headtwisters. He later released a pamphlet on the dangers of ‘equasy’ - the addiction to riding horses. He found that a user was more likely to be harmed by riding a horse than taking MDMA and was sacked soon afterwards. I’m excited to read his new book: Drugs Without the Hot Air.


As of March 2010, mephedrone had been implicated in the deaths of 18 people in Great Britain with only seven of those cases actually testing positive for the presence of synthetic cathinones - usually with the presence of other drugs like coke, heroin or alcohol. Considering this is the fourth most popular drug across the rabid ravers of the UK, that’s a remarkably low number of deaths – many factors less than the people killed by alcohol.


The biochemistry

This is the Good Doctor’s favorite part but in conversation, it’s where the eyes of the audience often glaze over - usually poor suckers cornered at a party. Feel free to skip to the anecdotal reports afterward that elicit more excitement. I strive for accuracy so primary research articles to correct me are always appreciated.


The synthetic cathinones are referred to as beta-ketones by organic chemists. They are structurally very similar to amphetamines – just add a ketone (a double bonded oxygen). The primary difference is that the synthetic cathinones are less effective because the ketone group reduces their ability to cross the blood-brain barrier. So for each famous amphetamine, there’s a cathinone alternative with similar but lesser properties.


Add one oxygen to MDMA and it becomes the similar but legally distinct methylone. Methamphetamine becomes mathcathinone. Interestingly, mephedrone, the most widely used synthetic cathinone has no amphetamine analog.


Both amphetamines and synthetic cathinones bind to the monoamine transporters in the brain to promote the release of dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine. I’ll write a primer on these important neurotransmitters later.


An important test often used in drug abuse studies is the drug-discrimination assay. The DrugMonkey offers a longer analysis of this but the idea is simple. An animal model (usually mice) are trained to identify a certain category of drugs like amphetamines by pressing a lever. Then they are given the drug of interest like a synthetic cathinone to see if they press the lever to indicate they believe it’s the same. With this method, Dal Cason et al (1997) found that the mice found no difference between methcathinone and amphetamine while methylone was found only weakly related to amphetamine but indistinguishable to MDMA.


The anecdotal evidence: the useful,

Perhaps the most important item I bring to you as The Good Doctor is my collection of anecdotal evidence. Since I’ve been writing a graphic novel on the history of drugs, this means I’m constantly kibitzing with explorers on their use of headtwisters. With the dearth of primary research because of the War on Drug’s choking effect on peer reviewed science, the psychonauts & Sons of Shulgin offer the best insights into the novel psychoactives. Please send me any of your relevant experiences for my research files.


The identifying details are altered but the facts are hardboiled. The following is an excerpt from private correspondence with a writer:


I’ve always been looking for the golden drug to help with writing. The answer is obvious but it took me a few years of experimentation to finally get it through my thick skull: there is no magic bullet for wordsmithing. Most of the time, writing is just a matter of sitting down to stare at that damn screen.


But there are tools that can be powerful if used occasionally. When writer’s block looms, a stimulant like Adderall or meth or mephedrone can be helpful. These drugs tend to make me spew out far too many words - a mixture of gems and rubbish. Later, I can cut them down to the good bits.


Mephedrone is a powerful one. The effects last an hour or two and the slight edge of empathy combines nicely with the speed. There’s definitely a fiending component but I have strong self-control when it comes to stimulants. When working alone, I almost always managed to stop at the appropriate time but mephedrone can be a tricky she-devil. She definitely hijacked me a few times.


The worst was while conducting an interview with a teacher that moonlights as a pro-dominatrix. Since we were both experienced trippers, we often imbibed some material to spice up the interviews but mephedrone bushwhacked us that night. We kept piling on the lines until a we became a manic wreck - twitchy and far too stimulated. After I left, I sat down to keep writing and could not make myself stop. It was surreal to be utterly aware that I should stop throwing down these lackluster words but I could not help myself. She sent me 350 text messages that night – rambling on about her students and purpose in life before finally hitting the wall and crying out for this mad awful adventure to stop.


But that was the worst – which is always easier to talk about. The many more nights where I quietly transcribed notes until dawn and then read for a few more hours don’t make for great stories to share.


the ugly,


A cautionary report about overdoing it at an orgy by a member of NYC’s Hedonist Tribe & Poly Family


I can’t stop kicking myself about being so stupid this weekend. Of course, it’s easy to be down on myself right now. It’s the fourth day after the party and my serotonin hangover has finally faded to only a niggling black worm of self doubt and recriminations. With absolutely no hyperbole, this is the worst comedown I’ve ever experienced.


Now, you know how strict I am about recording dosages and timelines for new chemicals. I tested the mephedrone enough on me and my girlfriend Liz to get the sense of it but we hadn’t dove deep – certainly not to the point where I can declare I know enough about the material to stop taking notes on it.


But I have no idea how much of that shit we downed by the end of the night. At an orgy at our beloved gathering spot, I handed out doses to Liz and another couple that we wanted to play with. We began well – polishing off my MDMA stash with a small line for each of us. We felt warm and connected – both couples in the hot bloom of puppy dog love and the four of us excited to finally hook up. We started in the hot tub and the empathy made for simply stunning sex.


As the MDMA began to fade, we wanted to level up to keep the good times rolling. Our first two doses of mephedrone kept up the fun – a lesser but enjoyable amount of empathy and stimulation to keep us fucking for an hour or two. But as the doses started piling up and the lines grew fatter, the empathy disappeared and only the galloping speed remained. The night starts to blur here into a fuckfest that we couldn’t cease. The clearest image is from the whirlpool tub as we all kept repeating to each other, “Jesus. We should stop. This is getting crazy… Why do we keep saying that but diving back into it?”


We finally ran out of mephedrone at dawn and the dark curtain descended within an hour. It was awful – dark unrelenting thoughts turbocharged by the speed. On the miserable subway ride home, our bodies felt drained of energy and happiness. We lay in bed as Liz cried for hours. I pretended to comfort her but I didn’t mean it. I was ready to give up on her, living in this city, living at all. I could only perceive my wasted life of impotence.


I spent three days in that bleak hell hole of chemically induced depression – my serotonin levels depleted to ash. I wept uncontrollably, thrashing around on the floor of that rat gut apartment. Wheels constantly spinning, I tried to think of anyone to reach out to but I couldn’t imagine that anyone gave a shit about me. I’m used to that next sluggish day where the world doesn’t sparkle. I can that chimera of gloom as the fitting price for a night of fun - just like the headache from booze. But this was too dark and too deep. I paced that rotten hole for three days convinced that I broke myself forever.


& the insightful:

An interview with a psychonaut who leads intentional experiences using psychoactives. With the help of his girlfriend and co-producer Laura, they craft spiritual adventures in Oakland. He shared his glowing report on the use of methylone (bk-MDMA) – the cathinone analog to the beloved Ecstasy.


“I believe in the importance of using drugs for fun and dancing but I’ve been trying to figure out how to use their power for self-discovery and growing closer.” They gathered friends in their home and James began with a short talk about the material: the biochemistry of methylone, safety precautions and recommended dosages based on weight and previous experience. He talked about crafting rituals and sparked a discussion about methods to turn the bright flash of a trip into the abiding light of integrated lessons.


As the drug came on, James and Laura began a slideshow over the background music of soothing jazz. Each slide contained a different question about purpose and belief designed to induce reflection. He said, “I noticed that it’s often helpful to verbalize to your close friends about what you want out of life and how you plan to get it. Too often, it’s easy to let the important discussions fade behind the fun chatter. I think we created a space where we could affirm and help each other grow.”


Carmen, a rising lawyer with an Ivy League education and growing prominence in activism, described the gathering with glowing eyes. “I think I’ll always remember it as one of my most important trips. I was trying to pull together my first book and had been having a hard time. By the end, I was rattling off ideas into my tape recorder. And they were still good thoughts when I listened to them later.”


With small doses, plenty of hydration and gentle aftercare for the comedown, no one experienced a dramatic crash. The most negative experience was a few reports of trouble getting to sleep that night.


The Good Doctor’s summary:


The synthetic cathinones are an interesting class of chemicals worth exploring by the dedicated psychonaut who’s aware of their dangers. For the casual user, there’s more effective stimulants and empathy inducing materials to use for work and play but the cheapness and ease of access will continue to entice the explorers into the realm of synthetic cathinones.