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The Low Down on the New Highs

June 21st, 2012 by Dirk Hanson

Not all bath salts are alike.

Youre 16 hours into your 24-hour shift on the medic unit, and you find yourself responding to an unknown problem call.... Walking up to the patient, you note a slender male sitting wide-eyed on the sidewalk. His skin is noticeably flushed and diaphoretic, and he appears extremely tense. You notice slight tremors in his upper body, a clenched jaw and a vacant look in his eyes.... As you begin to apply the blood pressure cuff, the patient begins violently resisting and thrashing about on the sidewalkstill handcuffed. Nothing seems to calm him, and he simultaneously bangs his head on the sidewalk and tries to kick you... and his body temperature is 103.2 F. He doesnt respond with anything other than basic yes and no answers. Recognizing the probable state of acute stimulant intoxication and the risks associated, you begin further treatment. You turn the patient compartment air conditioning on high and obtain large-bore IV access of normal saline and set an initial infusion rate of 250 cc/hour.... Later in your shift, you return to the same emergency department (ED) and are informed that the patient has been admitted for rhabdomyolysis and has admitted to taking bath salts for the past three days.

This episode, taken from an article in a recent issue of the Journal of Emergency Medical Services by Jon Nevin, a California emergency medical technician and paramedic, aptly demonstrates the dilemmas facing medical workers since the explosion in usage of bath salts. A catchall category for a family of designer stimulants centered on chemicals known as cathinones, bath salts, which are of course no such thing, began filtering in from Europe. One of the more popular new club drugs was variously called meph, or CAT, or 4-MMC, or Meow Meow. The drugs official name was mephedrone. It was a chemical cousin of amphetamine, with effects somewhat similar to those of Ecstasy (MDMA).

In 2011, calls to poison controls centers skyrocketed across the country as new and untested combinations of cathinones came on the market. Bewildered emergency room technicians and toxicologists were hard pressed to identify even basic ingredients. Recreational users never knew what was in the shiny foil packages, only what was purportedly not in thema laundry list of recently proscribed chemicals, which the marketers proudly noted on the packaging. This endless Mobius strip of designer stimulant development and grey-market sales channels mean a lucrative hit-and-run business for the producers, but a completely unsafe landscape for recreational users, who act as voluntary guinea pigs for new combinations of poorly understood psychoactive compounds. It is from this underground designer milieu that MDMA came to the forefront, courtesy of clandestine work done by neurochemist Alexander Shulgin and associates. 

Mephedrone started showing up in the U.S. in 2010, and quickly spread via word of mouth and the Internet. This was not the synthetic marijuana in powder form being marketed as Spice and K2, although distribution channels were often the same. This was synthetic speed that could be dissolved and injected. The idea was, you could get high and still pass a random drug test, since drug tests didnt have the sophisticated assays needed to sort out the cathinones. And you could escape the tightening net around Ecstasy use, and still get Ecstasy-like effects. And designer stimulants picked up another strong user base: heroin addicts and methadone users looked for a detection-free boost. They could stay enrolled in their methadone program, and dodge trouble with parole officers, and still party all weekend on bath salts. One big problem became apparent straightaway: The effect of bath salts varied wildly, from gentle stimulant to some sort of deaths-head equivalent of the brown acid at Woodstock.

Bath salts were easy to buy. These unregulated stimulants came in a bewildering array of mixtures, featuring dozens of ingredients and additives. Even when they werent blatantly available on the shelves of head shops and convenience stores, many outlets carried themif you knew the street codes. What law enforcement officer would bust you for buying jewelry cleaner, for example? Cops and drug enforcement officers must long for the clarity of the old days. You had smack, you had crack, you had bathtub Methedrine (methamphetamine).

Understanding what each of those substances can do physiologically is key to understanding their dangers and to determining how best to treat people who need medical assistance, wrote Marc Kaufmann, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvards McLean Hospital. The trouble is, that knowledge is hard to come by.

It's not hard to understand the allure of stimulants, designer or otherwise. Countless baby boomers and Gen Xers have sampled cocaine and methamphetamine on a recreational basis, and will have no trouble explaining the appeal: It just feels good. In the short run, these drugs boost self-esteem, physical stamina, locomotor skills, and verbal dexterity. The original Dr. Feelgood of New York hipster fame was injecting his ultracool clientele with amphetamines. Nothing felt better than speed, if you want to put it that way.

Cathinones, like methedrine and other form of speed, are primarily dopamine-active drugs. Though they are now illegal in the U.S., they were formerly of primary interest only to pharmaceutical researchers. The best-known cathinone sold as bath saltmephedronehas both dopamine and serotonin effects. It broke big in the UK a few years ago as a legal party drug alternative to MDMA. Mephedrone came packaged with other chemicals under various marketing guises. And soon, as legal heat came down on the drug, designers switched to near-beer variants, and eventually began flooding the bath salt markets with other cathinone drugs whose effects were equally murky. Users of bath salt products had been seduced, wrote Natasha Vargas-Cooper in Spin magazine, by the idea that they could get high without testing dirty.

In 2011, users of bath salt products started turning up in ERs in significant numbers. Some of them were suffering overdoses of MDMA or mephedrone, but last year a new twist on the cathinone molecular structure began to get serious traction in the states. To stay one jump ahead of the law, underground chemists began churning out large quantities of a different amphetamine variant with the tongue-twisting name of methylenedioxypyrovalerone: MDPV, for short. And what were EMTs and paramedics seeing in cases where the drug could be identified as MDPV? In a study in Clinical Toxicology of recent admissions involving self-reports of bath salt use, two regional poison centers reported that exposure to MDPV was becoming more common than mephedrone. And the clinical symptoms of overdose? Agitation, tachycardia, hallucinations, combative behavior, hypertension, chest pain, blurred visionand at least one death. This synthetic cathinone was evidently capable of producing psychotic episodes requiring sedation. It all sounded eerily similar to the PCP overdoses of the 60s and 70s, when that dissociative veterinary anesthetic enjoyed a period of dubious notoriety.

The arrival of MDPV in the emergency rooms of American changed the picture considerably. Medical workers and drug enforcement officers were forced to admit that they were behind the rolling curve of drug permutations. Nobody knew what was in a given packet of bath salts or plant food, or whatever other disguise was in vogue this week. Nobody knew how much to take, or to determine how much had been taken. Doctors didnt know enough about cathinones to consistently diagnose an overdose. And what little testing was available for detecting synthetic stimulants was costly and questionable.

As 2012 began, researchers around the world were feeling pressure to find ways of discriminating between the different kinds of cathinones involved in overdoses, as a way of beginning to seriously sort out the fact from the fiction, the dangers from the overblown scare stories.

Various hopeless phrases were bandied about to describe the task of the DEAs Forensic Sciences labsWhack-a-Mole, Cat-and-Mouse, and losing battle being among the most common. What has them baffled and demoralized is the fact that these new chemicals under the sun are being created by underground chemists with more than casual kitchen sink skills. And, as one undercover drug officer told Spin Magazine, when you go out and seize a warehouse full of something packaged as Dragonfly, you really have no idea what it is. Nor do you know whether you can make a case under the Federal Analog Act, which is supposed to make all this easier by allowing cops and courts to outlaw drugs that are substantially similar to drugs already proscribed. But deciding questions of that nature is a matter of sophisticated biochemistry.

Dr. Michael Taffe of the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, CA, and pharmacology professor Annette Fleckenstein of the University of Utah have been working on these questions in the lab. Building on previous work, they had begun to conclude from their own animal studies that when it came to cathinones, there could be a big difference in effect without much evidence of a difference in chemistry.

Taffe and Fleckenstein, working separately, had produced evidence of specific behavioral differences between mephedrone and MPDV. As co-chairs of what turned out to be one of the best-attended sessions at the recent annual meeting of the College on Problems of Drug Dependence, the two scientists proceeded to expand the general understanding of a drug running rampant across three continents, and previously associated only with the chewing of Khat, a mild stimulant plant found in Africa.

(End of Part I)

Graphics Credit: http://www.bytrade.com/

 
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