The alphabet soup of chemicals that is the world of designer drugs — bath salts, flakka and deadly fentanyl — has created a new subculture of youth where anything goes.
These bath salts are not the ones people use to relax the day away in the tub. Their use can lead to nightmarish visions, rampant paranoia and horrific results.
Nico Gallo, 19, “cannonballed” through a plate glass window of his Stuart neighbor at 2 a.m. Aug. 28 and fought the residents from one end of the home to the other. He was allegedly high on dibutylone, an emerging bath salt, but his friend said they also took LSD and maybe even flakka.
And authorities are waiting on blood-test results to find out whether a double homicide allegedly committed by Austin Harrouff, also 19, was fueled by bath salts. He allegedly stabbed to death a couple in their garage just north of Jupiter and was observed by Martin County deputies gnawing on the face and abdomen of one of his victims. His family has said Harrouff showed signs of mental illness before the attack.
Both young men exhibited super-human strength — a sign of bath salt ingestion, authorities say. Neither a police dog nor a Taser could subdue Harrouff. Gallo was hit with a baseball bat several times to no avail by the owner of the home he invaded.
“It’s a brave new world,” said David Ray, the chief executive of Immersion Recovery Center in Boynton Beach. “These kids are experimenting with stuff beyond the previous generations’ ability to comprehend — and in time, it will be getting even stranger.”
From lab to loss of life
The deadly heroin epidemic is also being fueled by drugs made in the chemistry lab.
Synthetic opioids — especially the fentanyls, which are at minimum 50 times stronger than heroin — are being manufactured in Mexico and China by drug cartels and mixed with the real thing. The substance is often found in the blood stream of overdose victims. Carfentanil, a drug created to tranquilize elephants, is believed to have caused more than 100 overdoses in three states last month.
While designer drugs like Spice or K2 purport to give the user the same effect of marijuana, other synthetic drugs — such as N-Bomb — contain hallucinogenic properties.
Bath salts mimic the cathinone compound found in the khat plant, cultivated in the Horn of Africa and Arabian Peninsula and commonly chewed for the stimulating effect it produces. However, they are far stronger. Khat has about as much in common with synthetic bath salts as coffee does with crack cocaine, Ray said.
Bath salts are readily accessible, often sold as room deodorizer or some other legal product. They can be obtained easily over the internet as well.
The cathinone class of designer drugs is continually evolving as compounds and different chemical mixtures make their way into the hands of users. Drug recovery facilities saw flakka — a cathinone — emerge a few years ago, then wane. New designer drugs took its place, and it is common for police or even drug tests to fail identify the substance.
‘A cat-and-mouse game’
The original group of bath salts — MDPV, mephedrone and methylone — was made illegal in 2011.
“The chemists changed the chemical structure ever so subtly to be outside the law,” said Baltimore neurochemist Michael H. Baumann, head of the Designer Drug Research Unit at the National Institute on Drug Abuse. “It’s a cat-and-mouse game.”
Designer drugs have been a problem for a long time. One of the first designer drugs to gain popularity was MDMA in the club scene of the 1980s.
Better known as Ecstasy, the drug creates a state of euphoric well-being and empathy. An Ecstasy or “Molly” tablet purchased now is as likely to contain a bath salt or another substance as MDMA, according to the website ecstasydata.org.
Today, there is a chemical zoo readily available for users.
The new drug culture surrounding the encompassing street name of bath salts seems more at home in the novel “A Scanner Darkly” by the science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick, who in 1978 wrote about Substance D, which stopped one side of user’s brain from communicating with the other.
The “D” stood for “dumbness and despair and desertion, the desertion of your friends from you, you from them, everyone from everyone, isolation and loneliness and hating and suspecting each other,” Dick wrote.
He could easily have been describing the dark side of bath salts, but some users appear to be seeking enlightenment with these substances. One only need to look on websites such as Reddit and Erowid where users speak of their experimentation, calling out the letters of the chemical cathinone compounds they are trying.
The knowledge of the chemical compounds of these bath salts is both impressive and scary. These users know how the bath salts work on neurotransmitters — serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, the language of the brain. They are reworking that chemistry to achieve an altered state reminiscent of the days of the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, when — Kesey and his group of “Merry Pranksters” sought communal “intersubjectivity.”
“This far surpasses anything that I’ve managed to achieve with bk-MBDB, bk-MDMA, bk-MDEA, 4-MEC, 4-EMC, MD(M/E)A, 5-APB, 5-APDB, 5-MAPB, 5-EAPB, 6-APB, or anything else remotely similar,”a user posting as Vaya writes on the website Erowid about taking 150 mg of the bath salt dibutylone — the same one that apparently sent Gallo through the front window of a Stuart home.
“My dopamine receptors must be clinging on to my brain tissue for dear life.”
Martin County Sheriff William Snyder was at a loss to explain the motivation of these young people after the arrest of Gallo.
“The insanity of taking a substance like this when you don’t know what it is,” the sheriff said. “One kid took it and didn’t overdose, and the other kid took it and went berserk and now will face possible first-degree felony charges, decades in prison.”
While there is a small subset of users who know the chemistry of these substances, most do not, Ray said. These are college-aged kids with no hesitation about drug experimentation.
“You have these amateur chemists out there and feeling real bold and don’t understand the ramifications of mixing and matching,” he said. “You are essentially mixing a recipe for disaster and psychosis.”
Another bath-salt experience posted on Erowid about the bath salt MDPV talks of his psychosis and how he saw imaginary police officers in his bedroom. “I’ve done pretty much every drug in the book, but nothing (expletive) me up quicker than MDPV,” he wrote.
The post from Vaya is extremely detailed. “I’ve clearly mounted a sonic missile,” Vaya writes 30 minutes after ingesting the substance, titling his entry, “Riding The White Bull Bucked Into Deep Space.”
But by the end, the user writes: “Seriously; beware, this one … I cannot trust myself with this power. It is the most capriciously powerful, the most handsomely euphoric, substance that I have ever ingested in my life.”
The Harrouff case
Austin Harrouff, the Florida State sophomore who stabbed to death John Stevens and his wife, Michelle Mishcon, told his mother prior to the incident that he had super powers. Sheriff deputies found Harrouff straddled over Stephens, biting at his face.
Figuring out what these young adults are taking often falls to researchers like Baumann, who sleuths out the the biological effects of designer drugs.
He said there is plenty of speculation that bath salts induce cannibalistic tendencies, but added there is no scientific evidence to support it and called such news reports “sensationalist.”
However, the drug confiscated from Gallo, dibutylone, is one with which even he is unfamiliar. “There is not that much pharmacological information,” he said.
Ray expects things to go from bad on the bath-salt front to worse. He suspects bath salts could be right now synthesized in kitchen labs in South Florida. Gallo reportedly obtained his dibutylone from someone in the Fort Lauderdale suburb of Margate.
“It is going to be difficult to get in front of this because the technology and the drive is there to keep evolving it,” he said.
So the answer, Ray said, is not to combat the drug but to address the young people who feel the need to escape reality to such a great extent.
“You are never going to get in front of the drug itself, but you can get in front of the people, in front of kids. You can change attitudes and social-norming that it is not a good idea to experiment with bath salts or synthetics,” he said.
HISTORIC DESIGNER DRUGS
LSD: Synthesized in 1938 by a Swiss chemist and used by the CIA in experiments on unsuspecting subjects, “acid” became touted for personal use in the 1960s by psychiatrist Timothy Leary to expand consciousness. It mimics psilocybin, a chemical compound found in many species of mushrooms.
MDMA or Ecstasy: 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine was first created by drug company Merck in 1912 for medical purposes, but it took off recreationally in the club scene of the 1980s because of its effects of empathy, euphoria and heightened sensations.
MODERN DESIGNER DRUGS
Bath Salts: Synthetic compounds that mimic the effects of cathinone found in the khat plant, chewed in Africa for its stimulant effect. The first generation of these stimulants were banned by legislation, but clandestine chemists continue to develop new compounds with slightly different chemical structures that create different effects in users. They are sold as numerous legal products, including its namesake, flakka, as well as “Molly,” a substitute ecstasy.
Fentanyl: A synthetic opioid 50-times stronger than heroin. It is blamed for numerous overdose deaths this decade when heroin cartels started mixing it in with their product. Other versions, such as carfentanyl, an elephant tranquilizer have recently surfaced.
Cannabinoids: Synthetic compounds which produce marijuana-like effects but are much stronger and apt to cause adverse effects. These compounds are often sprayed on plant material and sold as Spice or K2.
N-Bomb: 2C-I-NBOMe is a synthetic hallucinogen with LSD-like effects, but the drug is much more potent than LSD and apt to cause life-threatening side effects.