Bath Salts: The Designer Drug of 2012
Antivirus pioneer John McAfee, a devotee now detained in a murder probe, sang the praises of the substance said to mimic meth and cocaine.
A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 10, 2013, issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Seemingly out of nowhere, bath salts have become a menacing designer drug -- drawing national attention after a handful of bizarre cases unfolded publicly this year.
McAfee Inc. founder John McAfee, a person of interest in the killing of neighbor Gregory Viant Faull, discussed on an Internet forum in 2011 his use of the synthetic drug, which is named for its resemblance to products like Epsom salts and can have effects similar to cocaine and amphetamines and cause some users to become violent. And in May, a Florida man who was erroneously believed to be on the drug -- also known by street names like white lightning and MDPV (an abbreviation of its main chemical ingredient) -- attacked a homeless man, chewing on his face.
The substance started to appear widely in medical marijuana dispensaries and head shops in 2009. Back then, it was legal, in part because jurisdictions weren't aware of the dangers it poses. (The key chemicals that make up bath salts weren't created in labs until about 2003.)
"They are like poisons. What you wind up with is a real derangement of brain functioning -- people are out of their minds," says John Sharp, a psychiatrist who has appeared on Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew and treated patients who use bath salts.
The government has acted quickly to ban the drug: In July, President Obama signed a federal ban on its main ingredients. In October 2011, the state of California and city of Los Angeles banned it, making it a misdemeanor to possess or sell it, punishable with up to six months in jail.
LAPD narcotics officer Cecil Mangrum, who has gone undercover to purchase bath salts from head shops, says a half-gram could be purchased for $50, good for a few uses. He said that stores have labeled the drug "not for human consumption" in an attempt to skirt the law. Despite the ban, Mangrum has a dire prediction: "It won't go away."