Bath Salts 'Zombie' Drug Remains Cheap, Easy to Get, and Devastating
DISCLAIMER: This video contains graphic images
It has an innocent-sounding name; maybe you've heard people talking about "bath salts." But they have nothing to do with bath tubs. Bath salts are powerful stimulants that mess with your brain. Just a dose or two can hook you. And worst of all, bath salts are way too easy to buy.
Police officer [to detainee, in video footage]: What's your name?
Laura Ling/Reporter: People can have psychotic episodes, screaming at demons only they see, dangers only they feel.
[Detainee in video screams]
Ling: They can get violent, lashing out at themselves or at strangers, picking fights with parked cars, damaging property.
Ling: They're often oblivious to the risks they take, climbing barefoot under a high bridge, rolling around -- literally rolling around -- in traffic on a busy street. The drug makes the heartbeat accelerate so high, the internal body temperature sizzles, so stripping seems like the best way to cool off. Who knows what inner impulse then makes somebody want to jump between cars? The inaptly named drug "bath salts" is suspected of being behind all of these strange and scary incidents.
Police officer [to detainee]: Did you take the whole bottle of salts?
Ling: Although "bath salts" is the main name, there's lots of other slang for the drug, everything from "bubbles" to "bonzai fertilizer." It's made with scads of harmful, synthetic chemicals, most often MDPV, short for something pretty un-pronounceable. The federal government banned these ingredients in July of 2012, but all a manufacturer has to do to circumvent the law is tweak a few molecules to get an entirely new formula, so it's still out there. The U.S. Navy got so concerned about it, this video was made to warn their personnel about the danger.
Ling: But what would a smart, pretty, talented young woman know about one of the scariest drugs around?
Ling [to Hannah Gross]: Did you ever think that you would become addicted to bath salts?
Hannah Gross/Bath salts survivor: Not in a million years. I never thought that any drug would be able to overcome every aspect of my life the way that bath salts did.
Ling: And a privileged life at that! Two years ago, 21-year-old Hannah Gross was a happy, normal college student. She was raised by loving grandparents she calls and considers her mom and dad.
Ling [to Barbara Gross]: What was Hannah like before she got into bath salts?
Barbara Gross/Hannah's grandmother: Oh gosh! Well, every parent thinks their kid is just great, but she really was just great. She was very sweet, very gentle. Everybody loved her.
Ling: Her grandparents adopted Hannah when their daughter Rachel gave birth at age 16. Mother and daughter grew up more like sisters. After Rachel moved to Colorado, Hannah visited her for about a month. That's when they started using bath salts together. At the time, the drug was legal and readily available there, at every place from head shops to gas stations.
Ling: What did you think when you first started using it?
Hannah: I just thought of it as almost like buying an energy drink, or sometimes in gas stations they have the vitamin packs or the energy packs, something like that. Because that's how it felt at first -- just a stimulant. They give you energy.
Ling [to Hannah]: How much does the drug cost?
Hannah: I was paying $20 a gram for it.
Ling: And a gram would last you?
Hannah: Usually a day.
Ling [to Barbara]: Did you ever ask Hannah if she was using drugs?
Barbara: Yes. She denied it, absolutely denied it. She admitted in the past that she'd tried a few things. She's always been open before about the few things she tried with friends and always, always, this is the hard part, she's always been so totally honest before this.
Ling [to Hannah]: How quickly addicting was it?
Hannah: Pretty quickly. Basically from when I first started, I had to have it every day, even though it was changing my life and my brain. It's like a personalized hell for whoever you are, a specified, individual hell just for you.
Ling: By the time she returned home from her Colorado visit, Hannah was hooked, and it was horrible, starting with paranoia and ramping up to hearing voices and having vivid hallucinations.
Hannah: I thought I'd been abducted by aliens. Voices told me I had spiders in the back of my throat, and I would see them. And at one point, I thought I was turning into a giant spider. I felt like I had bugs in my skin and I had to get them out. I would get a flashlight and look at the back of my throat and see spiders walking around back there and they would only bite me, and I would feel them bite me if I would try to remove them.
There were visuals I would get that were so grotesque, they're like nothing I could ever even think up -- nothing I've seen in a movie. They felt very demonic. Very evil. Sinister.
Barbara: She's losing weight. She's losing interest. She doesn't want to go to work anymore, so she starts being late to work, so eventually that job is lost. She doesn't want to go back to school now, and so this is not my child anymore, and it just continues to get worse and worse.
Ling: Hannah seldom left the house, rarely left her room, rarely ate or slept. Since she vehemently denied being on drugs, her parents sent her to a psychiatrist, afraid that she was bi-polar like someone else in the family. In the midst of the mania, Hannah felt compelled to write about what was happening.
Hannah: When I wrote, I would hear voices threatening me, "Don't write that down about us. Don't give this out to anybody. Don't turn us in. We'll have you killed." Writing was my salvation and at the time I almost became too afraid to do that anymore.
Ling: As she was writing, something so strange happened. Hannah was suddenly able to write backwards.
Hannah: When you see it without a mirror, it looks completely illegible.
Ling [to Hannah]: Yeah, you can't tell at all what you're writing here.
Hannah: Yeah, it looks like scribbles, but when it's in a mirror, all of a sudden you can read it.
Ling: It says, "Why would you do that to me? Why? Do you remember who you were asking that question to?
Hannah: Yeah. All the voices that were calling me crazy, and I was convinced it was their fault that I was crazy.
Ling [to Jeff Voshall]: On a scale of one to 10, 10 being the most severe, I mean, how dangerous do you think bath salts are?
Jeff Voshall/Substance abuse counselor: Eleven.
Ling: Jeff Voshall was Hannah's counselor when she finally got into treatment. He says her hallucinations are entirely typical for bath salts users.
Voshall: Many of them will see dead bodies that aren't there. Whether it be animals or humans, they see dead bodies that nobody else is seeing. They can actually feel the body. They can see the body. Others are seeing people following them, and one of the symptoms I often see is they'll see a complete stranger and they want to confront this stranger and let them know that they know they're being followed.
Ling: Voshall says the appeal for some people is that bath salts can't be detected in standard, less expensive drug tests, although that's changing.
Voshall: Up until now, drug tests didn't exist for bath salts, and so they can buy it legally in stores and so you feel that there's this drug that I can use and not be in trouble for using. And so we're finding people that normally wouldn't use drugs are using bath salts.
Ling: He adds that manufacturers skirt the law by how they label the drug.
Voshall: And they'll put on the package that it's not for human consumption and not for minors, and so they find their loopholes. It seems like they're always one step ahead of us, and they just keep the lawmakers trying to play catch-up.
Ling: I got curious. How easy would it be to score some bath salts? I went undercover with "SoCal Connected" staffer Benjamin Gottlieb to nine L.A.-area stores. The results ranged from a clerk being completely baffled about what we wanted to a guy who told me to check back in about a month. At one place Ben was even warned not to use it.
Clerk [in undercover video]: I wouldn't recommend you do that again, man. You have to watch it with that stuff. That's really bad. Look it up on the computer.
Ling: We left empty-handed, unable to buy the drug at any of the nine places we visited.
Bath salts may be harder to buy in stores, but as long as you have a computer, you have access to bath salts. In fact, here's a website that has a telephone number where I can call to get some salts, so let's see if bath salts are as close as my phone. I'm going to call them up to see if I can make a purchase.
Ling [to person on phone]: I see that you have a lot. What do you recommend? The bliss or the avalanche or shock wave? [pause] Mmm, Makes me feel flying, like I could fly? That sounds good. [pause] The 8-ball has more legal cocaine. The bliss has more mephedrone? [pause] OK, so you can ship to California? How soon can I get it?
Ling: I didn't complete the order, but I did find out that the product would arrive in three to five days by UPS.
Ling [to Phillip Greer]: It is unfathomable how easy it is to get this stuff.
Phillip Greer/Attorney & consultant: And it's not just the specific bath salts or products. The problem is the underlying chemicals.
Ling: Attorney Phillip Greer is a consultant to several rehab centers. He has yet another perspective on the problem -- the availability of research chemicals that can be used to make bath salts.
Ling [to Greer]: Could I go online right now and purchase these chemicals?
Greer: Sure, absolutely. And that's the scary part, is that that is what can happen. All these are legal chemicals. They are then mixed and put into a container that is also -- quote -- legal because it has a disclaimer on it.
Ling and Greer [reading from screen]: MDPV.
Ling: That's one of the active ingredients in bath salts.
Ling: Greer is pushing for more regulation -- to allow legitimate researchers to get the chemicals online, while denying it to street chemists.
Greer: I'm a good Orange County Republican who has no real interest in regulating what does not need to be regulated, but this is something that needs to be regulated, because this is something that impacts everybody. It impacts our children. And it's a scary thing.
Ling [to Hannah]: Tell me what it was like at its worst when you were on bath salts.
Hannah: I felt that I had died and gone to hell, and I wondered at times if I was alive anymore. If it could do what it did to me and how happy I was and bring on anxiety and depression for the first time in my life and give me the hallucinations that it did, I don't even know what it's capable of doing to some other people. I would love for people to just take my word for it and let me to have gone through this for them -- for everybody that I can.
Photo associated with this story used courtesy of the Drug Enforcement Agency.