Pubdate: Sat, 22 Jul 2017
Source: Montreal Gazette (CN QU)
Copyright: 2017 Postmedia Network Inc.
Author: Joe Schwarcz
Page: B5


So-called bath salts, other street drugs are not a safe way to seek

When someone offers a tiny packet of "bath salts" for sale with a
price tag somewhere between $30 and $50, you know that it is not meant
to be sprinkled into a bathtub. These "bath salts," commonly available
in head shops, online and even in some convenience stores, may sport a
label declaring "not for human consumption," but they are clearly
designed to cater to the insides of the body rather than the outside.

What is the goal of ingesting "bath salts?"

They are intended to produce a pleasurable high. The usual ingredients
are a couple of synthetic derivatives of cathinone, a psychoactive
compound that occurs naturally in the khat plant, native to Kenya.

Khat leaves have been chewed for hundreds of years in Africa,
particularly in Somalia and Yemen, the same way that coca leaves were
traditionally chewed in South America. Cathinone has no chemical
similarity to cocaine, but its molecular structure does resemble the
naturally occurring neurotransmitter dopamine and that accounts for
its mild stimulant effect. When we sense pleasure, whether it be from
sex, gambling or eating chocolate, it is because dopamine causes nerve
cells to "fire." This happens when it is released from one nerve cell,
crosses the tiny gap between nerve cells known as the synapse, and
fits into a receptor on an adjacent cell, much like a hand fits into a
glove. This then activates that cell to release dopamine, which
stimulates another cell, with the result being a cascade of signals
that equate to the sensation of pleasure. After dopamine has done its
job, it is released from the receptor and is taken back up into the
transmitting cell and the pleasure ! abates.

Cathinone apparently causes heightened awareness, alertness, excessive
talkativeness and a lowering of inhibitions by squeezing dopamine into
the synapse from the vesicles where it is stored in nerve cells.
Historically, the compound did not cause much concern, at least not
until clandestine chemists began to tinker with its molecular
structure, trying to increase its stimulant effect to make it more
marketable as a street drug. Attaching a methyl group (consisting of a
single carbon atom and three hydrogens) to cathinone turned out to be
a simple laboratory procedure. The resulting "methcathinone" was far
more potent as a stimulant and found a ready market on the street.

Unfortunately, the side effects were also more potent, with
methcathinone sometimes leading to extreme agitation and even
psychosis. Furthermore, methcathinone was addictive. But it was also
highly profitable. Motivated by the possibility of even greater
financial success, the underground chemists continued their molecular
fiddling hoping to find an even more potent cathinone derivative. And
they found it in 4-methylmethcathinone, christened as "mephedrone,"
sometimes referred to on the street as "meow-meow." Since the
substance had never been made before, it wasn't even illegal, at least
not until specific legislation was passed to criminalize it.

When such laws are passed, the underground chemists just modify the
molecular structure, slightly altering it into one that is legal
because it has never existed before. This gave birth to
methylenedioxypyrovalerone, abbreviated as MDPV, a compound that
turned out to be an even more potent stimulant, exhibiting a different
mode of action. Instead of triggering the release of dopamine, it
increased its concentration in the synapse by preventing its re-uptake
into the transmitting cell. This is just what cocaine does, but MDPV
turned out to be 10 times more potent than cocaine.

Bath salts that contain both mephedrone and MDPV present a double
whammy. One stimulates the release of dopamine, the other prevents its
re-uptake, with the result that synapses are flooded with dopamine.
This can cause hypertension, increased heart rate and can also trigger
delusions, paranoia, agitation and hallucinations. In one case, a
gunman high on MDPV fired randomly at strangers, another broke the
windows in his house and stumbled through the glass with bare feet. A
woman abandoned her two-year-old daughter on a highway because she
"was possessed by demons." Others have committed suicide.

MDPV was eventually made illegal, but declaring a substance to be
illegal doesn't stop its internet sales, especially when it is
advertised as a "bath salt" or "plant food." Besides the risks
attributed to the active ingredients in these concoctions, there is
always the possibility of chemical contaminants. Underground chemists
who cook up these street drugs in their basements are not overly
concerned about impurities, some of which may pose a greater risk than
the drug itself. These days, though, most "designer drugs" are not
cooked up in some biker lab, as is the case for crystal meth, they are
being produced by trained chemists in pharmaceutical labs in China and
other Asian countries. These experts are capable of coming up with
virtually endless variations of molecules that resemble cathinone and
numerous ways to create misery.

Cathinone isn't the only model compound that has prompted the
synthesis of novel derivatives. Synthetic cannabinoids based on the
structure of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main active ingredient in
marijuana, have appeared on the street under the name of "spice."
These are more potent than THC and have caused psychoses, strokes,
heart attacks and kidney damage. Mescaline, the psychedelic ingredient
in the peyote cactus, has also stirred the imagination of underground
chemists. They have seized upon a derivative originally developed for
pharmaceutical research, colloquially called the "N-bomb," and began
producing it to be sold as "LSD." But people who forked out money
thinking they were buying LSD got more than they bargained for.
Seizures, delirium, a racing heart and spikes in blood pressure have
been reported.

Street drugs, be they "spice," "N-bombs" or "bath salts," are not a
safe way to seek pleasure. Better to buy Epsom salt, that's the real
bath salt, and soak in that. A much safer way to experience moderate
dopamine release.
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MAP posted-by: Matt