Who Do We Blame for Bath Salts? William-Sonoma, or Government Drug Policies?

06/22/2012 04:25 EDT | Updated 08/22/2012 05:12 EDT

The recent episode of cannibalism in Miami sent shockwaves of disgust and horror across the world, with some commentators likening it to an impending zombie apocalypse. When it was announced that the perpetrator was high on something called "bath salts" during the time of the attack, a new wave of drug hysteria (think reefer madness) launched full tilt. Out of nowhere, a drug emerged that could turn people into zombie cannibals. Or at least that was the tacit implication of much of the media coverage. Suddenly, seemingly disconnected acts of violence could be easily explained by deadly bath salts.

As always, some important questions got lost in the coverage of this newest killer drug, such as: Why did bath salts suddenly show up on the drug landscape? And, more importantly, why are people using them?

Bath salts are just one of many emerging synthetic drugs. While on the street, what is sold as bath salts can vary widely (sometimes containing nothing more than caffeine and aspirin, according to some reports), "pure" bath salts contain mephedrone, an amphetamine-type stimulant that produces effects similar to speed, ecstasy or cocaine. Like other designer drugs, bath salts are produced by altering the chemical composition of currently illegal drugs such as crystal methamphetamine or cocaine to provide a "high" while skirting existing drug laws.

Bath salts aren't the first of this type of quasi-illegal drug, and they won't be the last. In fact, after bath salts were identified in Europe in January 2010 as a new psychoactive substance of concern, the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction launched a joint task force to identify new and emerging psychoactive substances. The result? In 2010 alone, they identified 41 new psychoactive substances across Europe, all of which had chemical structures loosely based on existing illegal drugs. Bath salts, it turns out, were just a drop in the bucket.

So what is motivating the production of these new psychoactive drugs? The answer may, paradoxically, be the result of escalating attempts at prohibiting the use of the slate of drugs we know about like cocaine, heroin, cannabis and amphetamines. Basic economic theory demonstrates that with increasing attempts at enforcing bans on these substances through arrest and incarceration, drug suppliers will naturally diversify to reduce risk and maintain profits.

Simply put, if methamphetamine production is illegal and bath salts production isn't, as is the case in our current system, drug supplies have an incentive to switch to the production of the non-illegal drug. While the natural reaction to this situation might be to want to extend prohibition even further, chemists are able to develop new drugs with incredible swiftness, at a rate that outpaces the development of society's capacity to put into place policies that can control them. As our drug policies become more stringent, the incentive to develop new and ever more unpredictable drugs to skirt existing laws simply increases.

Of course, the emergence of new synthetic drugs is concerning exactly because their psychotropic effects are unpredictable. But dig a little deeper, and it becomes clear that many of the dangers we associate with drugs are related to the effects of existing policies, rather than to the drugs themselves.

Like bath salts users, heroin, cocaine or ecstasy users generally don't know what is in the drugs they buy, because knowing the purity or dosage of illegal or quasi-legal drugs is impossible when they're bought on the street. This lack of information is one of the primary drivers of fatal overdose, which kills tens of thousands each year and represents one of the most harmful unintended consequences of the prohibition of drugs.

So are bath salts really the first wave of the zombie apocalypse? When placed in their proper context, it seems, sadly, that they're just the latest manifestation of "zombie" drug policies -- policies that mindlessly multiply drug-related harms and contribute to an ever-increasing landscape of quasi-legal substances. Chilling stuff.