“Bath salts,” “vacuum fresheners” and “plant food” seem innocuous enough. You can pick then up at some gas stations, convenience stores, some garden supply shops, or order them on the Internet. Except that the contents may not be what the labels suggest. These “bath salts” and “plant food,” for those in the know, are code names for synthetic cathinones, substances that can be ingested, inhaled or smoked for stimulant effects similar to amphetamines.
Synthetic cathinones are central nervous system stimulants, chemically similar to cathinone, a compound that occurs naturally in the khat plant. Cathinone itself is a controlled substance and possession is illegal, but synthetic derivatives are in sort of a legal limbo because they have not been specifically listed as being illegal. That doesn’t mean they don’t present a danger. These cathinone analogues can raise blood pressure, cause an increased heart rate, trigger hallucinations, agitation and delusions. Current drug screens do not detect cathinone derivatives and while tests to detect them can be developed, clandestine chemists always seem to be one step ahead.
When attention focuses on a synthetic cathinone that has been identified and warnings from regulatory authorities start to circulate about it, the clever crooks just make a new derivative that isn’t illegal because it hasn’t previously existed. In any case, legal action is difficult because the products are marked as “not for human consumption.” Of course, those “in the know,” are not buying “bath salts” to sprinkle into their bath or “plant food” to fertilize their tomatoes. They are looking to fertilize their euphoria.
People who mess around with synthetic cathinones generally know that illegal substances can trigger adverse effects and realize that they are taking a risk. But nobody is likely to accidentally ingest a synthetic cathinone that masquerades as a bath salt. People who purchase what they think are actual bath salts are not going to taste them. But adding undeclared illegal substances to products that are meant to be ingested is quite another story. And this happens. The dietary supplement industry in North America is huge, with annual sales of some thirty billion dollars. The marketplace in this area is very competitive and some unethical manufacturers try to get a step up on the competition by including drugs that are either illegal or are supposed to be available only by prescription.
For example, so-called “natural” weight loss products have been found to contain fenfluramine, an appetite suppressant that was removed from the market because of side effects, or sibutramine which is a prescription weight loss drug. Some bodybuilding supplements may contain illegal steroids and sex enhancement products may be fortified with Viagra like drugs while arthritis remedies may be spiked with non-steroidal anti- inflammatory medications. All of these can produce unexpected and possibly dangerous side effects. For the vast majority of dietary supplements the only risk is an overdose of hype, but the public should be aware of the fact that so called “natural health products” are not subject to the same type of regulations and scrutiny as prescription drugs and that many cases of adulteration may go undetected.