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  • Khat (catha edulis) is a flowering plant that grows wild in eastern and southern Africa.

    In these regions, there is a long history of locals chewing on the leaves and buds of khat plants to release a natural alkaloid cathinone, a chemical compound that acts as a reasonably powerful stimulant somewhat similar to the leaves of the coca plant in South America.

    However, covert drug labs have begun to produce a variety of synthetic cathinone derivatives with chemical structures similar to khat, leading to the emergence of new and dangerous substances in the illicit drug markets of the United States and Europe.

    What Are Synthetic Cathinones (Bath Salts)?

    Synthetic cathinones are a group of powerful khat analogues that include:

    • pyrovalerone (4‐methyl‐β‐keto‐prolintane)
    • mephedrone (4-methylmethcathinone, 4-MMC, or meow meow)
    • methedrone (para-methoxymethcathinone)
    • methylone (3,4-methylenedioxy-N-methylcathinone)
    • methcathinone (α-methylamino-propiophenone, or ephedrine)
    • MDPV (3,4-methylenedioxypyrovalerone)

    These drugs are called bath salts or psychoactive bath salts because they can look similar to some Epsom salt products used for bathing. Inside the body, however, they have unpredictable effects that may resemble those of high doses of cocaine or methamphetamine.

    Bath salts are also chemically-similar to Flakka (alpha-PVP), another potent and illicit stimulant drug, and both can be abused by snorting, swallowing, smoking, or injection.

    How Synthetic Cathinones Work

    The precise method of action of various bath salt drugs is not fully understood. However, they appear to target monoamine transporters, leading to an increase in dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine levels, and increased activity at the receptors for these key neurotransmitters.

    This increased neurotransmitter activity then greatly increases central nervous system activity overall.

    Synthetic Cathinones Drug Classification

    Bath salts are considered Schedule I illicit substances in the United States. They can be classified as phenethylamines, khat analogues, and stimulant drugs.

    They are also considered to belong to the new psychoactive substances (NPS) drug class, also sometimes known as designer drugs or legal highs. 

    This is an eclectic grouping of new and unusual mind-altering drugs of abuse produced to mimic the effects of well-known controlled substances like amphetamines, benzodiazepines, narcotics, synthetic cannabinoids, and others.

    Identifying Synthetic Cathinones

    Bath salts resemble white or brown crystalline powders and may be packaged in capsules or small packets which are labeled as bath salts, plant food, research chemicals, or cleaning products. 

    Despite often being marked as “not for human consumption” these drugs are ultimately intended for recreational drug use and are typically sold at low prices.

    Street Drugs Laced With Bath Salts

    Bath salts are often distributed using deceptive means, being laced into 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA/Ecstasy) tablets with LSD or used as substitutes for counterfeit prescription drugs or other illicit substances.

    Many who take these drugs are never even aware they have done so, and common drug testing kits will likely not identify synthetic cathinones, though some harm reduction test kits may.

    Effects Of Synthetic Cathinones

    The felt effects of synthetic cathinones resemble those of other phenethylamine drugs like amphetamine, methamphetamine, and MDMA. 

    However, bath salts also have a reputation for potency and unpredictability, with some varieties estimated to be around 10 times stronger than cocaine by weight.

    Common symptoms of bath salt ingestion include: 

    • euphoria
    • reduced inhibition
    • increased sex drive
    • energy, heart rate (tachycardia)
    • breathing (hyperventilation)
    • body temperature (hyperthermia)
    • blood pressure (hypertension)

    Physical & Mental Health Side Effects

    The drug can also cause serious mental or physical side effects and overdose effects that may include:

    • chest pain
    • agitation
    • disorganized thoughts
    • paranoia
    • panic attacks
    • hallucinations
    • bizarre or violent behavior
    • psychosis
    • excited delirium
    • dehydration
    • muscle tissue breakdown
    • kidney failure

    In severe cases, especially when injected, synthetic cathinone toxicity can be life-threatening. And each year, the number of overdose fatalities contributed to bath salts and similar novel stimulant drugs continues to grow.

    Are Synthetic Cathinones Addictive?

    Just like other potent stimulants, including methamphetamine and cocaine, the stimulant effects of synthetic cathinones can be habit forming. 

    In fact, even a single use can teach your brain to crave another rush and high. And, this reprogramming deepens the longer the drug is used and abused, leading to severe effects on a person’s thinking, personality, behavior, and personal priorities.

    Withdrawal & Dependence

    In addition to these psychological effects, prolonged synthetic cathinone use promotes the development of physical dependence and tolerance as the body adapts to the drug over time. 

    Once this occurs, a person won’t be able to stop taking the drug without experiencing a temporary period of difficult drug withdrawal symptoms, which may include:

    • feelings of depression
    • anxiety
    • tremors
    • problems sleeping
    • paranoia
    • intense drug cravings

    Synthetic Cathinone Addiction Treatment

    Stimulant use disorders, a form of drug addiction, can be treated using a variety of different techniques, including

    If you or your loved ones have been taking bath salts or other unpredictable street drugs, the physical and mental consequences may be severe, or even lethal. For information on our inpatient and outpatient treatment options, please contact us today.

    Written by Ark Behavioral Health Editorial Team
    ©2024 Ark National Holdings, LLC. | All Rights Reserved.
    This page does not provide medical advice.

    Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) - Drug Fact Sheet: Bath Salts
    European Journal of Pharmacology - Psychoactive “bath salts”: not so soothing
    National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) - Synthetic Cathinones ("Bath Salts") DrugFacts

    Medically Reviewed by
    Kimberly Langdon M.D.
    on November 14, 2022
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