Synthetic cathinones, more commonly known as “bath salts,” are human-made stimulants chemically related to cathinone, a substance found in the khat plant. Khat is a shrub grown in East Africa and southern Arabia, where some people chew its leaves for their mild stimulant effects. Human-made versions of cathinone can be much stronger than the natural product and, in some cases, very dangerous.
Synthetic cathinones usually take the form of a white or brown crystal-like powder and are sold in small plastic or foil packages labeled “not for human consumption.” They can be labeled as bath salts, plant food, jewelry cleaner, or phone screen cleaner.
Synthetic cathinones are part of a group of drugs that concern public health officials called new psychoactive substances (NPS). NPS are unregulated psychoactive mind-altering substances with no legitimate medical use and are made to copy the effects of controlled substances. They are introduced and reintroduced into the market in quick succession to dodge or hinder law enforcement efforts to address their manufacture and sale.
Synthetic cathinones are marketed as cheap substitutes for other stimulants such as amphetamines and cocaine. Products sold as Molly often contain synthetic cathinones instead of MDMA (see Synthetic Cathinones and Molly (Ecstasy)
How do synthetic cathinones affect the brain?
Much is still unknown about how synthetic cathinones affect the human brain. Researchers do know that synthetic cathinones are chemically similar to drugs like amphetamines, cocaine, and MDMA.
A study found that 3,4-methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV), a common synthetic cathinone, affects the brain in a manner similar to cocaine, but is at least 10 times more powerful. MDPV is the most common synthetic cathinone found in the blood and urine of patients admitted to emergency departments after taking bath salts.
Synthetic cathinones can produce effects that include:
- paranoia—extreme and unreasonable distrust of others
- hallucinations—experiencing sensations and images that seem real but are not
- increased friendliness
- increased sex drive
- panic attacks
- excited delirium—extreme agitation and violent behavior