If you take MDMA—the primary ingredient in ecstasy—you might be getting more than you bargained for. New research shows that the hair samples of some people who take the popular party drug MDMA test positive for levels of various contaminants, including “bath salts,” synthetic drugs that are chemically similar to a stimulant called cathinone.
In the study, published in February in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, researchers collected hair samples from 48 people outside nightclubs or at festivals in the New York City area who admitted to taking MDMA (also known as “Molly” when used in its presumably pure form) in the past. The majority of respondents reported never knowingly ingesting bath salts or any unknown powders in the past. However, 40 percent of these samples tested positive for bath salts.
Study lead author Joseph Palamar, a researcher at New York University, says that many people have been unknowingly getting high on bath salts. “A lot of people are so inexperienced, they don’t know what ecstasy is supposed to feel like, because they have been taking bath salts the whole time,” Palamar says.
Although there hasn’t been a ton of academic research done in this area, Palamar says that many people who have their MDMA tested report finding high levels of adulterants—and it’s definitely a growing problem.
There are a wide variety of bath salts, and they generally don’t have the exact same effects as pure MDMA, such as increased empathy and sociability. That said, to an inexperienced user, some bath salts can mimic the effects of Molly. Methylone, also known as M1, and found in 10 percent of hair samples in this study, “has almost the same potency” as MDMA, writes researcher Alexander Shulgin. “It has an almost antidepressant action, pleasant and positive, but not the unique magic of MDMA.”
While bath salts have been vilified in the media, they are not quite as scary as they’ve been made out to be. For example, whenever the topic of bath salts come up, many cite the case of a Florida man who beat up and chewed on the face of a homeless man in May 2012 while allegedly on the influence of the drug. However, subsequent tests revealed no bath salts in the attacker’s system.
“Bath salts won’t turn you into a zombie or a face-eating monster,” Palamar says. But, that said, “you don’t want to take them” because their effects are not well-known, and new unexamined varieties are created almost every day, he adds. “At least with MDMA, we have know about its effects for decades now,” he says. “But a lot of these bath salt drugs could be more dangerous.”
Unexpectedly, the researchers found a drug called alpha-PVP, also known as flakka, in the hair of one study participant. These is one of the most potent and dangerous bath salts, and has been blamed for scores of deaths in Florida.
There are a variety of drug-testing kits that can test for the presence of various adulterants like bath salts in MDMA, Palamar says. He recommends that if people decide to take the drug, which is (obviously) illegal, and which he, as a government-funded researcher, doesn’t condone, they get it tested.