The last four decades have seen plenty of whipped-up hysteria about various fad intoxicants of the moment. But the fear generated by bath salts seems well earned. Dr. Mark Ryan, director at the Louisiana Poison Center, called bath salts “the worst drug” he has seen in his 20 years there. “With LSD, you might see pink elephants, but with this drug, you see demons, aliens, extreme paranoia, heart attacks, and superhuman strength like Superman,” Ryan has said. “If you had a reaction, it was a bad reaction.”
Starting in late 2010, an influx of violent, irrational, self-destructive users began to congest hospital ERs throughout the States. A 19-year-old West Virginia man claimed he was high on bath salts when he stabbed his neighbor’s pygmy goat while wearing women’s underwear; a Mississippi man skinned himself alive while under the influence. Users staggered in, or were carried in, consumed by extreme panic, tachycardia, deep paranoia, and heart-attack symptoms. (Perhaps the most infamous incident tied to bath salts is Rudy Eugene’s horrific naked face-eating attack in Miami in May, although conclusive toxicology reports have yet to be released; still, the fact that this feels like the closest thing to a credible explanation for chewing a homeless man’s head for 18 minutes speaks volumes about the drug’s reputation.)
For the large-scale distribution of bath salts that’s currently taking place in the United States, one needs to know more than your average backyard tweaker. This is advanced-level chemistry. “What they’re doing is taking the molecules they’ve made and that they’ve read about and they’re putting different pieces together to form something totally new,” Berrier says. “And it makes it harder for us to do the analysis because it’s totally new.” In other words, synthetic drug organizations have guys like Berrier working for them, too. “I think, forensically, it’s a game of Whac-A-Mole,” says Jeffrey Scott, a former narcotics agent in the field who now works at DEA headquarters.