Bath Salts: Deep in the Heart of America's New Drug Nightmare

Photo by Nathaniel Wood
Photo by Nathaniel Wood

"Do I seem crazy to you?"

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LAS VEGAS, NV — John and Deanna are enrolled in a methadone program as treatment for heroin addiction. Today, we're rolling up I-15 to North Las Vegas so they can score some bath salts from their dealer. They can't test positive for any other kind of drug or they'll get kicked out of their program, but, luckily, bath salts don't show up in tests conducted by most rehab clinics, highway patrol, or probation officers. Only a handful of states have begun to update their drug tests; Nevada is not one of them.

John and Deanna have been "flying" — what they call panhandling — at the Walgreens near the University of Nevada, Las Vegas campus for close to two years. They've hustled a little more cash than usual today and are taking the rest of the afternoon off so they can shoot bath salts. In the car, John announces he's feeling chatty and excited because he doesn't usually get to shoot stimulants. Besides their five-dollar morning dose of methadone, the two only shoot heroin every four or five days in order to keep their opiate levels low. Anything approaching speed or hallucinogens is a rare treat.

We park across the street at a gas station. John gets out of the car and waits in front of a smoke shop in one of the many stucco strip malls lining Martin Luther King Blvd. John's dealer bought bath salts in bulk when they were readily available in head shops; now, he uses that reserve to sell to clients when they want to get high without testing dirty. A red car pulls up with John's dealer in it. John comes back to our car with a little plastic baggie filled with a chunk of white powder. A tension seems to lift in the car, and we all chat as though we were friends heading to a movie.

As we walk into a sour-smelling hotel room, Deanna, who was very quiet and nervous during the car ride, takes over as hostess — asking questions, offering seats, fetching water. John sits down and gently taps the product out of the baggie and onto a tabletop. He wants to snort it first. The bath salts, bought for $20, look like a chunk of rock cocaine. Carefully, he breaks the rock in half with a plastic room key and begins to cut lines. It's less powdery than cocaine, and grainier. John snorts a line. "This tastes way different from the other stuff we've done," he says with a grimace and a hard swallow. That could be because this packet has mephedrone, or MDPV, or methylone. Or all three. Or something else.

Photo by Nathaniel Wood

Deanna will not be snorting. "It makes me feel anxious. I hate how it feels." She reties her curly, dyed-pink hair back into a small ponytail. "I'll wait till John's ready to shoot." Deanna is 20 years old and has a slight accent from being raised in a Spanish-speaking house. She moved from Valencia, California, to Las Vegas when she was a junior in high school, so her father could find work. Now he cleans floors at a local city agency; Deanna's mom is disabled and stays at home in the weekly hotel room the family rents. "I was very sheltered," Deanna tells me as John snorts two lines and smacks his lips.

"This has a really strong chemical taste," he says. "Horrible drip. My stomach is already cramping."

After a few minutes, I ask John how he feels. "My heart is going really fast. I don't know if it feels good. I mean, I feel up, like way up, but I don't feel good, you know?" He laughs. So does Deanna. He blinks hard a few times and lights a cigarette. "I mean, it's different from methadone or heroin. It's a high that feels more like crystal, like I'm fluttering inside."

John, 37, first did cocaine with his father when he was 13. For a long stretch of his life, he was a crystal-meth addict; he's had jobs here and there doing inventory. He is gentle, eager to be liked, and tries to save up money so that he and Deanna can see punk bands. His ex-wife lives in town, but he's not in contact with her or their ten-year-old daughter.

John opens a bottle of water and pours a few drops into the cap. He puts the bath-salt rock into the water cap to dissolve. He and Deanna fall silent and hover over the cap.

"There's a lot of bullshit in this," John says. "It's not very water-soluble. See all this?" John points to the cloudy film on the water's surface. "That's all stuff that doesn't get you high. It's baking soda or baby powder. Oh well." He doesn't feel ripped-off. John is pleased that he can do something other than methadone today. Quickly, he finds a vein, pushes the needle up in it, and thumbs the dropper.

"Okay, my turn!" Deanna grins, balls up her fist, tilts her wrist, and presents the pallid part of her arm. John tries to find a workable vein for Deanna. After a few jabs and squirts of blood, he slowly presses down on the dropper.

A few minutes later, Deanna is hyperalert and talkative. She keeps interrupting John to ask questions, but before he can answer, she asks something else. She requests a pen and paper so she can keep track of her questions. We are mostly talking about music and a little bit about politics. She can't keep track of her questions on paper, either.

She blurts out, "Do I seem crazy to you? Like, super strung-out?" I tell her she just seems a little hyper. "Okay, good, because sometimes I worry that I'll break with reality like my mom does and not know it." Deanna's mother has a schizoid effective disorder, and Deanna fears she will develop it as well. She sees my makeup bag and asks if she can use some eye shadow. I say sure. She dumps out the contents and arranges them in neat rows for the next 20 minutes.

Photo by Nathaniel Wood

Deanna met John shortly after she was released from a psych ward. The transition from Valencia to Vegas was rough. She would fight with her mother and once threatened to kill herself. Her parents had her committed. She dropped out of high school and spent days taking walks around the neighborhood. She met John outside of Walgreens on one of her walks. "I knew he had a drug problem, but I didn't know he was an addict, you know?" she says, giggling. John is the only guy Deanna has ever been with. They both have hepatitis C.

"I told you I was a drug addict!" John insists.

Another ten minutes pass and then John's face gets a little pink; he's sweating a lot. "I feel really nauseous." He spends the next 20 minutes in the bathroom.

"I hope this wears off soon," Deanna says a little timidly, sounding almost embarrassed. She tells me she hates doing anything that isn't heroin, and won't even touch weed because it makes her so paranoid. I ask her how she feels now.

"You know," she says, "like I do whenever I shoot something into my veins. I hate myself."

This story originally appeared in the July/August 2012 issue of SPIN, which you can order here now.

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