Up-to-Date Information on Synthetic Cathinones
Synthetic cathinones are a group of amphetamine-like chemicals based on cathinone, a mind-altering substance found in the plant species Catha edulis. In recent years, these chemicals have entered mainstream conversation as the active ingredients in the euphemistically named, illegal drugs called “bath salts.” In addition, certain legal prescription drugs -including the antidepressant, anti-smoking medication buproprion (Wellbutrin, Zyban) – also belong to the synthetic cathinone family. Because of the relative newness of “bath salts,” no one knows for sure what types of damage long-term abuse of most synthetic cathinones will produce in the body. However, doctors and researchers have documented many of the potential consequences of short-term abuse of these drugs.
The leaves of the Catha edulis plant are also known as khat, a stimulant with fairly wide distribution in eastern Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. In addition to naturally occurring cathinone, it contains another active ingredient called cathine. Both of these substances bear a chemical resemblance to amphetamine, the National Institute on Drug Abuse explains; however, compared to amphetamine, their effects are relatively weak. As with amphetamine, these effects commonly include the pleasurable mental state known as euphoria, increased alertness, and several nervous system changes-including increased blood pressure and accelerated heart and breathing rates-associated with the body’s inborn “fight-or-flight” reaction. Federal drug laws in the United Stated do not specifically ban the Catha edulis plant; however, they do ban the sale, possession, or use of cathinone.
Specific synthetic cathinones contained in various “bath salt” formulas include substances called methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV), mephedrone, butylone, methedrone, ethcathinone, dimethylcathinone and pyrovalerone. Each of these substances produces its specific mind-altering effects in slightly different ways, according to a study published in 2013 in the “European Journal of Pharmacology.” However, like amphetamine, MDMA (Ecstasy) and other stimulant drugs, they all produce their basic effects by altering normal levels of three chemicals: dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine, which are classified as neurotransmitters. Inside the brain and spinal cord (central nervous system), each of these chemicals contributes to normal function by facilitating different types of communication between individual nerve cells called neurons.
Synthetic cathinones come in forms that include powders, liquids, crystals, capsules, and tablets. Depending on the substance in question, common methods of use may include nasal inhalation, oral ingestion, smoking, or injection. In addition, some people spray cathinone solutions onto their nasal membranes or release cathinone drops inside their eyelids. Names for illegal products that contain synthetic cathinones include Ivory Wave, Blizzard, Bliss, White Dove, Vanilla Sky, Purple Wave, Snow Leopard, and Blue Silk.
The pleasurable sensations associated with synthetic cathinones come from the drugs’ ability to increase dopamine levels in the central nervous system. Increased levels of norepinephrine activate the “fight-or-flight” response, while increased levels of serotonin can produce hallucinatory effects that resemble the effects produced by Ecstasy or more strictly hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD and psilocybin. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the dopamine increase produced by the most widely distributed synthetic cathinone, MDPV, is roughly 10 times the dopamine increase produced by an equivalent amount of cocaine.
People who take relatively large doses of a synthetic cathinone may experience short-term side effects that include delirium, strong hallucinations, paranoia, a form of anxiety called a panic attack, an accelerated heartbeat (tachycardia), an abnormally high body temperature (hyperthermia), abnormally high blood pressure, and the heart-related chest pain called angina. In addition, some people develop a condition known as excitement delirium, which features serious dehydration, a form of dangerous muscle tissue breakdown called rhabdomyolysis, and potentially fatal kidney failure directly related to rhabdomyolysis’ effects on normal kidney function. Specific forms of synthetic cathinone associated with fatal outcomes include MDPV, butylone, methedrone, and mephedrone.
Like abuse of other stimulant drugs that alter central nervous system function, synthetic cathinone abuse may lead to the onset of drug addiction, which involves a physical dependence on the substance in question, as well as recurring cravings for the substance and ongoing participation in behaviors that make it easier to satisfy those cravings. In addition to “bath salts,” products containing various synthetic cathinones are sometimes falsely marketed as plant fertilizers, insect repellants, or carpet fresheners. Federal law currently bans the use, sale, or possession of the main cathinones found in these products, as well as any drug that’s closely chemically related to these substances. However, illicit drug manufacturers regularly attempt to skirt the law by making new cathinone-based products based on technically legal chemical formulas. Unfortunately, this practice creates ongoing serious risks for synthetic cathinone abusers, since no one knows how any given new formula will affect human health.