NIDA for Teens: The Science Behind Drug Abuse
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Spice, Salvia, and Bath Salts


What Is Spice?

K2, a popular brand of "Spice" mixture.

“Spice” is a mix of herbs that produce experiences similar to marijuana (cannabis). Spice mixtures are marketed as “natural,” legal alternatives to marijuana, but labeled “not for human consumption.” They are sold under many names—K2, fake weed, Yucatan Fire, Skunk, Moon Rocks, and others. They contain dried, shredded plant material along with manmade chemicals that cause mind-altering effects.

For several years, Spice has been easy to purchase in head shops (stores that sell drug products) and gas stations and online. But, the chemicals used in Spice have a high potential for abuse and no medical benefit. So, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has made it against the law to sell, buy, or possess them. People who make Spice products try to avoid these legal restrictions by using different chemicals in their mixtures. The DEA continues to watch the situation and review the need to update the list of banned chemicals.

How Many Teens Use Spice Products?

A graph depicting the use of illicit drugs.

Text alternative for Past-Year Use of Illicit Drugs graph

Spice products are popular among young people; of the illegal drugs most used by high-school seniors, they are second only to marijuana. Easy access and the misunderstanding that Spice products are “natural” and safe have likely contributed to their popularity.

How Is Spice Abused?

Some Spice products are sold as “incense,” but they look more like potpourri. Like marijuana, most people smoke Spice. Sometimes, it is mixed with marijuana or is prepared as an herbal tea for drinking.

How Does Spice Affect the Brain?

Many Spice users have experiences similar to what they would experience if they used marijuana—relaxed feelings and changes in perception. In some cases, the effects are even stronger than those of marijuana. Some users report effects like extreme anxiety, paranoia, and hallucinations.

Spice is pretty new, so we haven’t yet studied how it affects the brain. We do know that the chemicals found in Spice attach to the same nerve cell receptors as THC, the main mind-altering component of marijuana. Some of the chemicals found in Spice, however, attach to those receptors more strongly, which could lead to a much stronger and more unpredictable effect. We don’t know the chemical composition of many products sold as Spice. So, it’s likely that some varieties also contain substances that could cause very different effects than the user might expect.

What Are the Other Health Effects of Spice?

People who abused Spice and were taken to Poison Control Centers report symptoms like a fast heart rate, vomiting, agitation, confusion, and hallucinations. Spice can also raise blood pressure and cause less blood to flow to the heart. In a few cases, it has been associated with heart attacks. People who use Spice a lot may experience withdrawal and addiction symptoms.

We still do not know all the ways Spice may affect a person’s health or how toxic it may be, but it is possible that there may be harmful heavy metal residues in Spice mixtures. We’ll have to study the drug more to find out.


What Is Salvia?

A S. divinorum plant.

Salvia (Salvia divinorum) is an herb found in southern Mexico and Central and South America. The main active ingredient in Salvia, salvinorin A, affects the brain by attaching to targets on nerve cells called kappa opioid receptors. These receptors are different from those activated by the more well-known opioids, such as heroin and morphine.

Traditionally, people chew fresh S. divinorum leaves or drink their extracted juices. The dried leaves of S. divinorum can also be smoked as a joint, inhaled through water pipes, or vaporized and inhaled. Although Salvia is not prohibited by Federal law, several States and countries have passed laws to regulate its use. The Drug Enforcement Agency has listed Salvia as a drug of concern and is considering classifying it as a Schedule I drug, like LSD or marijuana.

What Are the Common Effects?

People who abuse Salvia generally experience hallucinations or a loss of contact with reality. The effects are intense but do not last long, appearing in less than 1 minute and lasting less than 30 minutes. They include changes in visual perception, mood and body sensations, emotional swings, and feelings of detachment. People also report a very different perception of reality and of oneself and have trouble interacting with their surroundings. This last effect has raised worry about the dangers of driving under the influence of salvinorin A. The long-term effects of Salvia abuse have not been fully studied. Recent experiments in rodents show that salvinorin A harms learning and memory.

Who Uses Salvia?

NIDA’s Monitoring the Future (MTF) study asked 8th-, 10th-, and 12th-graders about Salvia abuse for the first time in 2009—5.7 percent of high school seniors reported that they used it during the past year (greater than the percentage who reported using Ecstasy). And according to the latest MTF figures, the use of Salvia reported by 10th- and 12th-graders decreased from 2011 to 2012, with 2.5 percent of 10th-graders and 4.4 percent of 12th-graders reporting using it in the past year. Although information about this drug is limited, its abuse is likely driven by drug-related videos and information on Internet sites.

Other Information Sources

For more information on the effects of hallucinogenic drugs, see NIDA’s Research Report on Hallucinogens and Dissociative Drugs.

Find more information on Salvia divinorum and the Controlled Substances Act [PDF - 102.25 KB]

Bath Salts

What Are Bath Salts?

A bag of bath salts.

“Bath salts” are a new family of drugs containing one or more manmade chemicals related to cathinone, an amphetamine-like stimulant found naturally in the khat plant.

There have been reports of severe intoxication and dangerous health effects from using bath salts. These reports have made the drugs a serious and growing public health and safety issue. The synthetic cathinones in bath salts can produce feelings of joy and increased sociability and sex drive. But some people who abuse bath salts experience paranoia, agitation, and hallucinations; some even lose contact with reality and act violently. Deaths have been reported in several cases.

What Are the Common Street Names?

The synthetic cathinone products sold as “bath salts” should not be confused with products like Epsom salts that are sold to improve the experience of bathing. Epsom salts have no drug-like properties.

Bath salts are usually white or brown crystalline powder and are sold in small plastic or foil packages labeled “not for human consumption.” Sometimes labeled as “plant food”—or, more recently, as “jewelry cleaner” or “phone screen cleaner”—they are sold online and in drug product stores under a variety of brand names, such as “Ivory Wave,” “Bloom,” “Cloud Nine,” “Lunar Wave,” “Vanilla Sky,” “White Lightning,” and “Scarface.”

How Are Bath Salts Abused?

Bath salts are typically swallowed, inhaled, or injected, with the worst dangers being associated with snorting or needle injection.

How Do Bath Salts Affect the Brain?

Common manmade cathinones found in bath salts include 3,4-methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV), mephedrone (“Drone,” “Meph,” or “Meow Meow”), and methylone, but there are many others. There is a lot we still don’t know about how these substances affect the human brain, and each one may have somewhat different properties. Chemically, they are similar to amphetamines (such as methamphetamine) and to MDMA (Ecstasy).

The energizing and often agitating effects reported in people who have taken bath salts are similar to the effects of other drugs like amphetamines and cocaine. These drugs raise the level of the neurotransmitter dopamine in brain circuits that control reward and movement. Dopamine is the main neurotransmitter that makes people feel good when they do something they enjoy. A rush of dopamine in these circuits causes feelings of joy and increased activity and can also raise heart rate and blood pressure. Learn more about how neurotransmitters work in the section “How Does the Brain Communicate?”.

Bath salts have been marketed as cheap (and until recently, legal—see Box) substitutes for stimulants like amphetamines and cocaine. A recent study found that MDPV—the most common manmade cathinone found in the blood and urine of patients admitted to emergency departments after taking bath salts—raises brain dopamine in the same way as cocaine but is at least 10 times stronger..

The hallucinatory effects often reported in users of bath salts are similar to the effects caused by other drugs such as MDMA or LSD. These drugs raise levels of another neurotransmitter, serotonin, in a way that is similar to MDMA.

What Are the Other Health Effects of Bath Salts?

Bath salts have been linked to a high number of visits to emergency departments and Poison Control Centers across the country. Reports show bath salts users have needed medical attention for heart problems (such as racing heart, high blood pressure, and chest pains) and symptoms like paranoia, hallucinations, and panic attacks.

Patients with the syndrome known as “excited delirium” from taking bath salts also may have dehydration, breakdown of skeletal muscle tissue, and kidney failure. Intoxication from several synthetic cathinones including MDPV, mephedrone, methedrone, and butylone has caused death in several instances.

Synthetic cathinones appear to have a high abuse and addiction potential. Rats in an experiment administered themselves the drug and increased the amount they took in a pattern identical to the way they took methamphetamine. Bath salts users have reported that the drugs cause an intense urge to use the drug again and that they are highly addictive. Frequent use may cause tolerance, dependence, and strong withdrawal symptoms when not taking the drug.

The dangers of bath salts are even more complicated when you consider that these products may contain other, unknown ingredients that may have their own harmful effects.

Also, people who believe they are purchasing other drugs such as Ecstasy may be in danger of receiving synthetic cathinones instead. For example, mephedrone has been found commonly substituted for MDMA in pills sold as Ecstasy in the Netherlands.

An Evolving Threat

When bath salts emerged at the end of the last decade, they rapidly gained popularity in the United States and Europe as “legal highs.” In October 2011, the Drug Enforcement Administration placed three common synthetic cathinones under emergency ban pending further investigation, and in July 2012, President Obama signed legislation permanently making two of them—mephedrone and MDPV—illegal along with several other synthetic drugs often sold as marijuana substitutes (“Spice”).

Although the new law also prohibits chemically similar “analogues” of the named drugs, manufacturers are expected to respond by creating new drugs different enough from the banned substances to evade legal restriction. After mephedrone was banned in the United Kingdom in 2010, for example, a chemical called naphyrone quickly replaced it, and is now being sold as “jewelry cleaner” under the brand name “Cosmic Blast.”



  1. National Institute on Drug Abuse. DrugFacts: Spice (Synthetic Marijuana) ( Bethesda, MD. NIDA, NIH, DHHS. Revised December 2012. Retrieved December 2012.
  2. National Institute on Drug Abuse. DrugFacts: Salvia ( Bethesda, MD. NIDA, NIH, DHHS. Revised December 2012. Retrieved December 2012.
  3. National Institute on Drug Abuse. DrugFacts: Synthetic Cathinones (“Bath Salts”) ( Bethesda, MD. NIDA, NIH, DHHS. Published November 2012. Retrieved December 2012.
  4. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Monitoring the Future. Data Tables and Figures ( and Bethesda, MD: NIDA, NIH, DHHS. December 2012. Retrieved December 2012.