Designer drugs called ‘bath salts’ in the U.S. are dangerous to Americans, but addiction is epidemic among Russians, especially women. Many shoot up, and many contract HIV/AIDS.
The door to the help center for drug addicts flew wide open and Christina stormed in. Her jaw was shifted to the right, her eyes rolled from side to side, her facial muscles, arms and shoulders were twitching. She squeezed a plastic bottle with green tea soft drink and took a few rushed sips amid what appeared to be spasms.
The center’s social workers had seen 19-year-old Christina in that condition before. The young unemployed woman was a regular user of drugs called “salts” in Russia, a genre of narcotic known in the United States as “bath salts,” or “psychoactive bath salts,” PABS for short.
Earlier this decade there were a spate of sensational stories in America about these designer drugs—designed, that is, to circumvent legal restrictions. In the U.S. they have been sold on the internet, in head shops, even in convenience stores, although the key ingredients—MDPV (also known as 3,4-Methylenedioxypyrovalerone) and/or mephedrone—have been illegal since 2010.
They can cause agitation, hallucinations, psychosis, suicidal thoughts, and heart attacks. But their abuse in the U.S. pales compared to the opioid epidemic, which includes heroin and especially oxycodone-based prescription drugs. In Russia, heroin is a plague as well, but the newer epidemic is “salts.”
They can be swallowed, smoked, or snorted, but, as with other drugs, the most dramatic impact comes when you inject them, and more and more Russians, especially women like Christina, are seeking their narcotic escape into euphoria and addiction through a needle. Ironically, many believed at first that salts were somehow safer than heroin, and now they face tragic consequences.
Earlier this month Christina took a free HIV test at the Navigator nongovernmental center assisting addicts and it came back positive. The news did not surprise Christina. She is a fatalist. She knows she is a statistic. There are hundreds of thousands of salts users in Russia, and almost a million victims of the country’s HIV/AIDS epidemic.
The drug spans all ages and is used by men as well, but women appear to be particularly vulnerable. It is found throughout the country. Even school children purchase salts on the internet.
The Daily Beast spoke with five local women drug users here in Irkutsk, one of major cities in Siberia. All admitted they are infected with HIV and Hepatitis C. But far from deterring their addiction, their diseases become a further reason for it. Therapists note that addicted women often feel lost, trapped in their sick bodies, without anybody to share their fears. Drugs intensify the usual issues many Russian women experience: loneliness, domestic violence, and social indifference to their plight.
Last year Russia’s State Duma, or parliament, discussed a bill that would allow the prosecution of drug users. Not many in Russia would object if the bill passed. Earlier this year 78 percent of Russians said they wanted to see drug users in prison, according to VTSIOM, Russian Public Opinion Research Center.
“There is as much ‘salts’ in Siberia as snow.”
— —A saying among addicts and doctors
Here in Irkutsk women addicted to salts hang out around the city market. To buy a dose, which costs less than $10, some make money as sex workers at local salons offering intimate services; others distribute drugs or hope to get a share from a friend. A common joke goes, “There is as much salts in Siberia as snow.”