Thousands of party-goers travelled to Gozo last weekend for the annual pilgrimage of debauchery at the Nadur Carnival, which for some would have included casual drug use. Ivan Martin reports on how experts are grappling with the rise of a new phenomenon on the drug scene: Chinese synthetics.

Chemist Godwin Sammut has been testing drugs seized by the national authorities for 17 years and is signalling a warning about a relatively new trend on the market: synthetic cathinones, more commonly known as ‘bath salts’.

He said the laboratory-made stimulants posing as popular party drugs cocaine and MDMA – the active ingredient in ecstasy pills – have become increasingly common in police hauls of illicit substances and could be what drug dealers have on offer.

“Bath salts are new, dangerous drugs. They are sold posing as commonly used stimulants and are being imported from China through the post. I would say that yes, large quantities are being discovered,” Mr Sammut, a lecturer at the University of Malta’s Chemistry Department told The Sunday Times of Malta.

Brown powder would most definitely mean heroin, and white power was cocaine. Colourful tablets with logos would mean ecstasy. However, this is no longer necessarily the case today

This newspaper first reported on the appearance of copycat drugs on the market back in 2014, when Mario Mifsud, former director of the national forensic lab, said authorities had started noticing the presence of the substance in drug busts and party raids.

Mr Sammut, however, said the situation had progressed significantly in the past two years, with the substances now making up a large percentage of drugs seized.

He explained how the equipment used to test drugs checked substances against chemical profiles, “a sort of fingerprint”. And while these copycats were being sold as commonly used drugs, they did not match the fingerprint of cocaine, ecstasy or other club drugs.

“This trend has increased from about two or three years ago and is continuing to increase with the development of even more new drugs. At least 40 to 50 per cent of the drugs I see require extensive work to properly identify them,” Mr Sammut said.

He recounted how when he first started testing drugs back in 2000 things were simpler.

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“Brown powder those days most often meant heroin, and white power was cocaine. Colourful tablets with logos would mean ecstasy. However, this is no longer the case today,” he said.

Mr Sammut said the world of synthetic drugs was growing so fast that authorities could not keep up. Testing was laborious, and once the chemical make-up was identified, new replacements would have already started making their way to dance floors.

Is drug use still taking place in Malta? Earlier this month, this newspaper reported senior police sources who raised concerns that clubbers had no qualms about splashing out as much as €400 on a cocaine binge. Last year, seizures of cocaine quadrupled over 2014, with the police seizing more than 20 kilogrammes.

And for those on a budget, ecstasy pills change hands at around €10 a pop. Again, police drug squad sources said regular partygoers could take as many as six or seven pills in an evening.

What are synthetic cathinones?

They are drugs chemically related to cathinone, a stimulant found in the khat plant. Khat, a shrub grown in East Africa and southern Arabia, is chewed for its mild stimulant effects. Synthetic variants of cathinone can be much stronger than the natural product and, in some cases, very dangerous.

Synthetic cathinones are included in a group of drugs that concern EU health officials called ‘new psychoactive substances’ – unregulated psychoactive (mind-altering) substances that have become newly available on the market and are intended to copy the effects of illegal drugs. Some of these substances may have been around for years but have re-entered the market in altered chemical forms or due to renewed popularity.

Synthetic cathinone products marketed as ‘bath salts’ should not be confused with products such as Epsom salts that people use during bathing. These bathing products have no mind-altering ingredients.

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