Hairy Drug Science Outside NYC Nightclubs

If you attended an electronic dance music nightclub or festival in New York City sometime between July and September of 2015, you might have been approached by an odd bouncer asking for your hair instead of an I.D.

Actually, that might not have been a bouncer, but rather a researcher from New York University and the hair they were asking for was used to test for the prevalence of new psychoactive substances (NPS) like “bath salts.” Perhaps made famous by the face-eating incident in Miami in 2012, “bath salts” are synthetic stimulants that behave like amphetamines, cocaine and MDM.

NPS mimic traditional illegal drugs like “Molly,” cocaine and ketamine, but their side-effects and toxicity are still largely unknown. According to the DEA, people who abuse “bath salts” have reported “agitation, insomnia, irritability, dizziness, depression, paranoia, delusions, suicidal thoughts, seizures and panic attacks.”

In a recently published study in the Journal of Analytical Toxicology, researchers analyzed 80 samples of hair and found 26 samples tested positive for a new psychoactive substance. Twenty-five of those samples tested positive for a “bath salt” called butylone.

The advantage for using hair samples is that they reliably provide a person’s drug history from months ago. According to the study, every centimeter corresponds to a month of time. Testing other specimens like urine, blood or saliva isn’t as effective since traces of NPS could be gone within hours or days of consumption.

The hair collection process wasn’t as simple as plucking a single hair from a person’s head. Researchers first had to get each participant’s full consent to complete a 10-minute survey and then collect a lock of about 100 hairs. The researchers, according to the study, would often use clean scissors to cut a small lock of hair from the edge of the participant’s scalp. The hair was folded up in tin foil and saved in a labeled envelope. For some of the male attendees that didn’t have long enough hair on their head, the researchers used an electronic buzzer to collect hair from the arm, chest or leg.

As you might imagine, the research subjects were certainly eccentric and charismatic. You don’t often hear about researchers collecting hair samples outside of New York nightclubs at 2 a.m. But that’s what Dr. Joseph Palamar, a contributing author for this study and an assistant professor at New York University, and other researchers did. Palmar was quoted in a philly.com article recounting his experience.

“I’m doing it in the dark. I can’t see anything,” he said. “Meanwhile people are laughing and Tweeting ‘I just donated my pubes to science!’.”

Palamar discovered in a previous study that 41 percent of nightclub/festival attendees who reported using ecstasy or “Molly” also tested positive for “bath salts” despite telling the researchers that they hadn’t consumed any.

“A lot of people laughed when they gave us their hair saying things like ‘I don’t use bath salts; I’m not a zombie who eats people’s faces,'” Palamar said in a press release from a previous study.

This research, however, has a serious purpose.

The nightclub-goer demographic is a particularly high-risk population. In the past decade, hundreds of new psychoactive substances have emerged in the drug market, according to the study. Since MDMA or “Molly” can also be purchased as a powder substance as opposed to pills or capsules, it is much more difficult for drug users to determine if “bath salts” or other compounds are also mixed in.

There is little known about the prevalence of NPS among the general population. And, according to the study, few drug consumption surveys also ask about NPS use despite the growing evidence that drug consumers aren’t aware that new psychoactive substances are living in camouflage among the mixtures of other drugs like ecstasy/MDMA/Molly. Collecting hair outside nightclubs and festivals might be our best scientific means to evaluate drug exposures, no matter how hairy the process might be.

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