Methylone Abuse: Dangers, Symptoms, and Treatment

Blue crystal of methamphetamine isolated on white background.

The designer drug 3, 4-methylenedioxymethcathinone, commonly known as methylone, is often found in the substances labeled as “bath salts.” The chemical composition of methylone is very similar to the structure of MDMA (3, 4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine), and methylone is sometimes sold as Molly, suggesting that dealers are trying to pass it off as a substitute for ecstasy or similar drugs. Other street names for methylone include bubbles, explosion, MDMCAT, and ease.

Methylone is also the brand name for an injectable corticosteroid that is used in the treatment of allergic reactions and arthritis. This article does not refer to that medication.

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) categorizes methylone as a Schedule I controlled substance. This means that the federal government views the drug as having no medicinal purpose, and it has significant risk to be abused and lead to addiction. This final classification occurred after the drug was temporarily placed on the list of controlled substances for two years.

The Effects of Methylone

A number of research reports suggest that methylone use produces effects similar to MDMA and amphetamine. While the drug is a Schedule I controlled substance, it appears that its effects are not as well known as its use is not as extensive as similar drugs, even though the drug has been on the market for decades; it was originally developed in 1996 as a potential treatment for depression. Anecdotal evidence online from individuals claiming to have used the substance suggests that its effects can be somewhat varied and that its use is associated with a significant “crash” once the individual has stopped using the drug and its effects have begun to wear off.

It appears that methylone is available in formulations of bath salts, or it may be the only chemical in the package. It may be one of the chemicals in a number of combinations of bath salts described as:

  • Plant food
  • Ivory wave
  • Jewelry cleaner
  • Vanilla sky
  • Cloud nine

Individuals use the drug to achieve effects similar to those associated with use of MDMA, such as:

  • Feelings of euphoria
  • Increased sex drive
  • Increased sociability
  • Increased energy
However, there are a number of potential adverse effects associated with the use of methylone that include:

  • Cardiovascular effects that may include increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, and heart failure
  • Significant hyperthermia (increased body temperature)
  • Damage to the liver and kidneys in chronic users
  • Significant psychiatric symptoms that can include irritability, agitation, anxiety, panic attacks, hallucinations, delusions, extreme paranoia, and suicidality
  • The development of seizures, which can be potentially fatal
There are several reports of fatalities associated with use of methylone. Fatalities can occur as a result of cardiac arrest, complications associated with potential seizures, and mixing the chemical with other toxic substances.

Abuse of Methylone

The DEA reports that reports of the authorities seizing illegal methylone have increased.

  • In 2011, there were 1,857 reports of the drug being confiscated.
  • In 2012, there were 4,066 reports.
  • In 2013, there were 3,976 seizures in the first six months of the year.

The DEA also suggests that any reports of methylone abuse, such as hospital visits, may be underestimated as many individuals who use this drug often think they are using ecstasy or some other drug. These individuals are often in the younger age groups, between the ages of 12 and 24 years old. It appears that the majority of methylone use occurs in individuals who abuse MDMA and bath salts. Formulations of methylone are often purchased in local party stores, gas stations, head shops, etc., and on the Internet.

Currently, the research is inconsistent regarding the development of a specific withdrawal syndrome associated with abuse of methylone, but it is generally considered that tolerance does develop. As mentioned above, anecdotal evidence suggests that individuals who have used the drug experience an extreme crash similar to the symptoms associated with discontinuing other powerful stimulants like cocaine and methamphetamine. This may suggest that withdrawal symptoms, such as depression, apathy, lethargy, appetite loss, etc., occur in individuals who have used the drug for significant periods of time and then discontinue its use.

Abuse of methylone will most likely result in the development of a formal substance use disorder when individuals begin to experience negative effects associated with their drug use. In general, the abuse of this substance could be expected to lead to the syndrome commonly associated with all substance use disorders. This syndrome includes:

  • An inability to control use, such as:
    1. Continuing to use the drug even though it results in various life problem
    2. Continuing to use the drug in spite of realizing that the drug’s use is resulting in physical harm or emotional harm
    3. Frequently using more of the drug or using it for longer periods of time than anticipated
    4. A desire to stop use but being unable to do so
    5. Giving up important duties as a result of using the drug
    6. Spending growing amounts of time using the drug, trying to get it, or recovering from it
  • Experiencing frequent strong urges to use the drug
  • Developing significant tolerance to the drug

Treatment for Methylone Abuse

The approach to treatment for an individual who has developed a substance use disorder as a result of abusing products that contain methylone should consider the sensitive aspects of the demographics associated with the individuals who most often abuse these substances. Often, these individuals are younger, have significant family issues, and may have other co-occurring mental health issues. Treatment should focus on the needs of the individual and be customized accordingly.

The first step in the treatment process is to fully assess the individual for any other co-occurring mental health conditions and substance abuse. In addition, because chronic use of methylone can lead to significant physical damage, it would be wise to have the person undergo a full physical examination. Once the assessment process is complete, the treatment approach can be developed based on the specific needs of the individual. Treatment will most often consist of the following aspects:

  • Some form of medical detox is recommended, which can include inpatient admission to help the individual get through the severe “crash” that may occur following discontinuation of the drug. Physicians can administer a number of different medications to alleviate withdrawal symptoms. This would be formally classified as a physician-assisted withdrawal management program, even though the formal withdrawal syndrome associated with methylone is not well described.

  • Formal therapy should be implemented as soon as possible. For many, family therapy could be a significant part of the overall treatment plan as many of these individuals are younger, still living at home, and have a number of family issues that have occurred as a result of their substance abuse. Substance use disorder therapy is the major treatment intervention for all substance use disorders.

  • Social support groups, such as 12-Step groups, community mental health groups, other types of support groups, etc., can be helpful to long-term recovery. The development of a strong support group that is committed to recovery is an essential component of treating any substance use disorder.

  • Other specific interventions can be implemented, depending on the specific case. For younger individuals, this may include social skills training, tutoring for school, job training, etc.

  • Ensuring that the individual remains in treatment for a significant length of time is extremely important. The success of the substance use disorder treatment, including treatment for methylone abuse, is highly related to the length of time individuals remain in treatment. Younger individuals will often need to remain in treatment for a significant length of time and continue to participate in support groups in order to achieve long-term success.

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