The Devil in Rudy Eugene

The "Miami Cannibal" story reflects our perennial readiness to believe that drugs make people do evil.

Casting about for a reason why Rudy Eugene gnawed off most of a homeless man's face in an unprovoked attack on Miami's MacArthur Causeway last month, his girlfriend suggested he may have been the victim of a voodoo curse. Or maybe he was drugged, she told The Miami Herald, adding, "I don’t know how else to explain this." 

While the voodoo hypothesis did not gain much traction, the idea that drugs turned Eugene into the "Miami Zombie" was repeated by one news outlet after another, even though there was little more evidence in its favor. This pattern of credulous reporting, characteristic of drug panics, reflects our perennial readiness to believe that satanic substances hijack people's souls and compel them to sin. 

As "Theodoric of York, Medieval Barber" in an old Saturday Night Live sketch, Steve Martin tells a patient's father that people once foolishly believed disease was caused by demonic possession, but "nowadays we know that Isabelle is suffering from an imbalance of bodily humors, perhaps caused by a toad or a small dwarf living in her stomach." Likewise, whereas people used to think the devil was the source of evil, today we know that drugs are—even if we're not sure which drugs, or whether a particular criminal has actually consumed them. 

A few days after Eugene's grisly assault, which a police officer stopped by shooting him dead, the head of the local police union, Armando Aguilar, declared that Eugene must have been on "bath salts," quasi-legal stimulants that are sold over the counter, ostensibly "not for human consumption." Aguilar's speculation, which was uninformed by toxicological tests, spawned alarmist headlines like  "Bath Salts, Drug Alleged 'Face-Chewer' Rudy Eugene May Have Been On, Plague Police and Doctors" (CBS News) and  "Miami's 'Naked Zombie' Proves Need to Ban Bath Salts, Experts Say" (U.S. News & World Report). 

The media frenzy started with WFOR, the CBS affiliate in Miami. "We have seen, already, three or four cases that are exactly like this," Aguilar told the TV station. Later, in an interview with ABC, he clarified that "the cases are similar minus a man eating another"—i.e., the single most salient aspect of Eugene's crime. Quoting Aguilar and a local emergency room physician, WFOR said people who use what it called "the new LSD" (even though "bath salts" and LSD are very different in their chemistry and effects) have "super-human strength," such that six men might be required to restrain a single individual.    

Stories about psychoactive substances that transform people into irrationally violent monsters with superhuman strength have been tied to various chemical agents over the years, including cocaine, PCP, methamphetamine, and even marijuana. They always prove to be grossly exaggerated, if not utterly fictitious. 

A 1989 analysis of "crack-related homicides" in New York City, for example, found that the vast majority of the violence stemmed from black-market disputes, as opposed to the drug's psychoactive effects. After finding only three documented cases in which people under the influence of PCP alone had committed acts of violence, the authors of a 1988 literature review concluded that  "PCP does not live up to its reputation as a violence-inducing drug." 

That does not mean people who use these drugs are never violent. But focusing on extreme cases and presenting them as typical—as police, E.R. physicians, psychiatrists, reporters, and politicians tend to do—suggests such incidents are much more common than they actually are. 

It is clear that drugs do not "cause" violence in any straightforward way. Otherwise, given the millions of people who have used drugs reputed to trigger violence, we'd have a lot more murder and mayhem. 

By mindlessly repeating the claim that "bath salts" made Eugene eat a man's face, the press asks us to believe these drugs are disturbingly popular even though they commonly cause outbursts of vicious violence in otherwise pacific people. If that seems plausible to you, you may be qualified to write about drugs for a major news organization. 

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason and a nationally syndicated columnist. Follow him on Twitter.

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  • ||

    "PCP does not live up to its reputation as a violence-inducing drug."

    Government drug policy, on the other hand...

  • ||

    ...is an unmitigated FAIL and more than lives up to that reputation.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    When is the toxicology report going to be finished?

    While I think it's stupid both for the media to assert without proof that the dude was on drugs at the time and to use a rare incident as supposed validation of the war on drugs, I am going to be half-stupid here and say it's likely this was a drug-enhanced psychotic episode (enhancing behavior not strength). If other news reporting is to believed, the guy seemed to be gradually ramping up on paranoid behavior.

  • ||

    Granted, this site is WoD skewed, the information provided is excellent. I have been getting a slew of BATH SALTZ!one1!!1 related info in my super secret doctor database.

    More on forensic testing of MDPV (3, 4-Methylenedioxypyrovalerone).

  • Scruffy Nerfherder||

    in my super secret doctor database.

    Is that located in a volcano or at the bottom of the ocean?

  • ||

    Volcano. I like the geothermal heat source, and I can "ruin" the precious and precarious ozone layer with refrigerants to keep cool. It's a WIN/WIN and passes top hat and monocled muster.

    Plus, it gives me a place to keep those slave virgins to keep the volcano at bay (Though the volcano doesn't seem to know the difference. *wink*.)

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    What good is it to have slaves who are virgins?

    You need to get your Muhammad on, and rectify that.

  • ||

    I'll pass on the Mewhammadazation (PewBUH), thanks. The Groovy Heart belongs only to one.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    Anyone who asks for a drug using the slang "meow, meow" deserves to become a face-eating zombie.

  • ||

    Agreed, HM. IIRC, isn't Dr. Baby HM a toxicologist or something to that effect? I seem to remember that mentioned when discussing the demise of The Buddha.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    You mean my daughter? She's only six and wants to be a ballerina/kung-fu fighter/radiologist, actually. In my family, we have dentists, psychiatrists, a Chief of Internal Medicine/genterologist, and one "doctor" of Oriental Medicine...but no toxicologists. :)

  • ||

    A kung-fu fighting radiologist who can pirouette around and then kick the bad guy through a window? I WANT TO SEE THAT MOVIE!!

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    Considering she's 1/2 Thai, it would be a lot like this (minus the autism).

  • ||

    I stand corrected. Oriental (Asian) Medicine is not without its uses.

    Is future Dr. Baby HM names Buckarina Banzai by chance?

  • R C Dean||

    Have her give me a call when she's boarded. I'll get her on our medical staff, with a sweet income guarantee.

  • ||

    Also, FoE, I agree with your rudimentary DX/DDX here. I don't think it was "BATH SALTZ!!!1one!! that triggered this psychotic episode. That is not to say it was not a potentiating factor, since we don't know one way or the other, and have scant info on both MDPV and its long term affects and almost nothing on its analougues.

    Remember, facts can't get in the way of a sensational narrative here.

  • Carston||

    Exactly, this guy was probably already insane, and debating chewing some face, and then got a little bath salt "crystal courage" and followed through with it.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    You're no House!

  • flye||

    It was lupus?

  • coma44||

    The drugs them selves may not be the cause but the damaged brain from years of substance abuse can lead to it.

    I have seen more than one person I grew up with turned into a complete psyco after years of cocaine and booze. Maybe the devel was in them long before they cracked but after the "slit" from normal behavior they never came all the way back.

  • John Galt||

    Go back into your coma, please.

  • hk||

    The Drug war is far more violent.

    And you can say the exact same thing about Alcohol, since it causes brain damage.

    Stop bruh.

  • ||

    Mmmm...face.

  • LemonMender||

    There are already reports of "copycats" on "bath salts" out there. So it's being treated as proven now. Of course the copycat turned out to be a guy who tried to bite the arresting officer's hand and said "I will eat you", so the copying leaves a little bit to be desired.

  • sarcasmic||

    If PCP induces violence, why is it used as a large animal tranquilizer?

  • SugarFree||

    The only way to calm large animals is to enrage them. I guess somebody never went to veterinary school.

    THE SCIENCE IS SETTLED!

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    I thought in traditional Haitian voodoo, a zombie was created through the application of two certain drugs.

    Jus' sayin'

  • Wilt Chamberlain||

    Just think how embarrassed the media is going to be when voodoo turns out to be the correct explanation.

  • ||

    Dude, the media doesn't get embarrassed. Examples abound.

  • SIV||

    "Feets don't fail me now!"

  • Tonio||

    Male Anchor: And so I guess we were wrong about that, right, Marlene?

    Female Anchor: We were, Bob, but we needed to get that information out quickly so the public would be informed, and we were relying on trusted sources.

    Male Anchor: Next up - School Principals report shocking new teen sex fad...

  • MOFO.||

    When the govt wants you to be scared of a drug it always uses the same two scare tactics

    1)The drug will make you lose control of yourself and do terrible things.

    2)The drug somehow effects your penis/sex life/ability to reproduce.

    Remember those anti-pot commercials that made it out like pot heads would ignore thier babies drowning or drive into traffic? And of course everyone knows that pot gives you low sperm count.

    Steroids? Roid rage, shrunken testicles.

    LSD? Microwave your baby, jump off a building, chromizome damage.

    Etc etc.

  • Scruffy Nerfherder||

    Well shit, I'm done having kids and I'm angry most of the time anyway.

  • Bill||

    Ahem. You just described most of the Reason commetariat.

  • Wilt Chamberlain||

    When will the pro-WOD people realize dangerous or impure drugs are on the market because the original ones are either too expensive or it's impossible to get the ingredients? Just like the horror stories of the Russian krokodil. Stories always fail to mention the only reason people use krokodil is because it's far cheaper than heroin, which i extremely expensive in Russia because of the crackdown.

  • SugarFree||

    Because fuckers like that are fine with people dying from impure drugs: It supports their war on basic freedom and they get to tar all recreation drugs with the same tainted brush.

    Why is Vicodin mixed with acetaminophen? Because they rather see someone dead from liver failure than getting high.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

  • ||

    That's true to a point, Saccharin Man. However, the APAP does provide a synergistic effect for PX management and also fight both inflammation and pyrexia (fever).

    And both hydrocodone and APAP do have antidotes in case of an OD (naxalone and acetylcystine, respectively, though in the case of APAP OD, you better get an antidote within 12 hours or you are a dead duck).

  • SugarFree||

    I rarely bother with cold water extraction because I never take recreational doses, but it seems with how easy that is, APAP overdose is less likely for half-way clued in users.

  • Tonio||

    Doc, could you do the rest of us a favor and take it easy with the jargon?

  • sarcasmic||

    It's a moral issue.
    Drugs are bad because they are bad. Drug users are bad people because drugs are bad.
    Why are drugs bad? Because they are bad. Simply asking that question makes you a bad person, because you are questioning morality and authority.

    Puritans are alive and well.

  • Tim||

    "Airplane glue". That was a big scare in the sixties before the explosion of, you know, DRUGS.

  • db||

    Voodoo? Please. It is a prime example of how anti-scientific superstition is taking over our society. Until people see the real dangers jn our society, such as bath salts and chemicals in general, we will become slaves to the ADM GMO agro-industrial complex and vote Republican forevermore. We must win the War on Drugs to provide a safe clean world for our children to prosper.

  • Loki||

    "Miami's 'Naked Zombie' Proves Need to Ban Bath Salts, Experts Say"

    I was just thinking the other day "you know what we haven't had in a while? A good old fashioned moral panic."

    Here's a novel idea: let's make eating another man's face illegal. What's that? It already is? Well then problem solved. No need to do anything else. But of course, "we" have to do something to make sure this never happens again. Whatever. Chill the fuck out people.

  • bamboozled||

    There are some flaws with the reasoning behind this article:

    First, there is zero evidence in this article that bath salts do not make some people violent. Regardless of the toxicology reports in this specific case, the media is correct to point out that there have been similar ultra-violent cases where bath salts were consumed. Does that mean bath salts were the cause? Who knows? Maybe we need to do some research to see how they affect people.

    Secondly, drugs affect different people in different ways. To say that the effects of crack and PCP were overblown ignores the fact that they do make some (not all) people violent. My own father accidentally smoked a PCP-laced joint and, unbeknownst to us, he had an undiagnosed bipolar condition. The drug sent him into an extremely violent episode where he nearly killed my mother.

    Does the media gloss over the facts sometimes? Yes.
    Do they hype and overblow everything? Yes.
    Is the drug war a waste of money? Yes.
    But those facts don't necessarily mean bath salts are harmless.

  • Jake W||

    Correlation != causation.

  • Chaussures nike shox||

    That does not mean people who use these drugs are never violent. But focusing on extreme cases and presenting them as typical—as police, E.R. physicians, psychiatrists, reporters, and politicians tend to do—suggests such incidents are much more common than they actually are.

  • jason||

    Drugs addiction is the badest thing on the earth, it brings you into the crime world and make you to do evil things.

  • Mona||

    This article is as disingenous as the author implies news outlets tend to be. Anyone who has lived with or been close to a drug abuser knows that any number of different street drugs in varying amounts can make a loved one all but unrecognizable -- and extremely violent. Impaired cognitive functioning and a dangerous disconnect from reality (not to mention hallucinations) are not harmless side effects. Let's wait for Rudy Eugene's autopsy, as the author suggests everyone else should do. If drugs aren't the culprit, it will be interesting to hear what type of mental illness could have caused such an extreme and sudden psychotic break in this young man.

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