On Tuesday I noted that news outlets were uncritically regurgitating fact-free speculation that some sort of drug—"bath salts," possibly, or imitation LSD, or maybe cocaine—made Rudy Eugene eat Ronald Poppo's face on Miami's MacArthur Causeway last Saturday. Since then, the coverage has become, if anything, more lurid and credulous, in the manner typical of drug panics, with one outlet after another recycling the same rumors, baseless pronouncements, and horror stories (some of which I have noted here before). One commendable exception: Writing in Time, which historically has not been known for calm, well-informed reporting on drugs (or pretty much anything else that scares people), Reason contributor Maia Szalavitz explains "Why Drugs Are Getting a Bum Rap in the Miami Face-Eating Attack." Szalavitz notes that the vast majority of "drug-related" violence is in fact prohibition-related violence, resulting from black-market disputes rather than the malign psychoactive effects of prohibited intoxicants. She adds that, given all the millions of people who have used drugs said to cause murder and mayhem, you would expect to see a lot more violence if the allegations were even close to true. She points out that journalists routinely rely on police, who have a strong incentive to exaggerate the dangers posed by illegal substances and whose views are skewed by the sorts of drug users they tend to encounter, for expert advice about the effects of forbidden chemicals. Both cops and reporters, she observes, tend to focus on extreme examples that by definition tell us little or nothing about the behavior of the typical drug user. Whether or not it turns out that Eugene consumed "bath salts" before attacking Poppo (and it bears emphasizing that there are no toxicological results yet), it should (but sadly does not) go without saying that his behavior was highly unusual, if not unique, among people who consume these quasi-legal speed substitutes:
Stimulants of any type rarely lead to violence in people who don’t have a prior history of violent behavior. Typically, drugs enhance or disinhibit pre-existing tendencies, rather than provoking entirely new behavior. And drugs are far from the only reason that a person might strip naked and become violent, as the Miami man did.
Indeed, the best predictor of violent behavior is a previous history of violent behavior, which we now know that the Miami man had. He was apparently the first person ever to be tasered by North Miami Beach police. Why? He had beaten and was threatening to kill his mother.
Also, while overdoses of stimulants do overheat the body, they certainly don’t, as the Miami police representative suggested, "burn organs alive." Blaming LSD for violent behavior is even further off base. No research has associated LSD or related psychedelic drugs with violence, and higher potency isn’t likely to change that.
Without detracting from the consistently thoughtful and level-headed work produced by Szalavitz, who is almost singlehandedly atoning for Time's historical hysteria about illegal drugs, I would argue that there is less excuse than ever for the anti-drug alarmism that is still routinely peddled by reputable news organizations. Here are some of the more embarrassing headlines generated by the "Causeway Cannibal" story:
U.S. News & World Report: "Miami's 'Naked Zombie' Proves Need to Ban Bath Salts, Experts Say"
Toronto Sun: "Miami cannibal may have been high on 'bath salts'"
The Huffington Post: "Bath Salts: The 'Cannibal' From Miami's Alleged Dangerous Drug Of Choice"
In my book Saying Yes: In Defense of Drug Use, I call the persistently popular belief that drugs make people do evil "voodoo pharmacology," a term I use because it calls to mind zombies animated by magic. Here you have a literalized example: a drug that supposedly turned someone (who may or may not have actually used it) into a flesh-eating zombie. And the press, rather than questioning this outlandish claim, amplifies it. Even if it weren't easier than ever before to look up research and seek out alternative perspectives, how much sense does it require to be skeptical upon being told that an alarmingly popular drug commonly causes irrational outbursts of vicious violence? How could such a drug ever gain a wide following? This is not rocket science; it is just journalism.