In a well-informed and revealing Playboy article, Frank Owen analyzes "a classic drug panic," explaining how and why Rudy Eugene's grisly assault on Ronald Poppo in Miami last May came to be blamed on "bath salts," a group of quasi-legal stimulants that Eugene, a.k.a. the Causeway Cannibal and the Miami Zombie, had not in fact consumed. Owen fingers some of the same culprits I did in my post-mortem examination of the story—most conspicuously, Armando Aguilar, president of the local police union. Owen says Aguilar, worried that yet another case of a Latino officer (Jose Ramirez) shooting an African American (Eugene) would give critics of the Miami Police Department new ammunition, "decided to bury the racial angle by feeding local reporters an alternative narrative that would prove irresistible: A flesh-eating monster high on a sinister new drug called bath salts devoured a homeless man's face." Those local reporters, who set off a worldwide media frenzy featuring headlines such as "New 'Bath Salts' Zombie-Drug Makes Americans Eat Each Other," swallowed the tall tale eagerly and begged for more:
"The officer believes the man clearly, clearly was on some very, very powerful drugs," said [WFOR] news anchor Cynthia Demos.
"That's right, Cynthia," said reporter Tiffani Helberg. "The Fraternal Order of Police president tells me this crop of LSD"—referring to bath salts—"is a major threat to police officers as well as the rest of us. He says it turns normal people into monsters that possess this superhuman strength and no ability to feel pain."
Reporters didn’t seem to care that Aguilar had no expertise in the pharmacological action of drugs on the human brain or that he didn’t provide a scintilla of credible evidence that bath salts were involved in any of these cases. Horror stories about intoxicants have been a staple of American reporting since the temperance crusades, but this one was the mother of all drug-scare stories. It was too good for journalists to fact-check.
Widely quoted emergency room physician Paul Adams, who gave a scientific veneer to Aguilar's wild speculation, likewise seemed willing to credit whatever cops told him about the latest scary drug on the street:
"Bath salts combine the worst effects of LSD, the worst effects of crystal meth and the worst effects of PCP,"says Adams as he strolls through the corridors of the ER. “People on bath salts have no limitations. They don’t perceive pain. They seem as if they have superhuman strength."...
If the police union president said bath salts turn users into turbocharged ogres, the physician would underscore his point with a story about how it took four or five ER personnel to hold down a bath salts zombie, maybe even six, depending on which reporter he told the story to. [Or possibly eight.] (Adams now tells me it takes at least two ER personnel to sedate someone on bath salts.)
If Aguilar said bath salts were the new form of LSD, Adams would concur that you "can call it the new LSD," even though he knows LSD and bath salts are completely different drugs....
Starting in early 2011, Adams began to notice patients who were clearly under the influence of some sort of psychoactive substance exhibiting strange and erratic behavior. These cases weren't just violent. What was odd was that while they exhibited the classic clinical symptoms of stimulant overdose—rapid heart rate, overheating, hallucinations, aggressive behavior—their blood tests came back clean. No cocaine, no methamphetamine, no LSD, no marijuana, not even the presence of alcohol. Something was going on out there on Miami’s dangerous streets that Adams didn’t know about, but what exactly? He asked some of his law enforcement contacts and heard the term bath salts.
Adams came to his conclusion. "Our emergency room tests don’t detect everything," he says. "One of the drugs they don’t detect is bath salts. If I want to test for bath salts, I have to send samples to an outside laboratory. When somebody tests negative for everything, it’s a good bet bath salts are involved."
Got that? The man of science takes his medical cues from police officers, assuming that anyone who acts weird but tests negative for drugs must be on these "bath salts" he has been hearing so much about. To this day, even after toxicological tests on Eugene's body revealed no drug but marijuana, Aguilar insists "there was something else in Rudy Eugene’s system other than marijuana that the medical examiner didn’t detect," possibly "a new form of bath salts or maybe even a completely new compound that we don't yet know about."
Owen is too easy on the major media outlets, such as CBS, ABC, U.S. News & World Report, and Spin, that credulously climbed aboard the "bath salts" ban wagon (which ended in a federal law prohibiting two common "bath salt" ingredients, enacted the same day we learned that the drugs played no role in Eugene's horrible crime). If these organizations had been a bit more skeptical (as The Miami Herald, to its credit, was), the scare would not have taken off the way it did. And while I agree with Owen that "believing voodoo caused Rudy Eugene to attack Ronald Poppo was no more an example of magical thinking than was blaming bath salts," I'm not sure why he thinks that saying "mental illness" caused the attack is any more scientific. Still, a psychiatrist Owen quotes to that effect helps explain the appeal of all these explanations:
We as a society have a preoccupation with drugs as evil. It's less threatening for people to believe that some evil substance caused this incident because the alternative explanation is too frightening—that some people can act like this on their own without drugs being involved.
Owen ultimately concludes that "whatever brought the Miami Zombie to life will probably never be fully known." His tolerance of uncertainty and his keen nose for fear-mongering bullshit sadly set him apart from most (but not all) journalists covering drug issues.