Drug War

If You Use Drugs, You Might End Up Eating Someone's Face

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Discussing methamphetamine in my book Saying Yes: In Defense of Drug Use, I note that in the 1990s "the demon drug proved so irresistible as an explanation for otherwise inexplicable acts that its presence could almost be assumed if a crime was sufficiently heinous." Nowadays the quasi-legal meth substitutes known as "bath salts" serve much the same function, as illustrated by the case of the allegedly drug-crazed "Causeway Cannibal." On Saturday, Miami police say, an officer shot and killed 31-year-old Rudy Eugene on the MacArthur Causeway as he viciously attacked 65-year-old Ronald Poppo, but not before Eugene had chewed off much of Poppo's face, including his eyeballs and nose. (Surveillance cameras captured some of the fight as well as the shooting.) Even if Poppo, who is in "extremely critical" condition at Jackson Memorial Hospital, survives to give his account, we are never going to get a satisfying explanation of Eugene's actions. Yet Armando Aguilar, president of the local police union, tells WFOR, the CBS affiliate in Miami, he is pretty sure that "bath salts," which he confusingly describes as a substitute for LSD rather than meth, made Eugene do it:

"We have seen, already, three or four cases that are exactly like this where some people have admitted taking LSD and it's no different than cocaine psychosis," Aguilar said.

In the cases Aguilar mentioned, he said the people have all taken their clothing off, been extremely violent with what seemed to be super-human strength, even using their jaws as weapons.

"Extremely strong, I took care of a 150 pound individual who you would have thought he was 250 pounds," Aguilar said. "It took six security officers to restrain the individual."

WFOR—which gave the online version of its story the headline "Causeway Cannibal Identified; Fears Grow Over Drug Possibly Involved"—also quotes a local emergency room physician:

Emergency room doctor Paul Adams agreed with Aguilar, saying similar cases have showed up in the ER.

"We noticed an increase, probably after Ultra Fest [an electronic music festival]," Dr. Adams said.

Adams said the new LSD is commonly called "bath salts." The drug, Adams said, can raise a person's body temperature to such a high degree that logic and the ability to feel pain are lost; then delirium sets in and that often leads to disaster.

"We've had several deaths," Dr. Adams said. "Earlier last year, we probably saw our first death from bath salts where people were running on the MacArthur Causeway, under the MacArthur Causeway being chased by the police and then all of the sudden just collapsing."

To my mind, collapsing while being chased by police is not "similar" to stripping naked and gnawing off someone's face, but never mind. Even without the benefit of toxicological tests, Aguilar and Adams conclude that something called "bath salts," supposedly designed to mimic the effects of the psychedelic LSD (which is not usually associated with face gnawing), caused this horrifying outburst of violence by producing a state of mind "no different [from] cocaine psychosis."  WFOR adds that "unlike the original LSD," this new one "is a stimulant." 

The Miami Herald is more cautious, noting toward the end of its story that "an emergency room doctor at Jackson Memorial Hospital said Eugene's attack could have been induced by bath salts, a drug nicknamed after the bathroom product it resembles." Exactly what substance this might be is not clear: The Drug Enforcement Administration has banned three stimulants commonly used in these products, while proposed federal legislation names a dozen more, and even that list presumably is not exhaustive. Then again, the Herald says, "Police theorized earlier that it was 'cocaine psychosis,' a drug-induced craze that bakes the body internally and often leads those it affects to strip naked to try to cool off." Imitation speed, ersatz LSD, cocaine, whatever. They're all drugs, right?

Stories about potions that transform people into irrationally violent monsters with superhuman strength have been associated with various chemical agents over the years, including cocaine, PCP, meth, and even marijuana. As I show in Saying Yes, they say more about the fears underlying prohibition than they do about the psychoactive effects of these substances. Even if traces of one or more officially condemned intoxicants are found in Eugene's blood, his actions were so anomalous that it makes little sense to describe them as a consequence of drug use, let alone an indicator of the hazards facing the typical user.

More on "bath salts" here.