Drug War

Spin Discovers a Drug 'Worth Freaking Out About'

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"After decades of misguided hysteria," says Spin magazine, "the War on Drugs may have an epidemic worth freaking out about, and it's spreading across state and demographic lines at the speed of the Internet." In other words, all those other drug scares were bullshit, but this time you really should panic! As you may have guessed, the subject of this shamelessly sensational story, which purports to take us "DEEP IN THE HEART OF AMERICA'S NEW DRUG NIGHTMARE," is "a relatively obscure but insidiously metastasizing illegal substance marketed under the name 'bath salts.'"

Actually, as the author, freelancer Natasha Vargas-Cooper, later clarifies, it's a bunch of different stimulants, tweaked to stay ahead of state and federal bans, so that "you have no idea what you're putting in your body," as a DEA lab director tells her. Vargas-Cooper nevertheless portrays this gray market of mysterious, ever-shifting drugs sold "not for human consumption" (to avoid trouble with the FDA) as "an exercise in decriminalization." She emphasizes that people are attracted to "bath salts" largely because their quasi-legal status makes them easier to obtain than more familiar drugs and because they are not detected by standard drug tests. Yet she does not pause to consider the role of prohibition in pushing people toward untested, potentially more dangerous alternatives to banned intoxicants.

That is probably because Vargas-Cooper is so focused on telling us that "bath salts," no matter which specific chemicals they contain, are scarier than the scariest drug that yellow journalists like her have ever warned us about. "The last four decades have seen plenty of whipped-up hysteria about various fad intoxicants of the moment," she concedes. "But the fear generated by bath salts seems well earned." Why? Because even Mark Ryan, director of the Louisiana Poison Center, is worried, telling Vargas-Cooper "bath salts" are "the worst drug" he has seen in his two decades there. "With LSD," he says, "you might see pink elephants, but with this drug, you see demons, aliens, extreme paranoia, heart attacks, and superhuman strength like Superman. If you had a reaction, it was a bad reaction." Ryan is the famously level-headed expert who last year told The New York Times that "bath salts" combine "the worst attributes of meth, coke, PCP, LSD and ecstasy." Vargas-Cooper likewise describes "bath salts" as "a lab-brewed drug that unpredictably mimics a freakish combination of coke, meth, and Ecstasy"—in other words, "the stuff of a D.A.R.E. officer's most florid nightmare." 

You might wonder whether Ryan, whose job focuses exclusively on negative drug reactions, is the best authority to consult for a balanced view of an intoxicant's risks and benefits. You might also wonder how a drug that offers nothing but bad trips got to be so alarmingly popular. You might wonder those things, but Vargas-Cooper does not. Instead she reinforces Ryan's skewed perspective with dubious anecdotes. She cites "a 19-year-old West Virginia man" who "claimed he was high on bath salts when he stabbed his neighbor's pygmy goat while wearing women's underwear." From which readers should conclude what? That "bath salts" (again, regardless of which specific substances they contain) make men don women's underwear and stab goats? Vargas-Cooper undermines that warning by describing her encounter with a couple of heroin junkies who shoot up "bath salts" in a Las Vegas hotel room while she watches. No goats are harmed. (Intriguingly, the synthetic marijuana known as spice has been linked to capricide as well.)

Vargas-Cooper also mentions "a Mississippi man" who "skinned himself alive while under the influence." It's a good thing she specifies that he skinned himself alive; otherwise readers might imagine that he rose from the dead to do it. Speaking of zombies, here is my favorite part of the article:

Perhaps the most infamous incident tied to bath salts is Rudy Eugene's horrific naked face-eating attack in Miami in May, although conclusive toxicology reports have yet to be released; still, the fact that this feels like the closest thing to a credible explanation for chewing a homeless man's head for 18 minutes speaks volumes about the drug's reputation.

So far Rudy Eugene's gruesome assault on Ronald Poppo is "tied to bath salts" only because reckless reporters like Vargas-Cooper say it is. There is no physical evidence of any kind to back up that claim, and as far as we know no one has ever gnawed off a homeless man's face under the influence of "bath salts." To Vargas-Cooper, however, "this feels like the closest thing to a credible explanation," which "speaks volumes about the drug's reputation." What a wonderfully circular justification for anti-drug scaremongering: We don't know what this drug does, but people seem to believe us when we say it causes outbursts of vicious, irrational violence, so there must be some truth to it.

Previous coverage of "bath salts" here.

[Thanks to Mark Sletten for the tip.]