The Bath Salt Panic Wall of Shame


Did you get in on the hyperventilating about the "bath salts" that supposedly made Rudy Eugene gnaw off a homeless man's face on Miami's MacArthur Causeway a month ago? If not, you're too late. Toxicology results released yesterday show that Eugene had not consumed any of the stimulants commonly used in those speed substitutes—or any other psychoactive substance except for marijuana, which (as The Miami Herald notes) is "not known for sparking violence" (not anymore, that is). The Herald elaborates:

The medical examiner—after seeking help from an outside forensic toxicology lab—could find no evidence of the common components of "bath salts" in Eugene's system. Nor did the lab find evidence of synthetic marijuana or LSD.

The medical examiner also found that Eugene had not ingested cocaine, heroin, PCP, oxycodone, amphetamines or any other known street drug other than marijuana….

"Within the limits of current technology by both laboratories, marijuana is the only drug identified in the body of Mr. Rudy Eugene," the medical examiner's office said in a press release.

Since traces of marijuana can be detected in urine, blood, and tissue long after the drug's effects wear off, it is not even clear that Eugene was under the influence of pot at the time of the assault. So where does that leave everyone who recklessly speculated that a demon drug was responsible for Eugene's ghoulish violence? Contrition may be too much to expect, but embarrassment could serve as a deterrent. Before we move on to the next media-driven panic about  a scary drug (or some other bogeyman), let's pause to focus some well-earned scorn on the most egregious offenders in this sorry episode of rumor repetition and herd reporting:

WFOR: In reports by Tiffani Helberg, the CBS affiliate in Miami played up a nonexistent drug connection from the beginning, and many other news outlets around the world followed its example (as opposed to the Herald's more restrained approach), mindlessly repeating claims about superhuman strength and vicious violence supposedly caused by bath salts. By early June, the station was hedging its bets, suggesting in a report by Jim DeFede that it might have been MDMA—a.k.a. "the love drug"—that made Eugene eat Ronald Poppo's face. 

Armando Aguilar: The president of Miami's Fraternal Order of Police was widely cited as claiming that Eugene must have been under the influence of drugs, probably some kind of "bath salts." Most of these references were based on WFOR's reporting, but Aguilar also told ABC News there were "striking" similarities between Eugene's assault and incidents involving bath salts: "The cases are similar minus a man eating another. People taking off their clothes. People suddenly have super human strength. They become violent and they are burning up for the inside. Their organs are reaching a level that most would die. By the time police approach them they are a walking dead person."

Paul Adams: Although Adams, a local emergency room physician, does not seem to have explicitly blamed Eugene's crime on bath salts, WFOR used him to confirm and amplify Aguilar's unfounded speculation, treating the two as interchangeable experts on the pernicious effects of these drugs—to the point that it attributed exactly the same quote to the two men in two stories two days apart. Adams, like Aguilar, also showed up in other news outlets' reports, confusingly linking bath salts to a psychedelic not known for causing cannibalism. "You can call it the new LSD," he told ABC News. "They [patients] seem to be unaware of their surroundings. They are not rational, very aggressive and are stronger than they usually are. In the emergency room it usually takes four to five people to control them." In a Daily Beast story that appeared the same day, Adams upped that number to seven.

CBS News: The network followed its affiliate's lead with scary stories like the May 30 piece headlined "Bath Salts, Drug Alleged 'Face-Chewer' Rudy Eugene May Have Been On, Plague Police and Doctors." That may, itself based on nothing more than Aguilar's speculation, was easily lost in the hysteria that followed.

U.S. News & World Report: The formerly staid weekly topped a May 30 panic-pimping piece by Jason Koebler with this headline: "Miami's 'Naked Zombie' Proves Need to Ban Bath Salts, Experts Say: Chemical Mixture Has Turned Some Abusers Into Raving Maniacs With Violent Consequences." But don't blame this pharmacological fearmongering on the yellow journalists at U.S. News. They were only quoting the "experts."

ABC News: A few days after Eugene's attack, ABC put bath salts in its headline: "Face-Eating Attack Possibly Prompted by 'Bath Salts,' Authorities Suspect." It was unclear who these "authorities" were, aside from Aguilar. Two days before toxicological tests conclusively disproved the idea that drugs make Eugene do it, ABC's Russell Goldman described bath salts as "a deadly array of toxic drugs" that are  "believed to have played a role in a spate of grisly incidents, including a May assault in Florida in which an attacker allegedly high on the drug chewed off a homeless man's face."

Spin: The magazine's shameless alarmism was especially blameworthy because its story, breathlessly headlined "DEEP IN THE HEART OF AMERICA'S NEW DRUG NIGHTMARE," openly acknowledged that previous drug scares were bullshit while suggesting that bath salts are every bit as bad as people claim. The quality of the journalism produced by freelancer Natasha Vargas-Cooper is encapsulated in this self-exculpatory sentence, which suggests that facts matter less than feelings: "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."

Charlie Dent:  The Republican congressman from Pennsylvania leaped on this story almost as fast as Eugene leaped on poor Poppo, using it to boost support for his synthetic drug ban. "When they learn about this face-chewing situation in Florida," he told Roll Call in early June, "hopefully that will change a few minds." He added: "These drugs have odd psychotic effects on people. Out of this terrible tragedy in Florida, we hope this will bring about greater awareness and accelerate the need to enact meaningful legislation that will protect people from this poison." Last week a congressional conference committee approved a synthetic drug ban as part of the Food and Drug Administration Safety and Innovation Act, although its list of prohibited bath salt ingredients is shorter than Dent wanted.   

Many others were caught up in the bath salt panic triggered by a crime that had nothing to do with bath salts; nominations are welcome. But I would be remiss if I did not note some commendable exceptions, including Maia Szalavitz (Time), Jack Shafer (Reuters), and Kristen Gwynne (Alternet).