A lot is being made of the face-chewing incident from Florida and an alleged link to a legal (ish) high known as ‘bath salts’. Bath salts, like many street names, doesn’t really mean anything, but in general it describes a combination of cathinone analogue type substances, most commonly mephedrone and/or MDPV. These are stimulant substances in the same sort of league as khat. You might remember the moral panic and banning of mephedrone in the UK recently.
In this case, I’ve seen everything from ‘he was out of his mind on bath salts’ to ‘he had an addiction’ to ‘bath salts are to blame for this tragedy”. This is, oddly enough, coming from people who had never heard of bath salts prior to it coming out in the news. I wanted to know what was being said. So I googled ‘was eugene on drugs’ and clicked the first four links from that page.
Bath salts, drug alleged “face-chewer” Rudy Eugene may have been on, plague police and doctors. The police are speculating that the man may have been using bath salts. Note the words ‘speculating’ and ‘may have’. LSD is not a stimulant, it’s a hallucinogen. The article cites only 2 actual cases of tragic death where a person had ingested bath salts – and also over 6000 where people had called the poisons centre about reactions to the drug. I don’t know about you but to me, that suggests that a hell of a lot of people are using this stuff and that the paper has had to scratch around to find links between it and violence. And oddly enough, the guy who has never seen someone on bath salts happy is either a cop or a doctor – not the sort of people that folks having a good time on drugs would be seeing, right?
Did Drugs Make Rudy Eugene Chew on a Naked Miami Man’s Face? Again, doctors say the attack ‘may have been fuelled by drugs’. This one suggests ‘cocaine psychosis’ where a person’s body temperature goes up enough to frazzle their brain. The article also equates bath salts to LSD (which incidentally, is a complete falsehood and probably only in there to generate some pearl clutching). It acknowledges that the attacker had some historic problems with the law and with violence, and also that we won’t know for sure until there’s an autopsy.
Will Street Drugs Cause the Zombie Apocalypse? I apologise for this article, it’s an awful travesty that makes light of a horrible tragedy, and even this one says that police are merely speculating that he may have taken bath salts. Again with the LSD reference. It even goes so far as to say “An overdose on any LSD drug usually results in fits of rage and increased body heat, resulting in the person removing all of their clothing and behaving erratically.” Seriously, that is utter bullshit. You can’t overdose on LSD and there’s no evidence that it leads to fits of rage or increased body heat. That line is entirely made up.
Miami cannibal zombie-like attack linked to powerful ‘bath salts’ drug Oh for fuck’s sake, this one has LSD in it too! Even though it’s probably the most factual in that it does actually mention mephedrone and some of the effects it can have in high enough doses. And it does mention the attacker’s history of trouble with the police. Note that all the headlines emphasise the drug connection.
So let’s clarify. A man attacks another man in a bizarre way and is shot dead by police. He has a history of violent offences and ‘drug charges’. He has yet to be autopsied but police have speculated that he was on a new designer drug known as ‘bath salts’, that according to all four articles has some relationship to LSD.
And this is where I go “Stop reading these bloody articles and wait for the autopsy.” Because the articles, essentially, are speculative in the worst way, which is speculative without fact-checking the things they are speculating about. LSD and bath salts are not the same thing, either chemically or in effects. The media is stirring up the drug angle the same way they did with LSD when the government was trying to create a moral panic over that in the 1960s. Mephedrone (and the others) are more risky than LSD in that there have actually been deaths associated with them (unlike LSD), it is possible to overdose on them (unlike LSD) and they do have a high re-dose impulse (unlike LSD). Injecting mephedrone users describe their experiences as hellish, and have been known to be violent. But violence and psychosis are two different things. Thousands upon thousands of people have used mephedrone and had no ill effects whatsoever – and every single one of the deaths recorded in the UK have had other circumstances attached to them that bring any conclusion that the drug was to blame under suspicion.
Other media-generated fallacies attached to drugs over the years: LSD makes you think you can fly, cocaine makes black men rape white women and immune to bullets, cannabis makes you sexually deviant. Nuff said.
Quick drug lesson: there are three things involved in a reaction to a drug – the drug itself and its pharmacological effects, the psychology of the individual ingesting it, and the social setting in which the drug is taken. So a well-adjusted person with a large support network, a good job and no worries could take X drug and have a completely different response to it from a marginalised person with, say, a history of violent offending. Just a thought.
Notice how the papers are trying to blame bath salts before it’s even been shown that the man had taken them. Notice how lots of people are buying it. Notice how almost all of the articles fail to mention that this guy may have already had undiagnosed and untreated mental health issues. Notice how they won’t even speculate about the man’s place in a society that has repeatedly rejected him and how that might have affected his behaviour. Nope. All the speculation is about what drug he’d taken. Because it’s much easier to blame a drug than it is to blame the set and setting that this incident took place in.
The autopsy may well show that Rudy Eugene had taken high doses of a drug, and that tipped him over into psychosis. The drug may well turn out to be one (or a combination of) the bath salts ones. But can we please wait to see if that’s actually the case before we start our moral panic? And even if he was out of his gourd on mephedrone when this happened, can we not forget the thousands of other people who use it quite successfully and start to think about what unaddressed issues made this particular man so at risk when using it? Because that will have a far more positive outcome for everybody than to just blame the drug and go merrily on our way.
Realistic drug policy needs to acknowledge the Rudy Eugenes of this world as humans, not as mindless automatons helplessly at the mercy of The Evil Drugs. Because that kind of thinking makes it easy to let mental health issues go untreated while we jail people for self-medicating. And it’s the kind of thinking that led to this kind of thinking. I don’t think the world is a better place because of it.