Drug panics, bath salts, and face-eating zombies
Last Saturday afternoon, a naked man gnawed off most of the face of a half-naked man on a Miami causeway. He continued chewing even after police shot him and did not stop until they shot him dead.
Things like that don’t happen everyday – not even in Miami – so quite naturally the horror story has been picked up by every flavor of media around the world. The most sensational – and I don’t mean that in a good way – coverage came from local TV station CBS4 (WFOR-TV). On the day Rudy Eugene attacked Ronald Poppo, CBS4 relied on the musings of the president of the Miami Fraternal Order of Police and an emergency room physician – neither of whom attested to having firsthand knowledge of the case – to speculate that the attack was caused by a new kind of LSD, by a mixture of drugs, or by “bath salts,” the street name given to the many quasi-legal, over-the-counter stimulant concoctions that are packaged and sold under such wacky brand names as “Ivory Wave,” “Vanilla Sky,” “White Cloud” and “Zoom.”
Before any criminal lab could determine that Rudy Eugene had drugs in his system, some outlets, including the Guardian, the New York Daily News and CNN were seizing on CBS4’s reporting to vilify a “new” drug and its users, exaggerate the peril it presents and launch a new drug panic. To believe the early press accounts about bath salts – recall last year’s story of a West Virginia man found in bra and panties next to his neighbor’s murdered goat – madness comes in a $20 package of powder, the product gives its users superhuman strength, and they may have turned a 31-year-old man into a flesh-eating zombie.
To assist the press in its coverage I offer this brief bath-salts primer. I don’t want to overstate its worth – any skeptical journalist with access to the scientific literature could produce such a primer in an afternoon. That the press hasn’t bothered to produce such a primer speaks volumes about how serious they are in covering the drug beat.
Reporting on bath salts is complicated by the fact that bath salts aren’t one thing: They’re whatever a drug entrepreneur dumps into colorful bags and sells through head shops, convenience stores, and over the Internet as “bath salts,” plant food” or “air freshener.” Promoted by word-of-mouth, bath salts are supposed to deliver a high similar to that of methamphetamine, cocaine and even the “entactogen” MDMA. Bath-salts marketers make certain to label their products “not for human consumption” because, as this July 2011 Department of Justice “situation report” (pdf) explains, the Food and Drug Administration can prosecute anyone who introduces into interstate commerce a compound that’s marketed as a substitute for either a licit or illicit drug, no matter what the compound is composed of.
What’s inside a typical bath-salts packet? Sometimes it contains nothing more psychoactive than caffeine and local anesthetics, as a 2011 Journal of Medical Toxicology article reported (abstract). Commonly it contains one or more synthetic cathinones – derivatives of the organic compound cathinone, which occurs naturally in the Catha edulis (khat) plant. Two synthetic cathinones frequently marketed in bath salts are 3,4-methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV) and mephedrone, although the Department of Justice claims that at least 10 other clandestine synthetic cathinones have been collected and identified. Sometimes methamphetamines are mixed with the synthetic cathinone; synthetic cathinones have also been marketed to unsuspecting users as MDMA.
As the Department of Justice admits in its situation report, users are drawn to bath salts when they desire the effects of a powerful stimulant. The ever-changing formulas, the fluctuations in purity and potency, and user tendency to consume other drugs while on bath salts makes it difficult for researchers to study bath-salts users compared with, say, whiskey drinkers or potheads. Medical scientists concede that research on bath salts is sketchy.
“Little has been written in the United States about the chemistry, physiological effects, and pattern of consumption of these agents given the relative novelty of their usage compared with the stimulants whose effects they are known to mimic,” wrote the authors of the 2012 article “Are ‘Bath Salts’ the Next Generation of Stimulant Abuse?” in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment (paid). The Department of Justice surmises a diverse population of synthetic cathinones users, but none of the standard drug surveys have asked users about it yet.
Bath salts first gained popularity in Europe in 2007, but as far back as 1993 the popularity of a synthetic cathinone (methcathinone) in Michigan’s upper peninsula and elsewhere in the Midwest was documented (abstract). U.S. Customs seized shipments of synthetic cathinones in July 2009, according to the Department of Justice, and the U.S. press started covering bath salts around that time, with cautionary articles appearing in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, the New York Times, the Palm Beach Post, the Associated Press, Time (paid), and elsewhere. According to the press, users were swallowing, snorting, smoking, and injecting bath salts, and often the outcome was ugly: Soaring body temperatures, psychotic outbursts, paranoid delusions, violence, and suicidal thoughts were among the noted unpleasant side effects. Numerous deaths related to bath salts have been reported in both the popular and the medical press. One measure of the rise of interest in bath salts can be found in the number of calls made to U.S. poison control centers (pdf) regarding it. Zero calls were made in 2009; 304 were placed in 2010; and 6,138 were made in 2011. As of the end of April 2012, only 1,007 calls have been made. (Perhaps bath salts have already peaked? Or is it a statistical false bottom?)
Standard drug tests fail to detect synthetic cathinones, something that delights users, especially those who must submit to mandatory drug screenings or worry about being tested at traffic stops, according to the Department of Justice. Complicating the job of the drug prohibitionists is the ease with which illicit chemists can shift to other synthetic cathinones to supply users whenever the federal government places new legal proscriptions on the cathinones they’re producing. Three of the most popular synthetic cathinones weren’t scheduled until late last year, making them an appealing “legal high” for some drug aficionados. (State laws also apply, but I haven’t got time to go there.)
Even the Department of Justice understands this game of whac-a-mole ends up pushing newer and potentially more dangerous compounds into the illicit market. (Anecdotal evidence exists to suggest that bath salts can become popular in places methamphetamine enforcement has succeeded.) That’s why the Justice situation report states that the government has hunkered down for a “long-term” battle against this class of drugs.
Drug panics like the current one centered on bath salts conform to a predictable pattern revealed by scholar Alasdair J.M. Forsyth in his recent paper in the International Journal of Drug Policy: “Virtually a Drug Scare: Mephedrone and the Impact of the Internet On Drug News Transmission” (abstract), which I will attempt to summarize:
First, a new drug is newsworthy because it’s of novel interest to specialty publications, such as the music press. A high-profile case or increased prevalence of the drug leads the press to construct the drugs as a problem and to campaign against it with the aid of moral entrepreneurs (politicians, researchers, etc.), with disproportionate coverage of the harm done to teenagers or females (often portrayed as first-time users), even though older males who partake of multiple drugs account for most drug-related deaths.
“Drug scares tend to focus on the ‘moral dimension’ or ‘human interest angle’ of individual tragedies rather than the proportionate threat which the substance concerned may actually present in public health terms,” Forsyth wrote. “Drug scares also tend to involve the same harms being reported, regardless of the pharmacology of the substance concerned.”
The more stereotypical, false, scary or familiar the press accounts – the drug causes sudden death, it causes violence, it causes self-harm, it causes brain damage, it causes blindness, it causes impotence, it causes cognitive deficits – the greater the willingness of the public to believe the worst, no matter what the empirical data says. If it turns out that Rudy Eugene had any form of bath salts aboard during his rampage, you can only imagine how giddy with tabloid delight even the “respectable” will become.
Tragically, the media-inspired drug-scare cycle tends to raise the awareness of a “new” drug at the expense of the drugs that have a greater impact on public health (alcohol, tobacco). Even worse, scare stories end up promoting the new drug better than any Madison Avenue campaign ever could, creating a “boomerang effect.” How many drug “fiends” are eager to get their hands on some of what they think Rudy Eugene was taking?
The failure of the press to think clearly and report soberly about illicit drugs and illicit drug users probably goes back to the invention of movable type. Perhaps the press does such a shoddy job because it doesn’t have to worry about any organized, militant constituency of drug users keeping them honest. Stoners are like that: I’ve never met one who was a good press critic.
I’ve been on drugs for decades. See this piece about “Designer Drugs,” which appeared in Science 85. Don’t send drugs to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com and don’t expect my Twitter feed to produce a contact high. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns and subscribe to this hand-built RSS feed for corrections to my column.
PHOTO: Packet of Ivory Wave bath salts from the Arizona Police Science Journal.