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The Zombie Drug: are bath salts really the threat we're lead to believe?
Media outlets, politicians, and the public seem in consensus that the new designer drugs known as "Bath Salts" are dangerous substances that warrant new legislation. Grizzly attacks which the media has blamed on this new class of drug provide for sensational stories, but are the claims true, or are these simply scare tactics to support a prohibition on the drugs?
Since prohibition, drug policy in the United States has involved a sort of monster movie style coverage of the problem. Though marijuana is now seen as more likely to put you to sleep than to send you in to a murderous rage, the portrayal in films like Reefer Madness portrayed the drug as causing delusions and a feverish appetite for deadly violence.1 Decades later, a little known drug is again being indicated in a slew a heinous deviant, often violent acts. This new terror, known by the street name "bath salts", is allegedly causing instances of cannibalism.
“Bath salts” are not one drug, but a class of new designer stimulants. Most often, the drugs in question are mephedrone and MDPV, but can include many related compounds. These drugs have effects much like more familiar stimulants such as caffeine, cocaine, and amphetamine, though the potential side-effects are largely unknown since most “bath salts” compounds are recent creations. Some of the legislation directed at these compounds also includes designer drugs which mimic some of the effects of the active compound, THC, that is present in marijuana. These drugs are sprayed on different herbs and sold under brand names like “spice” to produce a marijuana-like high when smoked. One of the more popular compounds is JWH-018, though many related compounds exist, and may be combined in some products. Like the new designer stimulants, there is not much existing research on the potential side-effects of these drugs.
The case often cited as evidence of the evils of bath salts was when Rudy Eugene assaulted a man named Ronald Poppo by tearing off Poppo's face with his teeth. At the time of the attack, though news media outlets were already aware that these claims were purely speculative, outlets from all over the world took the opportunity to preach about the dangers of this new drug. Many stories run by major networks featured very little on the incident itself compared with the wealth of information on the dangers of bath salts, such as NPR's story which was more like a roundup of previous NPR stories about the drug than an in depth look in to the factors that caused Eugene to kill.2 Though later it would be widely reported that Eugene had only marijuana, and not bath salts in his system, it was not before Republican Rep. Sandy Adams used the attack as evidence that drugs being sold as bath salts need to be scheduled immediately, and spearheaded legislation that banned the possession, sale, and production of several of the stimulant drugs being sold as bath salts. In a US News article by Jason Keobler about the new legislation, Rep. Adams is quoted as saying "Looking at the Miami incident, we've seen people do some very bizarre acts on bath salts," and yet there is no mention from the author that these claims were never confirmed.3
It's easy to find a case in which bath salts have been indicated in inducing strange or violent behavior, but in most of these cases it's simply someone's speculation. Even in the small number of cases when bath salts were found, it's often enough for people to explain the bizarre behavior as the effects of a drug. Though it's unclear how widespread the use of these drugs is, there must be plenty of people using it without such severe negative impacts given that a man was just arrested in Chico with a half pound of methylone, a drug sold as bath salts.4 What makes the violent people different from the ones who use the drug without resorting to cannibalism? And why is causation only explored in one direction? Couldn't evidence linking violence and drug use be interpreted just as easily as people with violent tendencies being more likely to use drugs? These are questions consistently ignored by the media.
Often, even the few voices calling out these types of omissions are still quick to concede that bath salts are dangerous drugs. While the substances should be treated with caution, there is very little solid evidence to prove that these drugs are dangerous. In fact, a student newspaper from Marshall University, The Parthenon, reported on a 2005 study from the Journal of Neuroscience where one of these substances was indicated as a possible treatment for Alzheimer’s disease.5 Should we just start distributing this stuff to senior citizens as a preventative measure? Perhaps we should hold off on administering the drug before more tests can be done, but banning the drug outright will make it hard for this type of research to happen. Many new designer drugs are quickly given a schedule 1 status in the United States, which means they have no known medical applications. The irony in this, however, is that these types of medical benefits must be discovered over time by a series of trials, and scheduling a drug this way may prevent the discovery of an unknown medical application, thereby costing lives instead of saving them. Additionally, reports about the frequency of adulterants in ecstasy and cocaine, including a horse deworming medication that has been causing users' flesh to rot,6 suggest that prohibition is only bringing additional dangers to drug users, and doing very little to curb supply or demand. If designer drugs are pushed underground, it will be impossible to regulate their production, possibly resulting in a much larger problem.
While we should not forgo scrutiny on this new class of drugs, respected news outlets should not fall victim to sensationalism at the expense of science. With headlines like "New 'bath salts' zombie-drug makes Americans eat each other", an article from Russia Today that references several now debunked bath salts related incidents including the cannibalism incident in Miami, what news organization could resist exploiting these stories to capture readers?7 Also, we should not ignore information about these drugs that challenges our previous perceptions such as controversial drugs being used to treat Alzheimer’s, or other debilitating diseases. If we really want to protect our children, we must protect them with truth and hard science. If Americans are consistently lied to about the dangers of drugs, how will the public be able to trust officials when the dangers are real?
1 Hoerl, Art and Paul Franklin, "Reefer Madness", Directed by Louis J. Gasnier, January 15th, 1936
2 Memmot, Mark, "'Bath Salts' Drug Suspect In Miami Face-Eating Attack", The Two-Way: NPR, May 30, 2012, http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2012/05/30/153989768/bath-salts-drug-suspected-in-miami-face-eating-attack
3 Koebler, Jason, "Miami 'Zombie Apocalypse' Puts Bath Salts Ban in Congressional Spotlight", U.S.News & World Report, June 1, 2012, http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2012/06/01/miami-zombie-apocalypse-puts-bath-salts-ban-in-congressional-spotlight
4 Padilla, Cecilio, "Shipment of 'Bath Salts' Drug Siezed in Chico", FOX40 News, August 8, 2012, http://www.fox40.com/news/headlines/ktxl-shipment-of-bath-salts-drug-seized-in-chico-20120808,0,1712831.story
5 Turner, Lakin, "Research finds bath salts could lead to Alzheimer’s cure", The Parthenon, September 28th 2012, http://www.marshallparthenon.com/research-finds-bath-salts-could-lead-to-alzheimer-s-cure-1.2770868#.UGzJilFORIE
6 Praetorius, Dean, "Flesh-Eating Cocaine His New York", Los Angeles, The Huffington Post, June 29, 2011, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/06/29/flesh-eating-cocaine-ny-la_n_886363.html
7 "New 'bath salts' zombie-drug makes Americans eat each other", Russia Today, June 7, 2012, http://rt.com/usa/news/drug-bath-salt-zombie-321/