Bath Salts, Zombies and Face-Eaters
Bath salts, or synthetic marijuana, has quickly gained a reputation as the newest “most dangerous drug ever.” Media reports on the dangers of Bath Salts included a man slitting his own throat in front of his family, a man found in the woods wearing lingerie after killing a goat, and most famously, the case of a Rudy Eugene, the individual accused in a brutal face-eating attack in Miami that left his victim disfigured. After the face-eating attack, there was widespread media reporting the case was an example of the dangers of taking Bath Salts. What did not get so widely reported was the fact the later toxicology report on Eugene did not find any evidence he had ingested Bath Salts. As one observer noted, the case is more about untreated mental illness than about drug use.
The case is noteworthy as it represents the latest in a long string of “Reefer Madness” type drug scares that follow each new drug taking fad. Initial reports of LSD use included stories about teens who stared at the sun until blinded and users who jumped out of hotel windows believing they could fly. The now-discredited stories of crack babies struck a similar theme.
Behind the “Face-eating” media frenzy is perhaps a more important story and that is the public policy response to the Bath Salts problem. A bit of history is in order.
Bath salts and human ingestion of them seeking a high has been around since the 1920’s but reported problems began in Europe in 2004 when the drugs were promoted on a website called HIVE. Soon, Bath Salts were flying off the shelves in head shops and being passed out like candy at rock concerts. The fad quickly spread to the US and the drug, with names like Blue Silk, Bliss and Vanilla Sky began to appear in head shops and convenience stores around the country. As the Bath Salts gained notoriety, authorities moved to make them illegal. The drug producers, legal businesses, reacted by slightly modifying the chemical structure to get around the prohibition. The feds made the new substance illegal, producers adapted and so the merry-go-round continued.
Some important lessons from the Bath Salts fiasco —
1) Defining a substance as illegal has little impact on the problem. The immediate rush to make each new version of Bath Salts illegal was a waste of time and money. The manufacturers managed to stay a step ahead and the resulting publicity likely increased the profitability of these products.
2) People will stubbornly and against all reason put stuff into their bodies in attempts to get high. Over the years we have seen people huffing (inhaling glue, gasoline, other fumes), inhaling typewriting correction fluid, inhaling freon, and using a mixture of explosive and toxic chemicals seeking a new high (see methamphetamine and krokodil). The logic that a person who will ingest such crap will be deterred by the threat of jail makes little sense.
3) Teach your children Well! Every good parent at some point instructs children not to ingest the stuff they find under the kitchen sink. Yet kids seeking illegal drugs of all types are playing the same game of chemical Russian Roulette as if they blindly grabbed a household cleaning product and took a big swig. Putting illegal drugs in this context may be a more effective approach than rushing to make any substance somebody uses illegal. (Props to Cosby, Stills, Nash and Young)
4) We cannot count on the media to provide accurate information on drugs. Rationale examination and accurate dissemination of facts is apparently a lousy business model for much of today’s media. Stories about Zombies and Face-Eaters too often win out over more factual reports.
As parents, all of us worry endlessly about what our kids are getting into. It is this fear that drives much of our drug policy. It is the “What about the children?” question that hamstrings policy-makers. Making each new substance that comes down the pike illegal may give the appearance of taking action but unfortunately, history tells us that approach too often backfires.
On the drug issue, it is time for rationality and fact-based policy-making to replace the emotional and sky-is-falling approach that characterizes our 40-year War on Drugs.