The Dumb and Dangerous Anti-Drug Propaganda in the Miami Zombie Story

Rarely does a story excite the media as much as a scary drug story -- a person supposedly crazed and made violent by some mysterious concoction. The problem is these stories, often hugely hysterical, are rarely true, and spread dangerous misinformation about drugs, which is surely the case with the so-called "Miami Zombie."

Media outlets are reporting that Rudy Eugene, a.k.a. the "Miami Zombie," who chewed a man’s face off (and even ate his eyeballs) did so because he was "overdosing" on bath salts, "a new potent form of LSD," and maybe also cocaine. These reports are based entirely on speculation by police spokesmen and media excited to fan the flames of fear in Miami. No toxicology tests were performed, no drug paraphernalia found on the scene.

Bath salts are not “the new LSD,” and calling them the new LSD is propaganda for the media to gobble up. Bath salts and LSD have almost nothing in common chemically, and there is no hard evidence (outside of one police spokesman's speculation) that Rudy Eugene was high on anything. Not only are his statements not supported by science, they are at odds with common sense.

But the media love a good drug scare story, so they’re repeating the statements of one Miami cop, Armando Aguilar. Here are some of his statements:

ABC News: Armando Aguilar, president of the Miami Fraternal Order of Police, who has been in contact with the officer who killed Eugene, says the similarities between this and other recent cases involving "bath salts" are striking. "The cases are similar minus a man eating another. People taking off their clothes. People suddenly have super human strength," says Aguilar. "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.”

WSVN-TV: Police said the attacker may have likely been overdosing on a new potent form of LSD. "What's happening is whenever we see that a person has taken all of his clothes off and has become violent, it's indicative of this excited delirium that's caused by overdose of drugs," said Armando Aguilar of the Miami Fraternal Order of Police.

CBS Miami: “I have a message for whoever is selling it out there,” said Aguilar. “You can be arrested for murder if you are selling this (new) LSD to people, unsuspecting people on the street and somebody ends up dying as a result you will be charged with murder.”

In addition to Aguilar, the media has added an emergency physician to the dialogue, someone whose medical knowledge does not include drug reactions. ABC News (and other media) quotes Dr. Paul Adams, a doctor at the Jackson Memorial Rider Trauma Center in Miami:

"You can call it the new LSD. It's a recreational drug. 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, and we have had a couple of people breaking out of restraints."

To tackle the misinformation one step at a time:

To use the words bath salts and LSD interchangeably is completely inaccurate: A real drug expert, Nathan Messer of the drug information organization, explained to AlterNet the difference between bath salts (which typically contain new synthetic cathinones like MDPV) and LSD, a psychedelic tryptamine. 

“MDPV has almost none of of the same hallucinogenic/psychedelic properties, activates different receptors in the brain, and is more closely associated with amphetamines in terms of activity and effects,” said Messer. “It also has a very short duration of around an hour. They may be saying it's like LSD because in high doses or after long binges it can cause symptoms very similar to amphetamine psychosis, which include auditory and visual hallucinations. It should be noted, however, that these sorts of hallucinations are nothing like those reported by users of LSD or other tryptamines.”

LSD is a relatively benign substance that, while also occasionally linked to erratic behavior, also shows great therapeutic benefits. LSD has been proven to assist in curing alcoholism, depression and anxiety, debilitating cluster headaches, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), among other ailments. There is little or no evidence that LSD produces dramatic aberrant behavior. 

One problem in drug hysteria, or even in situations when there is medical harm taking drugs, is that unscrupulous dealers are often producing and selling drugs that are cut with other chemicals, and may have little in common with pure forms of drugs. This is especially true when one form of a drug is made illegal, and whomever is creating this stuff in labs makes up some new combination and throws it out on the street. In other rare cases people do have strong medical reactions to various drugs, not unlike when people are allergic to seemingly benign substances like peanuts. The use of the term "excited delirium" is noteworthy in the Miami case. Excited delirium can be a phrase police use to justify force. But the term is not a medically recognized condition.  

Bath salts-related calls to poison control centers have spiked over the past year, and the public needs to be concerned with some of the reported side effects; still it is unclear under what circumstances they arise. Synthesized in the late ‘60s and popularized in recent years, bath salts were legal until the Drug Enforcement Agency enacted a temporary ban on them last year.

To get around the ban, the illegal ingredients are being replaced by other chemicals so the stuff can be sold in stores. Basically, we don’t even know what’s in bath salts, which are not regulated even when branded because they are marked “not for human consumption” -- nor do we know very much about how they work. But the total ban, which will likely be broadened to encompass synthetic marijuana and other “new drugs,” will only make research that could provide crucial information more difficult. Of the thousands who have tried bath salts, there have been relatively few incidents remotely like this one.

Drug scare stories, however, keep us afraid. It's likely that Rudy Eugene was suffering from mental illness, even if he might also have been on drugs. Horrible situations we don’t understand are easiest to blame on drugs we don’t know much about. It makes the source of violence a substance that we can simply try to do away with and ban. It is not homelessness, poverty, mental illness, that causes the violent break, but rather bath salts, LSD, speed, and coke. As Jacob Sullum at Reason pointed out, years ago, we would have blamed it all on weed.

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