Will Bath Salts Make You Go Crazy and Eat Someone’s Face? Probably Not.

Rudy Eugene
Rudy Eugene, the man who was shot dead by police as he ate the face of a homeless man during Memorial Day weekend in Miami.

Photo by Miami Beach Police Department via Getty Images

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Last month, I wrote about the odd preponderance of cannibalism-related news stories in 2012. (From cannibal cops to would-be child-eaters, cannibalism is more popular than it’s been since the days of Alferd Packer.) In the piece, I mentioned the case of Rudy Eugene, a Florida man who was shot to death by police this spring after gnawing on a homeless man’s face for 18 minutes while fully naked. Eugene’s case drew a lot of press—who doesn’t like a “naked man bites face” story?—with many wondering, quite reasonably, what in the world Eugene had been smoking.

According to the head of the Miami police union, the answer was “bath salts,” a drug that most people had never heard of but were happy to become hysterical over. Sold for years in gas stations and convenience stores next to “men’s vitality supplements” and other weird foil packets, bath salts contain synthetic stimulants mixed with caffeine and such. The white, grainy powder derived its name from its resemblance to Epsom salts, which old people use to soothe their aching bones (and which, when snorted, cause the user to complain about that damn rap music and then go to bed early).

After Rudy Eugene’s face-eating exploits, bath salts were dubbed “the new LSD” by law enforcement and medical types. The media jumped on the bath salts angle, credulously reporting that the substance was responsible for any number of heretofore unexplainable incidents. This summer, the federal government responded to the hysteria by classifying bath salts as a controlled substance and criminalizing their sale; vendors now face up to 20 years in prison.

But are they really as dangerous as they sound? In a great piece on Playboy’s website, Frank Owen convincingly argues that, no, they aren’t. Owen finds that toxicology reports showed that marijuana was the only drug in Rudy Eugene’s system at the time of his death, and he debunks other cases where bath salts were linked to inexplicable rage and violence. The Great Bath Salt Scare of 2012, Owen shows, was almost entirely manufactured by fear-mongering drug warriors.

So why did bath salts become the fall guy in the Eugene case? Owen believes that bath salts were a decoy—that the police union chief was looking to divert public attention from the fact that a Hispanic cop had shot and killed an unarmed African-American suspect. I’m not sure that I buy this, in part because I’m not sure why the cops would expect much criticism for shooting Eugene; using a gun to stop a deranged man from eating someone’s face seems like the dictionary definition of “justifiable use of force.” But if that was the plan, then it worked. While “Crazy man eats stranger’s face” is a good headline, nothing’s a bigger distraction than “Crazy man eats stranger’s face WHILE ON A MYSTERIOUS NEW DRUG.”

In his piece, Owen tries to render the drug a bit less mysterious. He took mephedrone—a common ingredient in bath salts—and concluded that it delivered a high similar to ecstasy: “Colors became more vivid and music more distinct. It was as if I could reach out and caress the texture of the sound coming from the speakers. I felt energized yet strangely relaxed.”

What Owen didn’t feel is anything resembling the alleged effects of bath salts: superstrength, a feeling of extreme heat, or the urge to gnaw off someone else’s face. “It’s easy to understand why consumers would think bath salts are a decent enough alternative to ecstasy,” writes Owen. “What’s not easy to understand is why anybody would think that such an uninspiring drug should be the target of a full-fledged moral panic.”

While Owen doesn’t know what exactly caused Rudy Eugene to turn cannibal, he’s sure that bath salts had nothing to do with it. He theorizes that Eugene may have been a paranoid schizophrenic, observes that it was extremely hot that day, and notes that “a growing body of medical evidence says pot can sometimes trigger aggression in the mentally ill.” (He doesn’t cite any of this medical evidence linking marijuana to aggression.) As explanations go, it’s not much more convincing than “bath salts did it,” and it’s sort of funny that Owen finishes debunking the bath salts theory and then offers another weird theory about a different drug. Is it too hard to believe that maybe Eugene was just hungry?