Editor’s Note: In a “ripped from the headlines” post, guest blogger Adam Rathge historicizes the recent episode of the Florida face-eater, drawing parallels between the contemporary panic over bath salts and 1930’s-era alarm over “reefer madness.” A PhD candidate in History at Boston College, Adam is at work on a dissertation entitled “The Origins of Marijuana Prohibition, 1870-1937.”
On May 26, a 31-year-old man named Rudy Eugene tore off the clothes of a homeless man under a highway in Miami, Florida and then ripped off parts of the victim’s face with his teeth. According to witnesses, when a uniformed police officer shouted at him to stop, the attacker allegedly looked up, growled, and then “kept eating the other guy away.”The officer then shot Eugene at least five times before he fell dead on the scene. The damage, however, was done. Much of the victim’s face was gone; his skin ripped away, nose bitten and his eyes gouged. Given the horrific nature of the event, news reports immediately spread around the country, with most observers wondering the same thing: what could possibly make a person eat someone’s face? The answer, of course, was drugs.
Reports from the Miami Herald show that local police initially theorized the attacker might have been suffering from “cocaine psychosis,” a drug-induced craze that bakes the body internally and often leads the user to strip naked to try and cool off. Speculation on the internet suggested it was a mix of hard drugs, or perhaps a bad batch of LSD, or even the beginning of a Zombie apocalypse. Just days later all of these theories were put to rest when the head of the Miami police union publicly speculated that Eugene was actually on “bath salts” – a range of synthetic stimulants that mimic the effects of marijuana, cocaine, and other illegal substances. Though bath salts had previously been blamed for psychotic episodes and wild hallucinations in other cases around the country, the gruesome nature of the face-eating case helped fuel a growing fear and hysteria of these legally available substances. Instantly, and for weeks after, police speculation on Eugene’s alleged use of bath salts became fact, firmly solidified in the national media as other shocking stories about this new and horrific drug emerged.
To the general public much of this information undoubtedly seemed as novel as it was shocking. As a drug historian watching this story unfold, the developing narrative actually sounded pretty familiar: a sensational story, a new more-dangerous-than-ever-before drug, and law enforcement officials clamoring for strict laws to combat it, all combining to drive a nationwide panic. This certainly appeared to be shaping up a lot like any number of other drug scares in the twentieth century. In many ways, the panics surrounding cocaine, heroin, LSD, crack, ecstasy, meth, etc. all followed similar trajectories to the national forefront, though this one was undoubtedly accelerated by social media platforms. President Obama’s federal ban on many of the compounds that make up bath salts and synthetic marijuana was therefore rather predictable. The big surprise came when the medical examiner’s toxicology reports showed that the autopsy on the so-called “Causeway Cannibal” found nothing more than marijuana.
Given the public’s penchant for crediting drugs with driving outrageous human behavior, the bath-salt psychosis narrative suddenly fell flat. Few people were going to point the same finger at mere cannabis. But could marijuana really have been behind this heinous attack?
Probably not; but before you laugh off the idea completely, consider the following brief summary from Isaac Campos’s recent post on how today’s synthetic drugs are reviving talk of Reefer Madness: “Marijuana is a psychotomimetic drug. That is, it can mimic certain symptoms often associated with psychosis, including paranoia, panic reactions, and even hallucinations (at high doses).” Perhaps more importantly, “Psycho-pharmacologists have long recognized that the behavioral effects of drugs are dictated by a complex tangle of pharmacology, psychology, and culture, or ‘drug, set, and setting.’ Drugs do not produce behavioral effects simply through the interaction between their chemical compounds and our brains. Their effects are deeply colored by our own psychology and by the broader setting of the drug use, both social and cultural.”
For example, in much the same way baths salts are being credited with bizarre behavior, little more than a century ago in Mexico it was commonly reported that marijuana use sent people into wild bouts of paranoid madness, usually resulting in violence. Users were often described as recklessly “running amok” through the streets. These reports were both widespread and largely unchallenged in the sources of the time. In the United States during the late-nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries many medical journals reported cases of cannabis intoxication, noting distortion of space and time, audible and visual hallucinations, and sometimes euphoric and uncontrollable laughter. By the 1930s, stories of violent murders and extraordinarily bizarre episodes linked to marijuana circulated across the United States, many of them documented by local law enforcement officials and circulated by Harry J. Anslinger, Director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Perhaps most famously, these and other astonishing symptoms of marijuana use were chronicled by 1936 movie now known as Reefer Madness.
Few Americans today would ever believe marijuana could cause such behavior, especially considering polling data indicate more than 50% favor its legalization. Moreover, a number of medical experts have questioned the veracity of the Miami medical examiner’s toxicology reports, noting that current laboratory technology often fails to keep pace with constantly evolving synthetic mixtures that can be derived from more than one hundred chemical compounds. Nevertheless, as Campos’s Home Grown suggests, “the most plausible explanation is that marijuana did occasionally help to spur violent incidents and ‘mad’ behavior [in Mexico] – not because marijuana necessarily causes such effects, but because the social and cultural environment of marijuana use in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century made such outcomes possible.” It remains to be seen whether the same might be said for the emergence of similar incidents in the United States during the early twentieth century, something I’m currently researching as part of my dissertation project.
At this point we can’t be entirely sure whether bath salts are singularly responsible for these bizarre behaviors. What we do know is that a social and cultural discourse of abnormal activity has developed around their use (so much so that you can even watch supposed bath salts users on youtube) and is probably contributing in some way. And yet, even with national sensitivity to these drugs at an all-time high, the peak of such behavior may have already passed. Bath salt related reports to the nation’s poison control centers are on pace to be only about half of those reported in 2011. Perhaps similar to the emergence of marijuana and LSD in the United States, as usage has increased users better understand how to interpret the effects of bath salts and therefore get the euphoric or hallucinatory effects they seek without the psychotic episodes. As a stable culture of use develops around these substances, an important component of “drug, set, and setting” is rendered far less variable leading to fewer volatile incidents.
The story of the “Florida-face-eater” offers a glimpse at an important and cautionary tale. Law enforcement officials obviously speculated on the cause of the attack with little evidence or merit. They effectively linked bath salts to this and other heinous crimes. In the process they simply bolstered a general mentality that continues to shape the way we think about drug use and human behavior. Few people openly questioned the idea that bath salts could produce the kind of behavior manifested on that Florida causeway, but nearly everyone dismissed the idea that marijuana could have done the same. Why? The fact of the matter is we simply don’t know enough about the chemical compounds in bath salts to know much of anything for sure. The name of the drug has changed but the narrative remains much the same. Which is why, as historians of alcohol and drugs, we should always take seriously the powerful discourses constructed around drugs and the potential of those words and actions to have serious consequences on users and non-users alike.