“All three became psychotic, all three had superhuman strength and felt no pain,” he told Burnett.
“The reason they take off their clothes is that their body temperature goes through the roof,” Aguilar tells me. “By this point, their internal organs are about to explode from the inside out.”
The two other incidents Aguilar was referring to happened in March, when 23-year-old Evan Oberfelder assaulted police officers after being hit by a cab while walking partially naked along Bayshore Drive, and in April, when 21-year-old George Salgado of West Miami died in police custody after cops tasered him to prevent him from biting someone’s neck. Oberfelder reportedly admitted to using LSD; Salgado’s friend revealed that Salgado had also been tripping on acid. “George Salgado was not taking bath salts,” says Salgado family lawyer Jeffrey Norkin. “It was garden-variety blotter acid with a picture of SpongeBob on it.”
Reporters didn’t seem to care that Aguilar had no expertise in the pharmacological action of drugs on the human brain or that he didn’t provide a scintilla of credible evidence that bath salts were involved in any of these cases. Horror stories about intoxicants have been a staple of American reporting since the temperance crusades, but this one was the mother of all drug-scare stories. It was too good for journalists to fact-check.
Before long, the events of May 26 spawned what seemed to be copycat incidents, further fueling the bath salts frenzy. On June 2 police arrested a 21-year-old homeless man for disorderly conduct at a fast-food restaurant in North Miami Beach. On the way to the station, he threatened officers, “I’m going to eat you.” Police found an empty packet of Cloud 9 bath salts on the man, and hospital blood tests revealed the presence of Xanax, marijuana and alcohol.
That same weekend in Louisiana a 43- year-old man assaulted his ex-wife’s husband and bit off a chunk of his face. A friend of the victim told police that she thought the attacker might have been using bath salts. The police admitted they couldn’t be sure because a test was never performed.
Ten days later a 35-year-old woman ran naked through the streets of Munnsville, New York. She supposedly growled at state troopers, and when she tried to bite one, she was tasered and died of a heart attack. State police suspected the dead woman of using bath salts.
As the latest in a long line of chemical bogeymen, bath salts became a general category on which the police could pin all the ills of drug abuse. Meanwhile, the internet fanned public paranoia as users of social media sites jokingly linked Rudy Eugene to an impending “zombie apocalypse.”
The case tapped into the current cultural fascination with zombies, evidenced by so-called zombie walks and the success of the TV show The Walking Dead. Add in the reality that Eugene had family roots in Haiti, where voodoo beliefs are deeply ingrained. A headline in the English-language newspaper Russia Today captured the over-the-top nature of the coverage: NEW “BATH SALTS” ZOMBIE-DRUG MAKES AMERICANS EAT EACH OTHER.
The panic continued to escalate, and ABC News ran a story headlined FACE-EATING ATTACK POSSIBLY PROMPTED BY “BATH SALTS,” AUTHORITIES SUSPECT. I found it strange that journalists continued to insist that Rudy Eugene had been high on bath salts. No drug paraphernalia was found at the crime scene. The initial toxicology report didn’t test for bath salts, and a more sophisticated test, which probes for a wider variety of drugs, would take upward of a month to complete.
To find out what all the fuss was about, I decided to try bath salts—or at least mephedrone, a common active ingredient in bath salts. Over an eight-hour period I snorted roughly half a gram—a fair-size dose—of the white powder, first in a Miami Beach nightclub and then again after I got home. At first, other than a tightness in my chest and a slight numbness in my limbs, I didn’t feel anything. But then my central nervous system lit up and I became as buoyant as foam floating on the surface of a fast-moving river.
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. The drug that mephedrone is most commonly compared to is ecstasy, and I definitely felt a sense of increased connectedness to the other partygoers. My wife, who refused to take bath salts, saw it differently. “If you want to fuck, let’s go home and fuck, but stop stroking me,” she said. “It’s really irritating.”
When the mephedrone started to wear off, I didn’t experience a “fiending” phenomenon—the compulsive need to redose that can cause some “meph-heads” to get into trouble. But I did suffer a serotonin hangover: High-dose users report that depleted levels of the brain chemical can cause suicidal thoughts. I tried to eat a snack while I was coming down, but I couldn’t force the food down my throat. You can’t swallow a granola bar, let alone gnaw on a human face, while high on this drug, which makes the story of Rudy Eugene even more of a mystery.
The overall experience was disappointing. It’s easy to understand why consumers would think bath salts are a decent enough alternative to ecstasy. 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. That’s because, as far as drug warriors such as Armando Aguilar are concerned, the substance itself is beside the point. The real point is the panic.