Outside the emergency room of Jackson Memorial Hospital, the same medical facility where Rudy Eugene was born and where Ronald Poppo is recuperating, there’s a plaza area with a concrete ornamental pool and a feeble-looking fountain. The sun has just disappeared below the horizon, and the plaza is bathed in an eerie blue glow.
Dr. Paul Adams, a mild-mannered physician with a pink face and freshly scrubbed hands tucked neatly into the pockets of his white coat, works in the ER at Jackson Memorial. He says that one night not so long ago, medical staffers tied a man to a gurney because he was violent. Adams suspected the patient was high on bath salts. As often happens, he says, the sedatives he injected into the man wore off before the drug did. The patient broke free from his restraints, dashed through the packed waiting room and jumped into the shallow pool outside. Adams says bath salts had caused the man to overheat, and he was trying to cool off.
“Bath salts combine the worst effects of LSD, the worst effects of crystal meth and the worst effects of PCP,” says Adams as he strolls through the corridors of the ER. “People on bath salts have no limitations. They don’t perceive pain. They seem as if they have superhuman strength.”
Next to Aguilar, no one did more to stoke the Great Bath Salts Panic of 2012 than Adams. Soon after the first newspaper and television reports, the doctor was there to give the stamp of medical legitimacy to Aguilar’s off-the-cuff conjecture. If the police union president said bath salts turn users into turbocharged ogres, the physician would underscore his point with a story about how it took four or five ER personnel to hold down a bath salts zombie, maybe even six, depending on which reporter he told the story to. (Adams now tells me it takes at least two ER personnel to sedate someone on bath salts.)
If Aguilar said bath salts were the new form of LSD, Adams would concur that you “can call it the new LSD,” even though he knows LSD and bath salts are completely different drugs. Reporters quoted the two in tandem so often that it was easy to believe they were in cahoots, but Adams and Aguilar have never met each other.
Starting in early 2011, Adams began to notice patients who were clearly under the influence of some sort of psychoactive substance exhibiting strange and erratic behavior. These cases weren’t just violent. What was odd was that while they exhibited the classic clinical symptoms of stimulant overdose—rapid heart rate, overheating, hallucinations, aggressive behavior—their blood tests came back clean. No cocaine, no methamphetamine, no LSD, no marijuana, not even the presence of alcohol. Something was going on out there on Miami’s dangerous streets that Adams didn’t know about, but what exactly? He asked some of his law enforcement contacts and heard the term bath salts.
Adams came to his conclusion. “Our emergency room tests don’t detect everything,” he says. “One of the drugs they don’t detect is bath salts. If I want to test for bath salts, I have to send samples to an outside laboratory. When somebody tests negative for everything, it’s a good bet bath salts are involved.”
Many times it’s difficult to know what drugs users are on when he treats them, Adams says. There’s a lot of guesswork. “If you tap someone on the shoulder and that person turns around and smiles at you,” says Adams, “the likelihood is that person is on ecstasy.
“Taking your clothes off, running through traffic and assaulting people is an indicator of bath salt abuse. You have people in after-hours clubs in Miami taking these substances and running around completely naked in the street.”
Perhaps Adams doesn’t remember the PCP scare of the late 1970s and early 1980s, when running naked through traffic was said to be one of the less alarming effects. In late June 2012 the media in Scottsdale, Arizona blamed bath salts when a naked man carjacked a Toyota Prius and caused multiple car crashes. Days later, the toxicology test reported only PCP in the nude carjacker’s system (no test for bath salts was conducted).
Nevertheless, the media continued to hold bath salts responsible for a so-called naked crime wave sweeping the nation. In June alone bath salts took the heat for at least 12 crimes, from California to New York, many involving people not wearing any clothes.
It’s easy to believe the world is falling apart when you’re an ER physician. “I always see humanity at its worst,” admits Adams.
In the wake of the MacArthur Causeway incident, Miami-Dade commissioners moved to ban bath salts. Manuel Maroño, mayor of Sweetwater, a tiny speck of a Miami suburb, also stepped forward and spoke for a frightened nation when he announced that he intended to outlaw the drug in his town. “How many people need to die to get this epidemic under control?” he asked.