The use of the designer drug known innocently as ‘bath salts’ is on the rise in America, with the substance being linked to gruesome acts of cannibalism.

On May 26 this year, Rudy Eugene was caught on CCTV attacking homeless man Ronald Poppo, 65, next to a busy road in Miami. 31-year-old Eugene, who was naked during the incident, chewed the flesh off of 70% of Poppo’s face, leaving him blind and in need of reconstructive surgery.  Eugene was shot dead by police, as he appeared too intoxicated by an unknown substance to understand their orders for him to stop.

It was alleged that the attack was fuelled by Eugene’s use of bath salts, a group of ‘designer drugs’ normally containing chemicals known as substituted cathinones. Their effects are comparable to those of cocaine and amphetamine.

A variety of theories emerged about bath salts and the attack, and the press was quick to label them the ‘cannibal drug’. Despite the low media profile of bath salts prior to the Miami attack, a number of stories emerged with similar cannibalistic attacks allegedly linked to bath salts; some also involved the user removing their clothes before attacking. This led many to draw the conclusion that there was a definite link between the use of the drug and cannibalistic behaviour.

However, toxicology tests later revealed that Eugene had no trace of bath salts in his body – marijuana was the only drug detected by the tests. Although marijuana does exhibit hallucinogenic properties, the user generally feels relaxed; to blame marijuana alone for Eugene’s behaviour may be presumptuous.

Despite the failure to connect bath salts with the Miami attack, the graphic nature of Poppo’s injuries prompted further reports and fears. A similar attack occurred in Scott, Louisiana, where Carl Jacquneaux bit the face of his victim, Todd Credeur, whilst reportedly under the influence of bath salts.

There are fears that the drugs are becoming more popular across America. Within days of the Miami incident the police force of Roanoke, Virginia reported 22 suspected cases of bath salt usage, with users displaying associated behaviours including violence, nudity and aggression. Figures from the American Association of Poison Control centres have also showed a sharp incline in calls relating to bath salt use between 2010 and 2011, and over 1,000 calls have been made in 2012 so far.

Bath salts are most commonly imported from Europe and China but the apparent popularity of their use suggests that manufacture could become more widespread in America, which will only worsen the situation.

Although steps have been taken to make the use and distribution of bath salts illegal, further intervention may be required. The drugs are easily disguised as innocent substances – they are commonly packaged as plant foods. There is currently no test for bath salts that can detect the substance instantaneously, as a breathalyser tests for alcohol. Quite what can be done to prevent the concerning trend from taking hold is unclear.

 

Bath Salts: The Profile

Origin: Manufactured illegally, mostly in Europe and China.

Street Names: Numerous, though notably ‘Blue Wave’, ‘Hurricane Charlie’, ‘Super Coke’, ‘Vanilla Sky’, and ‘White Dove’.

Appearance: Sold as a white powder.

Use: Snorted but can be injected, swallowed or smoked.

Composition: Normally contain substituted cathinones, but ingredients can vary wildly. Bath salts are a synthetic ‘designer drug’ so the maker can vary the composition.

Effects: Believed to cause paranoia and hallucinations that can lead to violent behaviour.

Legality: Substituted cathinones are illegal in the UK under the Misuse of Drugs Act, and in July of this year a bill in the US banned them.

Detection: Routine urine analysis will not detect bath salts. Further analysis using chromatography is required. Police dogs cannot pick up their scent.

 

Rebecca Scott

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