Thursday, 28 June 2012

The Causeway Cannibal, Zombie Apocalypse and the same old pattern of misinformation

I'm sure you've heard about the case of Rudy Eugene, AKA the 'Causeway Cannibal' who, on May 26th, attacked a homeless man in the streets of Florida, biting off part of his face. Eugene, who was mysteriously naked at the time, was shot to death by policeman at the scene of the crime. This bizarre and horrific case was immediately blamed on Eugene's alleged use of 'bath salts', an amphetamine-like legal high that has become mildly popular in the last two years.

This story created two moral panics at once. Firstly, that the world is heading towards a Zombie Apocalypse, and secondly that 'bath salts' are sending people loopy around the world and that something must be done.

The Zombie Apocalypse nonsense is too silly to discuss. As Dan Gardner says in his excellent book Risk, when one extraordinary event has been reported, journalists are eager to cover similar stories—even if they really aren't that similar—thus creating the illusion of a wider trend and a mounting crisis.

If someone is killed by a shark, for instance, all other shark attacks and near-misses are also reported, thereby giving the impression that the original event was part of a spate of attacks (a shark apocalypse). In truth, the subsequent non-fatal bites and sightings would not normally have been reported at all. Similarly, a woman biting a bit of her husband's face during a fight or a man eating his dog would not normally be regarded as cannibalism, but the Causeway Cannibal story is still fresh in our minds so let's pretend it's all part of the same picture.

The 'bath salts' aspect also follows a tried-and-tested model which I outlined in The Art of Suppression. The typical scenario runs like this: someone dies or nearly dies; the police/family/friends claim that the legal high du jour was involved; politicians and the media clamour to have the drug banned; toxicological evidence subsequently shows that the victim had not taken the drug; the drug is banned anyway.

This sequence of events has been repeated with only the slightest variations over the last twenty years, most recently when mephedrone was blamed for the deaths of two lads in Scunthorpe. The drug—known in the media, but not to users, as 'miaow miaow'—was swiftly banned in the UK. Only later did the coroner's report find that they had not taken mephedrone at all. They had taken the similarly named—but very different—drug methadone.

But waiting a few weeks for toxicological reports to provide some actual evidence is not what prohibitionist politicians do. As the Sun Sentinel reported back in May...

It'll be weeks before anyone knows for sure whether Rudy Eugene was even on drugs — traditional or synthetic — when he mauled Ronald Poppo on the MacArthur Causeway last Saturday. But some South Florida cities aren't waiting for the coroner's report. Horrified by the attack, they are adding bath salts to their previously announced plans to ban the sale of synthetic marijuana...

A week later, in Canada...

The Canadian Government announced Tuesday it will issue a ban on the street drug known as "bath salts" following the gruesome face-eating attack in Miami, Florida.

In Britain, the Daily Mail gave the story repeated coverage, such as this from June 24th...

British dealers are supplying America with the drug behind wave of horrific cannibal attacks feared to be 'zombie apocalypse'

The drug being blamed for a spate of cannibal attacks in the U.S. is entering the country from the UK.

Horrific assaults in which users of a substance known as 'bath salts' have eaten victims' flesh have given rise to speculation that America is in the throes of a 'zombie apocalypse'.

Proof that the whole world has gone insane can be found in the last paragraph of that report...

The Center for Disease Control even felt it necessary to address these fears, saying: "CDC does not know of a virus or condition that would reanimate the dead (or one that would present zombie-like symptoms)".

And then yesterday in America...

The Zombie Apocalypse phenomenon has entered presidential politics as Sen. Rob Portman (R-Oh.), one of Mitt Romney’s potential picks for VP, introduced an amendment to a Senate FDA bill that would implement a federal ban on the substance, helping the bill pass (92-4) and sending it on its way to President Obama’s desk.

“This ban can’t come quickly enough,” Grassley said. “Just about every day, there’s a new tragedy related to bath salts. The sooner this poison is off the store shelves, the better. I hope the president will sign this measure into law very quickly.”

Ever since the gruesome Miami cannibalistic attack stunned the nation during Memorial Weekend, bath salts have become a concern for recession-hit communities across the country that have been terrorized by zombie-like synthetic drug users that seem to follow a now familiar pattern of stripping naked, growling and trying to bite or eat their victims. The latest casualty, a family dog which was eaten alive by a Waco, Texas, man allegedly high on the deadly substance.

From day one, I have been very sceptical about the claim that this man was on 'bath salts'. This is partly because I have seen this pattern of events before and partly because—as I have been repeatedly saying on Twitter for the last month—there was no evidence that he had ever taken the drug, let alone was under its influence at the time of the attack. There was not even circumstantial evidence, such as his girlfriend (who also seems to be slightly odd) or family saying that he had a taste for legal highs. Nothing.

And so it has proved today...

The medical examiner's toxicology report of the "causeway cannibal" is back. Surprisingly, no "bath salts" or other strong street drugs were in his system.

Only surprising if you believed the unsubstantiated rumours to begin with.

Police immediately said "bath salts," synthetic drugs sold at convenience stores, were to blame.

They did indeed, but why? According to the Daily Mail...

The results were released weeks after a Miami police union official had speculated that because Eugene's behavior had been so bizarre he was probably under the influence of bath salts.

That's it?! Speculation from a single policeman who lacks the imagination to attribute bizarre behaviour to anything other than legal highs?! That's the evidence upon which hundreds of news stories and several pieces of proposed legislation has been based?!

It is. There was never anything more to it than that.

In the typical prohibitionist scenario I outlined in The Art of Suppression, toxicological reports usually get a fraction of the column inches given to the original false rumours. Because the Causeway Cannibal case has been such a big story, in this instance the facts of the matter are now getting out there but, as Maia Szalavitz writes in Time, the damage has been done...

Despite the fact that Eugene had no synthetic drugs in his system, it’s likely that his case will still be used for years as an example of what bath salts can make people do. If our history of wrong-headed beliefs about drugs is any indication, the association between bath salts and dangerous behavior will stick simply because it surfaced early. Since bath salts just arrived on the illegal market and remain untested and mysterious to many people, they will cling in ignorance to the horror stories about them.

I make no claims for or against 'balt salts'. I've never taken it, nor do I feel any urge to do so. It may be the worst drug to ever hit the market, or it may be an unlikely panacea.

I do know this, however. The publicity given to this drug since the Florida attack has made it world famous and more people will take it as a result ("It's legal! You can buy it online!", as the newspapers repeatedly tell us.) Furthermore, the drug will now be banned in many jurisdictions (in Britain, where it is known as Ivory Wave, it was banned last year) and new drugs will immediately come on the market to replace it—just as 'bath salts' replaced mephedrone. We will know even less about these new substances than we did about 'bath salts', and the pattern of tragedy, rumour, misinformation and prohibition will be repeated again. And again.

As for the Causeway Cannibal, new information has been released which apparently no one thought relevant to mention earlier.

Mental illness has always been a possibility. WPLG in Miami has confirmed that Rudy Eugene was diagnosed with schizophrenia. After this new toxicology report, that becomes the likeliest reason behind this unexplainable attack.

It looks as if the truth has finally put its shoes on in the Causeway Cannibal case. We will learn our lesson this time?


dearieme said...

Ban schizophrenia!

JuliaM said...

Yes! Ban it twice!

Mr A said...

I read far too many ASH press releases (and the unthinking braying of their handful of mindless supporters) to be anything but absolutely terrified of a zombie apocalypse.

It's already begun!

Zaphod Camden said...

As Leg Iron said in one of his posts last week, "the human race is over. The humans lost."


david said...

I read somewhere that cannabis was detected. Looks like a bad case of the munchies...