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I'm a Sociology Professor at the University of Toronto. I write about gun violence, health disparities, and Hip Hop culture. When I'm not doing research, I like pop-locking, swimming, and learning Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. This is my first blog. I hope you like it.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Bath Salts and Ultra Violence?

During the past couple weeks, I've come across shocking stories of people who become ultra violent after ingesting hallucinogens.  These stories are a sharp contrast to the likes of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters.  The two stories are something closer to scenes from Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

For example, the Internet is filled with stories of Rudy Eugene, a man who was discovered eating another man's face in Miami.  Reports are linking his ultra-violent behavior to "bath salts," a mostly legal synthetic compound that is said to produce a wide array of intense hallucinogenic results in users after ingestion. After being summoned by a fellow motorist, police officers shot and killed Eugene who allegedly growled at officers and continued chewing on the victim's facial flesh until he was shot and killed.  In the media frenzy, Eugene is being called everything from a crazed "zombie" to a cannibal on the Internet.

Ronald Poppo (victim) and Rudy Eugene 
A week ago, I read a somewhat similar story about Jarrod Wyatt, an aspiring MMA fighter who  dismembered and killed his training partner and friend, Taylor Powell.  According to reports, Wyatt and Powell both ate "magic mushrooms".  As the effects of the shrooms began to set in, both Wyatt and Powell began to have a bad trip.  I've read in some popular media accounts that Wyatt came to believe that he saw the devil in Powell's face.  Soon thereafter, he became convinced that he had to kill and dismember Powell.   Police discovered Powell dead with the skin of his face ripped off, his tongue pulled out, and his heart removed from his chest cavity.  Wyatt later admitted that he cut Powell's heart out of his chest when he was still alive.

These stories are shocking and horrifying to say the least.  I am saddened for the family members and friends of the victims in these two stories.  My hope is that they can all find some peace in the aftermath of such grisly events.  I guess only time will tell.

But, I also find it interesting (and maybe a little frustrating) that popular media and various anti-drug organizations are focusing so much of their collective energy and attention on condemning hallucinogenic drugs.  In the wake of these tragedies--which are extreme cases--both media and anti-drug organizations have effectively distorted the public health implications of drugs like psilocybin (magic mushrooms) and "bath salts."

In the bigger picture, psilocybin, bath salts, LSD, salvia, and a wide array of other licit and illicit hallucinogenic substances are far less of a public health danger than are more common substances like alcohol and tobacco.  Hallucinogens are amongst the least abused substances according to big surveys by the National Institute of Drug Abuse.  In fact, amongst illicit drugs, hallucinogens are the third least reported used/abused drug by survey respondents.  The only drugs that respondents used with less frequency were inhalants and heroin.  The rates of alcohol and tobacco use/abus are much higher than all illicit drugs.

Bath Salts: A New Public Health Danger? 
Likewise, alcohol and tobacco are closely implicated in a wide range of different leading causes of death in the US.  Last time I checked, automobile accidents were the leading cause of accidental death in the US (even ahead of firearm injuries) and heart disease/obesity/cancer were a far more lethal triumvirate than shrooms/acid/bath salts.

I realize that anti-drug organizations and reporters are opportunistic and see stories of grisly murder as a chance to warn the public about the potential dangers of magic mushrooms, "bath salts", and other substances that don't get as much public airtime.  At the same time, these reports should be placed in a much broader context so that the public understands the relative dangers of these drugs compared to the more familiar ones bought and sold at your local convenience store.



Thursday, May 3, 2012

DEA Botches Ecstasy Investigation

The DEA is under fire again.  It's been a couple weeks since they raided a San Diego house connected to a suspected MDMA or ecstasy operation.  Agents reported that they seized somewhere around 18,000 ecstasy pills, guns, and other contraband from the house.

Agents made several arrests.  7 other suspects were fingerprinted, processed, and then released to a county jail.  One suspect was released entirely.  Daniel Chong--a 23 year old student at UCSD--was "accidentally" left in his cell for a week.
Daniel Chong, UCSD student and suspected Ecstasy distributor

Reports by the LA Times show that Chong drank his own urine to survive, and at one point, attempted suicide by breaking his glasses to cut his own wrists.

Zimbardo's Prison Experiments
I'm not familiar with protocol or the administrative realities of federal agencies like the DEA, but it seems like it would be hard to just "forget" about a detained person from this kind of drug raid?  Is this the kind of case where guards at the holding facility intentionally neglected a detainee?  It wouldn't be the first or last time that this has happened.

Everytime I read about cases like this one, I am reminded of how Philip Zimbardo had to prematurely end his Stanford Prison Experiments because he found that students playing guards would get too deeply into their roles.

For those who are unfamiliar, here is a quick blurb I got from wikipedia about Zimbardo's research design:

Twenty-four male students out of 75 were selected to take on randomly assigned roles of prisoners and guards in a mock prison situated in the basement of the Stanford psychology building. The participants adapted to their roles well beyond Zimbardo's expectations, as the guards enforced authoritarian measures and ultimately subjected some of the prisoners to psychological torture. Many of the prisoners passively accepted psychological abuse and, at the request of the guards, readily harassed other prisoners who attempted to prevent it. The experiment even affected Zimbardo himself, who, in his role as the superintendent, permitted the abuse to continue. Two of the prisoners quit the experiment early and the entire experiment was abruptly stopped after only six days. Certain portions of the experiment were filmed and excerpts of footage are publicly available.

Zimbardo's study has been used by popular media and analysts as a way to understand the group psychology of punishment and authority.  Is this a likely explanation for what happened to Chong?  Or, is this really a case where the DEA fumbled a case because they don't have the right administrative detail in place?

Chong and his attorneys are going to sue the DEA for somewhere close to 20 million dollars.  In a time when federal tax dollars are harder to secure, the DEA should try to avoid mishaps like this one.