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Bath salts controversy - when politicians become pushers

Posted: June 24, 2012 - 11:01pm

I’ll bet none of Miami’s city commissioners has ever heard of Gabi Price. That’s sad for many reasons, including the fact that knowing her story might have saved the commissioners from elevating their ordinary jackassery to international levels last week.

Gabi was just 14 when she collapsed and died while attending a party in the British port city of Brighton in 2009. Police, not troubling themselves to wait for an autopsy, announced she had died after taking a drug known to English teenagers as “meow-meow” and sold legally on the Internet under the label “plant food.” Two people were arrested on suspicion of supplying her the drug.

If the cops didn’t have to wait for an autopsy, there was certainly no reason to expect Great Britain’s tabloid press to do so. The drug that’s cheap, easy to order as pizza ... and totally legal, screamed London’s Daily Mail. “Ban this kiddy crack now!” demanded a columnist in the Mirror. And as meow-meow’s death toll mounted — cops and newspapers blamed it for 18 deaths over the next few months — a ban seemed to make good sense.

Well, except for the fact that the whole thing was almost purely fictional, even by the flexible standards of the Brit tabloids. When autopsies and toxicological reports finally started rolling in, it turned out that only one of the 18 deaths might reasonably be attributed to meow-meow.

In some cases, meow-meow was only one small part of exotic cocktails of drugs including amphetamines, morphine and methadone. In others, the victims had serious health complications, sometimes massive: One man, who died after injecting himself with four massive doses of meow-meow during an orgy, was also an insulin-dependent diabetic who was HIV positive and suffered from chronic renal disease, high blood pressure and coronary artery disease.

Gabi? She hadn’t taken meow-meow at all. Her autopsy showed she died of a streptococcal infection, an untreated case of the flu. “She was branded a druggie, but she was just a little girl who died,” said her brokenhearted mother.

Why it would have been worth the Miami city commission’s time to learn Gabi’s story is that the demon drug that was originally blamed for her death was mephedrone, a chemical cousin to “bath salts,” the drug that supposedly turned a North Miami Beach man into a face-chewing zombie last month.

Actually, almost anything can be inside those little bags marked bath salts; as Reuters columnist Jack Shafer reported recently, cops have sometimes found they contain nothing more sinister than a mixture of caffeine and aspirin. (If you find that alarming, keep in mind it’s essentially the formula of Excedrin and a lot of other headache remedies.)

But most commonly bath salts are a synthetic version of cathinone, a compound contained in the leaves of the khat plant, which people in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian peninsula have been chewing for a mild high for centuries without turning into voracious zombies.

If bath salts and meow-meow are cousins, our drug panic is practically an identical twin of the one in Britain. Just like the Brits, we didn’t wait for drug tests or other concrete evidence that Rudy Eugene was under the influence of bath salts when he attacked a homeless man over the Memorial Day weekend, just accepted the wild guesswork of a single cop. Three weeks later, there’s still not a shred of evidence that bath salts had anything to do with the zombie incident.

But over at the city commission, they don’t need no stinking evidence to know what happened or what to do about it. The commissioners last week banned the sale of anything called “bath salt” or “bath salts.” In civilized, literate parts of the world, laws banning drugs contain their actual chemical formulas.

Ha! Our commissioners don’t need no stinking science, either. Just a package with the name bath salts is illegal now, which is going to come as a surprise to all the nice ladies who buy vanilla-scented crystals to dissolve in their baths. (The commission apparently thought it had gotten around that by extending the ban only to packages under 16 ounces, but a lot of cosmetic bath salts come in eight-ounce packets.) Not to be outdone, several other local city councils, as well as the Miami-Dade County Commission, are poised to jump off the same bridge.

These bans aren’t going to do a thing to remove bath salts — the ones that make you high — from public consumption. Dealers will just start labeling them “plant food” or some other banal phrase, as the Brits did. Even a less forthrightly stupid approach than that of the Miami city commissioners will face serious difficulties. Because the psychoactive compound in bath salts is synthetic, chemists can tinker just slightly with the molecule to produce a substance that’s technically different enough to be legal. That’s why bath salts are still on sale around the United States even though the DEA outlawed them in 1993.

The only thing the panic over bath salts is likely to do, in the end, is sell more bath salts. Scottish public-health researcher Alasdair J. M. Forsyth, who studied Great Britain’s panic over mephedrone in 2009, discovered that Google searches of the phrase “mephedrone buy” skyrocketed every time a new atrocity story broke into the news. “News of drug deaths causes more interest in the drug, including buying it,” he wrote.

That’s right: Our politicians are pushers.

• Garvin is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

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