Not the Zombie Apocalypse

Cocaine and a razorAn interesting thing happened the other day. Some guy decided to eat some other guy’s face.  The details are a bit sketchy, but you can imagine that a lot of people were horrified. There were also a few people who were jubilant. You see, horrified people are really easy to manipulate, and a properly executed bit of misdirection can take good advantage of a properly horrified populace.

In this mysterious event, 31-year-old Rudy Eugene left home on a bicycle one morning and somehow wound up naked and chewing the face off of a homeless man. Before you can even say “toxicology report” people have started blaming it on the new drug on the block, colloquially referred to as “bath salts”.

Let’s take a step back and figure out what exactly we’re talking about. After skimming the reports, we’re discussing something that can make a “violent but not crazy” person decide that scraping the flesh off of someone else’s face with their teeth is a good idea, give them the energy to actually do it, remove enough of their sense of self to decide that being naked isn’t worth noticing, and makes said person capable of virtually ignoring a bullet passing through his body. You need something that will shut down the parts of the brain that might rebel at this thought, dull pain, and give you a lot of energy without making you feel like you need to visit the emergency room. There aren’t many chemicals that can do this, and almost all of them fall into the category of strong hallucinogens.

Let’s take a look at the drug in question. “Bath salts” is a chemical named methylenedioxypyrovalerone, or MDPV for short. This drug falls into a category with Ritalin, and has effects similar to cocaine and methamphetamine. Although the authorities don’t like us to know anything more useful than “DRUGS BAD”, you can find a decent amount of information on what it does and how it affects people in the Vaults of Erowid. The effects include euphoria, increased sociability, and creativity on the positive side, and anxiety, loss of appetite, muscle spasms, and depressed mood on the other side. On the extreme end, you can find “psychotic behavior”, but nowhere is violence, cannibalism or decreased awareness of pain mentioned.

Let’s compare this to a couple of good candidates, such as PCP (physical aggression, depersonalization, severe dissociation, and decreased pain awareness) or cocaine (“With high doses may exhibit a pattern of psychosis with confused and disorganized behavior, irritability, fear, paranoia, hallucinations, may become extremely antisocial and aggressive”). Given these possibilities, MDPV isn’t a very good candidate. So why call it out? Based on this guide to the effects of cocaine use, it sounds like cocaine is the more likely culprit.

Right now, the use of MDPV is on the rise. It isn’t used more than cocaine, but it’s used more than it was last month. This scares a lot of people more than face-eating zombies. Realistically, it’s going to be weeks before Miami’s toxicology lab is going to get around to actually giving us firm evidence about what this guy was and wasn’t on, so in the mean time they might as well direct the horror into a public outcry against the subject of their fears. This is a standard pattern for drug enforcement policy, based on the idea that information and logic just don’t work.

There are two problems with this approach. The first is that it has never worked. Even before the DEA lost all credibility with anyone with a clue, people figured out that the government banned only those things that were in some way enjoyable. This makes a government ban function like an advertisement to find out why people are doing it in the first place.

The second problem is that it’s completely unnecessary. MDPV use is a self-limiting behavior. It has a decent euphoric effect, but the euphoria is short lived, not maintainable even by increasing the dosage, and is followed by a harsh, unpleasant crash and days of miserable insomnia. Like numerous other drugs, this one is doomed to obscurity simply because it’s more trouble than it’s worth. That, however, is information and logic, and that just doesn’t work for some people.


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Robert Rapplean is a compulsive autodidact who was ejected from Machiavelli’s School for Evil Geniuses due to his unfortunate penchant for attempting to save the world. When he’s not earning money writing software, Robert studies economics and artificial intelligence, plays Rock Band, and designs his not-so-evil robot army.