Bath Salt Epidemic Bogus? Sweetwater Mayor Manny Maroño Says It's Real, and It's Scary

People love a good story. It's why when Rudy Eugene ate Ronald Poppo's face beneath the MacArthur Causeway on May 26, the whole world latched onto one cop's careless explanation: Bath salts drove Eugene insane.

Cue public panic. In Miami, media blamed the mysterious compound -- often called synthetic cocaine -- for a guy exposing himself to children and a young man growling at police. In West Virginia, one dude was so high on bath salts (can we call him a "bath saltine"?) that he supposedly donned a bra and panties, slaughtered his neighbor's pygmy goat, and passed out.

Nobody latched harder onto the idea that bath salts are a demon drug than Manuel Maroño. But is the Sweetwater mayor full of synthetic crap?

Since 2002, Maroño has presided over the peaceful suburb with just 14,000 residents. It wasn't until this year, however, that he found his signature issue.

In early May, Sweetwater became the first city in Florida to ban what was then the newest drug on earth: fake pot. Maroño came up with the idea after police warned him about middle and high school kids streaming into a local convenience store to buy the stuff.

Eugene's ravenous rage changed the equation, however. Four days later, Maroño announced he was expanding the ordinance to include synthetic cocaine. All this despite the fact that state legislators already outlawed both substances last year. But Maroño says his town's ordinances is broader and better able to combat different varieties of the drug.

"It's documented nationwide that children and adults go into manic or psychotic states where they try to hurt themselves or others while on synthetic highs," Maroño told the Miami Herald at the time. "How many more people need to die to get this epidemic under control?"

But Maroño's research seems to have consisted of little more than a Google search. By his own admission, Sweetwater hasn't made any arrests for bath-salt-related crimes. Similarly, Miami-Dade police say they have made "zero arrests relating to bath salts" in the past year.

Then there's the case of Rudy Eugene. Last week a toxicology report debunked the bath salts hypothesis. The only thing the so-called Miami Zombie had in his system was good old-fashioned marijuana.

Despite the autopsy results, Maroño still believes Eugene was on bath salts. "They change the chemical components all the time," he says. "You can do as many toxicology reports as you want -- it's not going to show up."

Could Maroño be legislating a problem that might not exist?

"The problem exists," he retorts. "It's a bit naive to say that the problem doesn't exist."

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Michael E. Miller was a staff writer at Miami New Times for five years. His work for New Times won many national awards, including back-to-back-to-back Sigma Delta Chi medallions. He now covers local enterprise for the Washington Post.