It's late Wednesday in the hipster redoubt of factory lofts and retro bars known as Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Paul, a 35-year-old publishing executive who plays in an indie band on the side, is getting the eye wobbles. He has just come from the recording studio, and he really should be getting home to his wife. But he's trying to make his night last. He retreats to the restroom with a little baggie bearing the warning not for human consumption and snorts a white powder up his nose. He comes back animated and happy—not just happy, but bursting with joy and affection. He proceeds to gush about his love for his bandmates and for his shitty absentee father. His three friends, their own noses packed with powder, sit in rapt attention, nodding rapidly, as alert and empathetic as fans at a Sex and the City 2 premiere.
This is your brain on plant food.
In less than three years, a new drug sold over the Internet as a boutique alternative to Miracle-Gro but purchased solely as a designer high has swept from Israel through Australia and into the club scene in London. It has only recently landed in the United States, but it has already acquired the obligatory street names: sunshine in the Pacific Northwest; star dust in the Midwest; drone and bubble here in New York. It is mephedrone, or 4-methylmethcathinone, MCAT for short—an acronym that prompted the British press to call it meow meow. Chemically, mephedrone is similar in effect to khat, a shrub whose leaves are chewed by Sudanese warriors to achieve an amphetamine-like high before they head into battle. But as drugs go, mephedrone is a lover, not a fighter—the powder energizes, though not as fiercely as cocaine, and that adrenaline jolt is topped with the warm fuzzies of an Ecstasy trip.
"I'm not even a drug person," Paul says after noting the dust's effects on him. (Like the other users in this story, he did not want his last name used.) "But this stuff is so smooth and easy. It doesn't leave your soul cored out."
Until this spring, mephedrone was legal—and thus rampant—in the U.K. Oxford undergrads snorted it off bars. Club kids rolled on it until the sun rose over Clerkenwell. Then users began to get sick. "We started seeing it pop up 17 months ago," says Dr. Paul Dargan, a clinical toxicologist in London and a member of the British Pharmacological Society, whose unit has identified more than 60 cases of mephedrone poisoning. "The pattern of toxicity is similar to Ecstasy and cocaine agitation—fast heart rate, high blood pressure, chest pains, occasionally seizures. Nobody knows how much they take. You don't know how much is in a line."
After several high-profile deaths were attributed (rather prematurely and inconclusively) to mephedrone by the British tabloids, U.K. authorities rushed to ban the drug. But the truth is, no one really knows what risks, short- or long-term, mephedrone presents. Hardly anyone has studied it. "There have been many media claims," Dargan says, "but very few clinical facts."
In the U.S., the Drug Enforcement Agency has scarcely heard of mephedrone. And most of the country's police departments and health-care workers know nothing at all about it. But chances are they soon will. In the U.K., the press has had a field day with the fiendish stories surrounding its use: the weeklong chest pains; the man whose knees turned blue for days; the guy who tore off his scrotum with a pair of pliers after hallucinating that centipedes were crawling all over his body. Thanks to the Reefer Madness-like fearmongering, the myth of mephedrone has mushroomed.
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Most designer drugs come and go, lost in the literal buzz of more-established vices like coke, Ecstasy, meth, and even LSD. But mephedrone caught a lucky marketing break. The drug is believed to have been invented in an Israeli lab in 2007, and it quickly became the dust that fueled the Tel Aviv party scene. Unlike the U.S., Israel has no analog-drug law, which allows authorities to criminalize a new substance if it has effects similar to those of a known narcotic. In Israel you can tweak a singular irrelevant chemical component of meth and declare the result something entirely unique and legal. "Israel, to my sad dismay," says Mickey Arieli, the director of the pharmaceutical-crime unit in the country's Ministry of Health, "is a major leader in designer drugs for this reason."
Though Israel shut down Neorganics, the company that produced mephedrone, in 2009, the drug had already begun popping up on the Internet, sold by copycat manufacturers in China and India. In June 2008, Australian and Cambodian drug agents had seized and burned 1,278 barrels of sassafras oil, the base ingredient of MDMA, or Ecstasy, in Cambodia's Cardamom mountains, causing a shortage of the drug in Europe and Australia, where its use is rampant. Mephedrone became a trendy replacement.
"Its use was not as widespread as MDMA, but it certainly caused a ripple in the drug market," says Andrew Camilleri, a forensic scientist at the South Australia Department of Justice. At the same time, it arrived in force in London and quickly took root in the underground club scene thanks to another marketing coup. Because it was being sold online as plant food, it had a certain curio value and cachet (in the "I'll try anything" drug ethos). The mephedrone high is shorter than that of Ecstasy, says Camilleri, who cowrote one of the only studies of the drug. "Some users report a terrible comedown; others say it is far better than the comedown of MDMA."
In fact, mephedrone packs two different highs, uniting two traditionally divergent drug crowds. It appeals to Ecstasy users because of its euphoric effects and to cokeheads because of its rush, which is less edgy, and thus more pleasant, than blow's. On top of that, coke is often cut with harmful chemicals. The DEA estimates that one third of all U.S. cocaine is tainted with levamisole—a veterinary deworming medicine. Because you buy mephedrone directly from an online supplier and not, say, a street dealer, it generally arrives 100 percent pure. All of which makes mephedrone seem like a narcotic holy grail—an unadulterated drug for all the people all the time. Of course, sometimes a drug can be too pure.
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IN March 2009, a 16-year-old girl from Bend, Oregon, snorted a couple of lines of sunshine at a party. A 19-year-old guy had allegedly given it to her, telling her it was a pure form of Ecstasy. The next morning the girl's foster mother found her "having cold sweats, hyperventilating, shaking," according to a police report. At the hospital the girl vomited repeatedly and drifted toward unconsciousness. The effects lasted for days. The state crime lab was baffled when it finally tested a sample of the powder.
"I sent my data to labs all over the state and no one knew what it was," says Angela Mayfield, a forensic scientist at the Oregon State Police Crime Lab in Bend. She eventually sent the sample to authorities in Australia and learned what she had on her hands. "It was kind of shocking to find it here," Mayfield says. "But these MDMA analogs are going around now."
Drugs can jump borders and oceans like viruses, thanks to dealers and jet-set partyers and, of course, the Internet. While numerous websites tout mephedrone's high, so far it has come into public view in the U.S. only sporadically. In Bismarck, North Dakota, a head shop called Big Willies was selling it as a bath salt called star dust. In February, after two people who bought star dust overdosed and ended up in the hospital, the state moved quickly to ban mephedrone—it's the only one to have done so.
At the federal level, mephedrone enjoys a quasi-legal status. Technically, users can be charged with possessing or selling it under the 1986 Analog Act. But even the DEA says such cases would be difficult to prosecute, because authorities must prove that the drug is intended for human consumption. Therein lies the genius of marketing mephedrone as plant food—it's a de facto immunity amulet from felony prosecution. The 19-year-old in Bend who allegedly dealt the drug to his friends was charged with only a minor offense, delivering an imitation controlled substance. Rusty Payne, a spokesman for the DEA, says, "It would have to be a huge case for a U.S. Attorneys Office to want to pursue, because of the difficulty."
So why aren't more people doing it? Perhaps because outside the Burning Man crowd and the gay dance-club scene, Ecstasy isn't that big in America. Mephedrone will have to make inroads with the methed-up, Breaking Bad masses or the coked-up, dick-swinging Hollywood-Wall Street set to become a DEA priority.
"The funny thing is, you'll get faced doing a single 100-milligram line of this stuff," says Hamilton Morris, the host of Hamilton's Pharmacopeia on the online VBS.tv site and a self-styled modern-day De Quincey, who has tried mephedrone and enjoyed it. "It's pure—nobody is fucking with it. When you compare it to cocaine, which is horrifically contaminated, or MDMA, which is as dirty as it gets, it has a lot going for it. Convenience. Price. Purity. I'm not surprised it's huge in the U.K."
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The little Ziploc bag is clearly labeled. If you miss the message in the words not for human consumption, there's a big red circle with a line through it and some ominous chemical icons. Yet the hipsters at this factory-loft party in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn aren't bothered by it. Keith, a 35-year-old advertising executive and muralist, digs in with a key and hands the bag to the next partygoer.
"I've been pretty much dipping on this like it was coke," he says sometime around 3 a.m., as the entire room jumps to a live band. "It's not overwhelming—just nice and warm and fuzzy." As a result, he says, he ended up doing a bit too much a few nights earlier and woke with an awful hangover. "I was totally depleted of energy," he says, grinning madly and twitching with the loud music.
According to Camilleri, the Australian forensic scientist, mephedrone's immediate aftereffects vary. People who use large quantities can get vasculitis and vasoconstriction, a tightening of blood vessels, which explains the blue knees and feet in some overindulgers. No one knows how addictive the drug is, but Camilleri says users report the urge to re-dose regularly. Despite the Ecstasy-like touchy-feeliness and heightened sex drive it promotes, 29 percent of users report depression after using it, he adds. And since mephedrone has a pharmacological profile similar to meth's, it's possible that it could cause the same psychosocial problems with long-term use.
Tim, a 32-year-old new-media executive at the same loft party, has his own bag of mephedrone. It arrived via airmail with the usual warnings. Unlike Keith's fine powder, though, Tim's MCAT resembles methlike crystalline chips. He soon gets his own private party under way, taking a single small bump off a kitchen table cluttered with booze bottles. Within seconds, something seems to go terribly wrong. His face turns crimson red and he grips the table, breathing heavily, swallowing hard for five harrowing minutes. This gives way to a wave of euphoria. For the next two hours, he shifts between being wired and withdrawn and being affectionate and blissed-out, rising and falling as if trapped inside the car of a roller coaster. "That was fucking scary," he says. "I thought my heart was gonna explode in my chest."
Two days later, Keith feels drained. "I had the same kind of morning anxiety hangovers I get after a good Ecstasy trip," he says. "But that's always the price you pay. Plus I hooked up with a little hottie at the end of the night who was loving this stuff. So...not too bad."
Nearly a week after the party, Tim is still reeling. He complains of chest pains. He suffers from terrifying, hour-long bouts of anxiety every morning. I ask whether he plans to finish the two five-gram bags he has left since he took only one hit and then was too messed-up to cut lines for anyone else. "Are you kidding?" he says. "I flushed that shit in the East River. Even if I gave it away, it might kill someone. Shit like that—it's Russian roulette."