The scenario seems right out of some science fiction nightmare: A dangerous addictive drug that is cheap and easy to manufacture appears out of nowhere and creates a potential drug crisis. The drug is concocted from a "witches brew" of battery acid, Drano, and over-the- counter asthma medication, and can be manufactured in home kitchens.
Unfortunately, it isn't science fiction. It isn't fiction. It is South Africa's most recent drug threat -- methcathinone. Since 2001, this new drug has emerged as a cheap substitute for methamphetamine. Since it is so new, all of the risks have not yet been assessed. But lack of information about risks has not stopped its use in South Africa.
Ingredients Used in Methcathinone Synthesis
The ingredients used in various recipes for home-made methcathinone include:
- ephedrine or pseudoephedrine (found in some over-the-counter asthma and cold medications)
- acetone (explosive paint solvent)
- muriatic acid (used in sandblasting and cleaning mortar off bricks)
- sulphuric acid (usually purchased from auto supply stores as battery acid)
- lye (usually in the form of a crystal drain cleaner such as Drano)
- sodium dichromate or potassium dichromate
- sodium hydroxide
- toluene (explosive paint thinner)
Problems Associated with Methcathinone Use
While research on the long-term effects of methcathinone use is just beginning in the United States, anecdotal reports from users in treatment in this country, and from published research in Russia, paint a similar picture. Chronic use of methcathinone produces a range of problems typical of addiction to powerful stimulant drugs including:
- paranoia and delusions
- hallucinations, including a sensation of bugs crawling under the skin
- anxiety followed by depression
- tremors and convulsions
- anorexia, malnutrition, and weight loss
- sweating, dehydration, and electrolyte imbalance
- stomach pains and nausea
- nose bleeding and eventual destruction of nasal tissues and erosion of the nasal septum
- elevated blood pressure and heart rate
- body aches
In addition, following a binge, users report a "crash" that often includes severe psychological depression, and suicide ideation. Anecdotal reports from patients in treatment facilities in Michigan and Wisconsin suggest that methcathinone is highly addictive, similar to crack cocaine, and some users report developing tolerance and withdrawal symptoms after just one incident of binging (six to ten days) on methcathinone. Addiction to methcathinone appears to be as difficult to treat as addiction to crack cocaine.
Data from Russia report that many methcathinone addicts suffer permanent brain damage and exhibit symptoms similar to Parkinson's disease. In extreme cases, deaths have been reported, and are related to heart failure, lethal overdoses, drug-related violence, and manufacturing accidents.
Effects of Methcathinone Intoxication
The most common means of taking methcathinone is snorting (nasal insufflation). Other routes of administration include taking it by mouth (oral ingestion) mixed in a liquid such as coffee or soft drinks, intravenous injection, and smoking it either in a crack pipe or added to tobacco or marijuana cigarettes. Methcathinone is often used in binges lasting from two to six days, during which methcathinone is used repeatedly.
Effects of short term intoxication are similar to those produced by crack cocaine or methamphetamine: stimulation of heart rate and respiration; feeling of euphoria; loss of appetite; increased alertness; pupils may be dilated; body temperature may be slightly elevated. Acute intoxication at higher doses may also result in: insomnia, tremors and muscle twitching, fever, headaches, convulsions, irregular heart rate and respirations, anxiety, restlessness, paranoia, and hallucinations and delusions.
Legal Issues and Methcathinone
When methcathinone appeared on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in 1990, there were no federal or state laws specifically regulating its possession and sale, although it was banned under the "designer drug" (controlled substances analog) provisions of the federal Controlled Substances Act. On May 1, 1992, the DEA took emergency action and temporarily classified methcathinone as a Schedule I controlled substance, based upon a finding that emergency action was warranted to avoid an imminent hazard to the public safety. After public hearings and a scientific review, this classification was made permanent, effective October 15, 1993.
In Indiana, methcathinone has been classified as a Schedule I controlled substance [IC 35-48-2- 4-(f)]. It is a felony to possess or sell a Schedule I controlled substance in Indiana. Depending upon drug quantity, the age of the purchaser, and the location of the sale, penalties could range up to 40 years in prison for sale of methcathinone.
History of Methcathinone
Methcathinone is a derivative of a naturally-occurring stimulant drug, cathinone, which is found in the "khat" plant, Cathula edulis, which is native to the horn of Africa and Southern Arabian Peninsula. It was first synthesized in Germany in 1928, and used in the Soviet Union as an anti-depressant during the 1930's and 1940's. Abuse of methcathinone, also known as "Ephedrone," "Jeff," or "Mulka," has been reported in the Soviet Union since the late 1960's.
In the mid-1950's, American pharmaceutical manufacturer Parke Davis & Company conducted preliminary studies on methcathinone to determine if it had any medicinal potential. Although Parke Davis soon abandoned its methcathinone research, after determining that there were unacceptable safety risks and substantial side effects, their studies revealed that it had physiologic effects similar to amphetamine.
Methcathinone re-emerged in this country in 1989, when a University of Michigan student who was interning at Parke Davis stumbled across and stole samples of the drug and documentation of the manufacturing process. In 1990, associates of that student began manufacturing and selling the drug in clandestine laboratories in northern Michigan. Its use became popular in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in 1990 and 1991, and quickly spread state-wide. As of 1995, methcathinone laboratories have been discovered in ten states, from Colorado through the Midwest. It has quickly become one of the biggest challenges faced by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Methcathinone was classified as a schedule I controlled substance under the federal Controlled Substances Act on May 1, 1992, under the emergency scheduling procedure. The classification was made permanent effective October 15, 1993.