Photo via Wikimedia
It started in my limbs and made its way up my ribcage, until everything tingled. I was at Electric Zoo and had just popped a molly. My teeth ached from smiling. I chewed my gum into mush. The bass made my bones vibrate.
And all of a sudden things got weird.
I started to feel anxious. I thought, Maybe I need some more? But was too paranoid to make a move. As sweaty bros and raver girls peaked to Above and Beyond, I clammed up. What is this shit? I didn’t have that fuzzy warm feeling you get with MDMA. I didn’t even want to be touched. It felt like I was trapped in a ziplock bag, watching everything happen outside myself and feeling dizzy from the recycled air.
Later I found out what I thought was MDMA was actually a drug called mephedrone, also known as MCAT or meow meow. It looks like MDMA, but it’s a cathinone, a compound found in the khat plant (or qat), a leafy seminarcotic used in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula as a social lubricant. But cathinone concentrated can be used to achieve a stimulated high. Mephedrone’s synthesis was first reported in 1929, but the drug resurfaced in 2003, when an underground chemist publicized it on a drug website called the Hive.
It’s a member of the “bath salts” family with MDPV and methylone, and was placed under emergency scheduling by the DEA in October 2011. It’s one of many so-called designer drugs, which means it’s produced in bulk in China like knockoff purses. In two years, it’ll be old news.
Craig Motbey is a researcher and PhD candidate in psychopharmacology at the University of Sydney, who conducted experiments on rats with mephedrone's addictive nature and potential risks.
Motbey explained to me that the drug’s popularity in the UK was because of government crackdowns on cocaine and ecstasy. All of a sudden, this powder was everywhere, and it was legal. For some, mephedrone is the best of both worlds. It’s the intense rush of coke mixed with ecstasy’s unconditional empathy.
“Cocaine and MDMA were very hard to get, they were very expensive, and the quality was dreadful,” Motbey said. “So you had the choice of paying a lot of money for some not very good ecstasy, or paying much less money for some high purity mephedrone.”
In New York, people pop molly like Altoids. But when supply runs low, some drug dealers offer mephedrone in its place and hope no one notices. That’s exactly what Mo Napoli* did.
Napoli works a 9 to 5 job now. But not too long ago, he had a side job peddling drugs. He discovered mephedrone three years ago at a friend’s house, when he was propositioned to help sell it. Napoli was unsure until he saw first hand how hard his friends rolled on the drug.
“I see these people, and I’m like, Jesus Christ we are gonna be so fucking rich,” he said.
Napoli, along with five other dealers, began buying and selling mephedrone. Because the drug looks close enough to MDMA, they decided to label it as such, selling it for triple the price they paid for.
“People love it, so I’m gonna keep telling them it’s molly because they don’t know any better,” he said. “It was almost overnight. One day I had no money, and the next day I had so much of the shit I didn’t know what to do with it.”
While his friends would place the calls and send the money orders to China, Napoli was responsible for distributing in the city.
“Depending on how much you get, you can get it for as little as three dollars a gram and I was selling it for a hundred dollars a gram. I was killin’ it.”
Websites list mephedrone as a plant supplement. But let’s be real, mephedrone isn’t fertilizer. It’s only being labeled as plant food and not for human consumption to avoid product regulations. Motbey said the name may come from an unsuccessful study done in Israel several years ago which tried using mephedrone as insecticide.
Napoli and the boys would receive a pillow-case-size package from China labeled as laundry detergent or potassium sulfate every other week. The cycle continued until mephedrone was classified as a Schedule 1 drug in 2011. Then they slowed down.
The DEA’s final order on bath salts read that, “At one United States point of entry, the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has encountered at least 127 shipments containing primarily mephedrone, methylone, and MDPV, as well as other synthetic cathinones like 4-MEC, butylone, fluoromethcathinone, and dimethylcathinone.”
So while plenty of people in the US still haven’t caught on to the drug, enough people knew for the DEA to take notice.
Napoli told me that these days in New York, MDMA is almost obsolete and is being replaced by its cheaper designer twin.
“Why would I get MDMA, if I can just call some dude in China and have him send me meow meow for a fraction of the price, that I can still sell for the same money?”
Motbey’s studies show that mephedrone damages long-term memory more than MDMA, and that it’s also more addictive, which can lead to a long night of redosing and a higher chance of ODing—probably why I was fiending at Electric Zoo.
In 2012, InTech, a science journal, released a report citing all of the UK mephedrone-related deaths up until then. According to the National Programme on Substance Abuse Deaths (np-SAD) 125 of those were allegedly mephedrone-related and according to postmortem results, 87 of those were confirmed to have mephedrone in their systems.
Motbey mentioned that his own research confirmed a study done at the University College in London. The study found that people who had used mephedrone regularly as opposed to nonusers performed much worse on various memory tests. Motbey then tested this out in the lab on rats, and found that the rats that had had mephedrone had more trouble with object recognition, something they are naturally good at.
Besides long-term memory loss, mephedrone’s potential negative effects include, paranoia, nausea, hallucinations, and possibly seizures.
Napoli didn’t believe these side effects. His high tolerance for drugs kept him from worrying until the day he took a gram to himself at a house party—about ten average doses.
“We took the first one. Fucking flyin’ high, feeling like a million bucks, time of my fucking life!” he said. “Then the party’s winding down and the drugs are wearing off, so I’m like ‘Time to pop another one!’ And then I did, foolishly.”
Napoli left the party and went to Times Square. As he walked around, his eyes began to go in and out of focus.
“You know how atoms get super excited to the point where they are virtually stuck in place because they are moving so fast? That’s how I felt. I couldn’t use my fingers. I had no dexterity. I had like 10 million things in my hands. I couldn’t keep things in my pockets,” he said. “I’ve never felt so crazy in my life.”
It’s no surprise he felt this way. Motbey explained that mephedrone releases a sharp explosion of both seratonin and dopamine. The seratonin release triggers the strong but short bouts of euphoria, and the dopamine is linked to the addictive nature of the drug. That night, Napoli’s brain simply went into overdrive. A woman noticed him “struggling” and helped him get to a friend’s house where he slept off the high into the next day. He says he’ll never underestimate it again.
A few months ago, you could pick up a baggie at the nearest head shop, but it’s trickier now. Dealers still use “plant food” sites and have learned to cover their tracks. In New York, depending on your record and regardless of quantity, getting caught with mephedrone can get you charged with criminal possession of a controlled substance in the seventh degree, a misdemeanor that’s punishable with up to a year in prison.
The DEA recently released a new report this May that reads that “substances identified in forensic labs as mephedrone went up from ten reports in 2009 to 336 in 2011, then went back down to 60 in 2012. Law-enforcement officials have encountered mephedrone in 36 different states since 2009.”
Motbey’s sure that even if mephedrone supplies dry up tomorrow, people will quickly find the next new drug. For him, the problem is less about mephedrone and more about the system itself.
“You ban one drug and the next drug comes in, and then you ban that one and the next new drug comes in, and the next new drug, and the next new drug. By doing this they’re keeping the consumers ahead of the research,” Motbey said. “It’s just a matter of time until we stumble upon something that’s incredibly toxic and does really serious damage to large numbers of people, before we really learn what’s going on.”
As for Napoli, he’s shut the book on dealing and likes his life better that way. And for the future of meow meow, don’t expect to see a drought any time soon. This drug still has a few more lives left.
More about drugs on VICE: