Drugs

A Media Frenzy Accidentally Made This Drug More Popular Over Lockdown

Lots of young people only sought out 3-MMC after alarmist local media reports. We asked the drug's inventor and experts why?
March 12, 2021, 3:36pm
A packet of the drug 3-MMC
Photo: Tom Kiel

This article originally appeared on VICE Netherlands.

In autumn of 2020, Dutch television viewers met 27-year-old Boaz from the city of Arnhem, who described not sleeping for days while using a new drug, 3-MMC. Documentary series Verdoofd (Numb) showed Boaz using a massive knife to do small bumps of the white powder. He said he needed a hit before he did anything, including folding laundry.

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Ever since his story aired, Dutch news media have been obsessed with 3-MMC, also known as metaphedrone – a designer drug from the cathinone family that closely resembles 4-MMC, or mephedrone. Most countries that have banned 4-MMC have also banned 3-MMC due to its similar structure, but in the Netherlands it can still be bought legally.

Several news reports were released within a short timespan, detailing how young lives were being “destroyed” by this new horror drug. Parents desperately sounded the alarm about the potentially fatal substance, while various Dutch mayors were being driven “to despair” because 3-MMC was “so addictive and awful”. The mayors banded together to write a letter to the head of the Dutch justice department, bringing attention to the fact that 3-MMC was still legally available. 

So if 3-MMC is so awful and addictive, why would people want to try it in the first place? Alarmist news stories conveniently skipped over this question.

One person who might know is the guy who cooked it up in the first place. “3-MMC is very useful if you want to be kinder to the people around you for a little while,” says the drug’s inventor, who calls himself Dr. Zee. Zee developed 3-MMC and dozens of other similar designer drugs for a company based in Israel, and says he always tests his inventions on himself before they go into distribution. Dr. Zee is convinced his drugs can be used in all sorts of therapeutic and medicinal uses, including to improve focus and limit physical tics in Parkinson’s disease patients. 

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That being said, Dr. Zee acknowledges that some people have a hard time controlling their 3-MMC use. “3-MMC makes the brain think everything is OK. That’s because, structurally, the drug resembles dopamine,” he explains. Dopamine is a feel-good neurotransmitter, produced by our own brain. Despite 3-MMC’s appeal and the potential to use too much of it, Dr. Zee says there is a safe way to enjoy it. “It’s a matter of creating a system. We’ll figure out a way to use 3-MMC in a constructive manner.”

Kaj Hollemans, who specialises in legal advice used to inform national policies on drugs, alcohol and gambling, believes media reports have not only overblown the issue of 3-MMC, but probably inflamed it. “If the [Dutch] media are to be believed, it’s Sodom and Gomorrah”, he says over the phone. “But a few years ago, 3-MMC was barely used by anyone.”

Journalists, police officers and mayors are scrambling to inform young people about the dangers of the drug, but Kaj thinks the warnings could be having the opposite effect. “Every time a story like that gets published, Google’s searches spike for how to buy 3-MMC,” he says.

“This is exactly why we do not want to participate in any more media coverage,” Jeannette Ooink from Dutch drug rehab facility Tactus tells me via email. After some further explanation about the angle of this piece, Jeannette expresses relief. She says several journalists have recently reached out about 3-MMC with the same set of questions, focusing on how awful the drug is. She’s getting tired of it, she says, explaining that very few people have reached out to the rehab centre for help with the drug.

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Though there are definitely users who have issues with 3-MMC, they usually also take more popular hard drugs, such as cocaine and speed. Plus, there are no reliable estimates available on the amount of people using it. The little knowledge we currently have of the drug doesn’t justify the media frenzy in the Netherlands, notes Ooink.

She emphasises that using 3-MMC isn’t without risk, and is likely quite addictive. Lots of users note that they feel a strong urge to keep using once they’ve started during a night out. At the same time, she believes it’s mostly used as an “accessory” drug by people who already use lots of other substances.

That’s why the folks at Tactus believe the media should look further, and ask: why are young people attracted to drugs like 3-MMC? “Young people want to hang out and have fun with each other,” says Ruud Rutten, head of Tactus. “They will push boundaries and they want to get to know themselves and each other. But where have we created space in our society to do that in a safe way? Schools often focus solely on studying and getting a degree. Bars are less and less of a fit for these kids, because you’re not allowed to use [drugs] there.”

As a result, young people end up experimenting in private. Masha*, who calls herself “a typical at-home user”, is one of them. Increasingly bored during lockdown, she started looking for something new, and took 3-MMC for the first time in October of 2020 after hearing about it on the news. “We were mostly looking for stuff that was easy to get, something that didn’t require contacting some untrustworthy dealer,” she explains during a phone call. “3-MMC gives me some brain space – though it makes my partner chatter incessantly, which is super annoying.”

The Netherlands’ State Secretary for Health, Paul Blokhuis, wants to criminalise the drug, considering it closely resembles illegal substances like amphetamine and MDMA.

“We’re always a step behind the people who produce these [designer] drugs,” said Blokhuis in November of 2020. He’s currently working with the justice department to create a sweeping law – one that would ban hundreds of raw ingredients used to make many different kinds of substances, and put them in the same legal class as drugs like cocaine and speed. “We can assume that designer drugs based on [these hard drugs] can also cause significant health issues,” Blokhuis and Minister of Justice and Security, Ferd Grapperhaus, argue in the bill. They see prohibition as the only answer.

But Kaj Hollemans, who’s very familiar with Dutch drug policies, says that’s not the answer. “Outlawing will actually create more issues,” he says. “It’s not like substances simply disappear once you make them illegal.” Hollemans believes there’s simply a high demand for recreational drugs. “What’s missing is a conversation around curbing the risks associated with these substances,” he says.

For one thing, he believes sellers should work harder to ensure their product doesn’t end up in the hands of young users. But ultimately, Hollemans doesn’t think the demand for 3-MMC is about the drug itself. Young people are looking for something that will provide them with a carefree night out – it doesn’t really matter what it is. “If you were to regulate ecstasy pills, the demand for 3-MMC would disappear,” he argues.

Meanwhile, Dr. Zee says the Dutch government’s plan to outlaw his creation is “clearly a mistake that will be set straight very soon”. He defends its right to exist legally, despite acknowledging the risks of overuse. “You can’t blame the drug for that,” he says. “It’s all about how you yourself deal with the substance.”

*Masha’s real name is known to the editors.