Methcathinone is largely unknown in the West, but this white crystalline powder, commonly known as "cat" and sometimes "bathtub speed," has gained a major foothold in South Africa.
In recent weeks, police claim to have smashed major operations that were manufacturing and dealing the drug, arresting four suspects in the towns of Kuruman and Secunda. Late in 2014, Marilize van Emmenis, a one-time love interest of South African rugby legend Joost van der Westhuizen, was caught with a stash in her handbag. A year ago, a woman was arrested after 14 packets were found in the nappy of a baby she'd allegedly abducted as a smuggling aid.
It is "almost as addictive as crack" by some accounts, but also much milder in its effects, like a more manageable speed or souped-up Ritalin. South African rehabilitation centers are reporting that its use is growing out of the typical 17-25 age bracket and starting to span the generations.
Methcathinone's popularity is in part due to its ease of manufacture. Amateur chemistry is often tricky — synthesizing MDMA takes degree-level precision, while synthesizing speed requires specialized equipment and the sort of molecules that governments normally put on watchlists.
Cat is far simpler to make, requiring ephedrine, (easily bought in cold and medications), acetone (or paint solvent from a local hardware store), and sulfuric acid. In terms of equipment, the process requires a strainer, then a microwave or a hair-dryer, and a fridge.
At anywhere between 20 and 60 South African rand per wrap ($1.70 to $5.15), this is partly why cat is now chasing at the heels of methamphetamine to be South Africa's sixth-largest drug of abuse.
While it has pockets of popularity across the country, the drug's chief national stronghold is the Gauteng province, that includes South Africa's largest city, Johannesburg, and capital, Pretoria. It can be swallowed or smoked but the most effective kick comes from snorting.
"It's viewed as the poor mans' coke," Wayne Kellsal, who runs the Step Away treatment center, told VICE News. "Cocaine is rather costly here, and so cat now has very fast-growing demand, along with crystal meth."
Sandra Pretorius, director of the government rehabilitation clinic SANCA Horizon, told VICE News that the changing admissions she sees suggest a growing market. "It used to be just young adults, between 19 and 26," she said. "Now that profile has changed: We see teenagers and older people too. It's become part of a mix of club drugs involving ecstasy, cocaine, and speed."
Alan, a web designer who just checked out of a private Johannesburg clinic, told VICE News: "I got into the gay scene quite late in life, and at first I found it seemed like a good party drug when I couldn't afford coke. You could go through one gram of it on a night out, rather than three of coke. You don't get so much paranoia either. It feels very manageable. It's a very easy thing to lie to yourself about."
Michael Morris, from Port Elizabeth, started using cat regularly at 15. He's now 17 and fresh out of rehab. Morris told VICE News: "Cat is widely used and abused all over South Africa. It is one of the most used drugs in SA, mostly used by white people." He agreed that it is more satisfying than cocaine, before adding: "But the comedown for me was really bad, it made me depressed and aggressive."
Cat has two close relatives — speed and khat. Khat is the chewy leaf common to the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, often found in Somali cafes in the UK. But, as with many off-radar drugs, cat first came to prominence in the Soviet Union. It was first synthesized in Germany in 1928, then prescribed for use as an anti-depressant in the USSR through the 1930s and 40s. It was banned after the war owing to misuse — though continued to enjoy a strong misuse following in the Soviet Union throughout the 60s and 70s.
At the same time that the Russians were banning it, American pharma company Parke Davis began investigating its use for weight-loss and depression. They ceased their experiments when the addictive dangers of the drug began to reveal themselves. It wasn't until 1989, when a student working at a Parke Davis lab reportedly smuggled some out into the Michigan area that cat appeared in recreational use in the West. Since then, it has remained an ongoing cult concern in the US Midwest. Apart from South Africa, only New Zealand seems to have a respectable user base.
Cat users gain a state of relaxed alertness and computer programmers and students use it to enhance their productivity. It's moreish though and in heavy users that can mean one to four days without sleep, with attendant big crashes into depression and sleep-deprivation psychosis.
"In my estimation, I would say it is often as difficult to get off as crack," said Pretorius. "The difficult part with cat is that one of the side-effects is to dissociate the user from reality and what's around them. When they're getting off it, their emotions become very volatile and they're all over the place. So they tend to come to us as in-patients, and then they tend to need a range of medications, such as benzodiapenes, in order to get off, so getting the right treatment becomes very expensive."
In rehab, Alan had to go through exactly that catatonia. "The first four days I was there were the longest of my life. Deep depression. People would come in and look at me and I wouldn't even be able to acknowledge them."
"We call it 'cotton wool head,'" explained Pretorius. "People are overstimulated by cat and then when they come to us they get very slow. You ask them a question and by the time they get round to answering you're about to ask the question again."
For the already overstretched South African Police Service, cat is nowhere near the top of their priorities, though they do regularly raid mobile cat labs. The chemistry may be easy, but it's also dangerous — evidence of fires and chemical spills often pock-mark these premises.
At least it smells good. For slightly obscure chemical reasons, the reaction emits an odor that is "like pistachio ice cream." This is quite different from the chemical taint users reportedly emit after a heavy binge, which is "like cat urine."
Yet the risks barely matter. As demand continues to grow, the supply will always be there. And as long as it's so cheap to consume, in a poor country, demand will always be there.
Follow Gavin Haynes on Twitter: @gavhaynes