7 Dangerous New Street Drugs

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The war on illicit street drugs never ends, as dangerous new drugs appear on the market while other, older drugs get “rebranded” under new names. While cocaine, LSD, heroin and amphetamines still cause problems, narcotics agents see dozens of new drugs appear each year. The Drug Enforcement Agency often quickly moves to restrict the most dangerous drugs as Schedule I drugs (a listing that includes cocaine and methamphetamines) under the United States Controlled Substances Act. But wily backyard chemists quickly tweak the chemical formula, and come up with a legal variation to market under a different slang term. Here are just a few examples of dangerous new recreational drugs, or variations of old ones, which have hit American streets in recent years.


7. Flakka

Some law enforcement agencies are seeing a sharp rise in cases involving the stimulant gravel.

Some law enforcement agencies are seeing a sharp rise in cases involving the stimulant flakka.

A variation on the “bath salts” fad, this drug resembles small white rocks, hence the alternate name, gravel. That’s a much more convenient term than its patented chemical name, alpha-pyrrolidinopentiophenone, or a-PVP. Flakka can be cut with anything from clonazepam — a muscle relaxer — to rat poison. Some local drug enforcement agencies report seeing a sharp rise in incidents involving this highly addictive stimulant; its use has become widespread in South Florida and there are numerous media reports of arrests in the Tri-Cities area of Tennessee and southwestern Virginia. As one user told a Tennessee TV station, “It’s like crack for my generation.” Use of flakka, which can be smoked, injected or snorted, induces hallucinations and paranoia; habitual use can result in kidney failure. As with so many other synthetic drugs today, where the DEA always seems one step behind clandestine chemists, in early 2014 the DEA issued an emergency ruling to designate a-PVP (flakka/gravel) a Schedule I controlled substance.


6. Kratom

The DEA has labeled kratom a "drug of concern." © Ahmad Fuad Morad

The DEA has labeled kratom a “drug of concern.” © Ahmad Fuad Morad

Kratom is made from the leaf of a tree indigenous to Thailand, where it has been chewed or eaten for centuries. It has also been illegal in that country since the mid-20th century (that hasn’t stopped many Thais from making a trendy drink known as 4×100, using a mixture of boiled kratom leaves, cough syrup and Coca-Cola). Now, other countries, from Europe to Southeast Asia, are taking a closer look at this psychoactive plant that can act as either a stimulant or depressant, depending on the dosage. In the U.S., the Drug Enforcement Agency currently lists kratom as a “drug of concern,” as the herb is making inroads into the country, as a tea, powder or in capsule form. That being said, it is legal and easy to buy kratom online in most states in the U.S., which is of concern to medical professions, who worry that kratom is dangerously addictive, others point to possible benefits from the drug, including using it as a substitute to wean people from prescription painkillers and methamphetamines. There are even calls in Thailand to decriminalize the drug.


5. Spice

Sold in convenience stores and labeled as "legal and natural," many spice blends contain banned substances.

Sold in convenience stores and labeled as “legal and natural,” many spice blends contain banned substances.

Spice can be found in many convenience stores and online, often marketed as a “legal and natural” marijuana alternative, and sold in packages marked “Not For Consumption.” But many people are smoking this, as the active ingredient is a variant of synthetic cannabinoid. Five active chemicals found in typical spice blends are listed as Schedule I substances by the DEA, though manufacturers continue to attempt to bypass these restrictions. Spice also goes by many other names, including Moon Rocks, Black Mamba, and K2. The National Institute on Drug Abuse says many spice blends are particularly dangerous because the ingredients are unknown. Although the DEA mentions no reported deaths by overdose, possible side effects of these drugs include paranoia and panic attacks.


4. “Vitamin K” or “Special K”

Ketamine was originally produced as an anesthetic for animals, but has become popular at nightclubs and raves.

Ketamine was originally produced as an anesthetic for animals, but has become popular at nightclubs and raves.

The “K” in its various street names comes from ketamine, originally developed 60 years ago as a veterinary anesthetic. It didn’t take long for this drug to find its way to the black market; by the 1970s, ketamine’s hallucinatory effects led to the development of angel dust, or PCP, two drugs that led to frightening cases of abuse and death. Ketamine can be consumed in many different forms: injected or poured into drinks as a liquid, or converted into powder and smoked or snorted. Popular today at raves and nightclubs, ketamine is also known as a “date rape drug” and is swiftly emerging as a drug of choice in the Far East as well as the UK. Although details of deaths and injuries from this drug are sketchy, there were reportedly 529 emergency room visits involving ketamine in the U.S. in 2009, according to the Drug Abuse Warning Network. Regular ketamine use has been linked to kidney and bladder damage.


3. Smiles

Smiles has been implicated in five deaths in the U.S. as of 2013.

Smiles has been implicated in five deaths in the U.S. as of 2013.

Similar to a street drug known as N-bomb, both smiles and N-bomb are derived from a psychedelic drug discovered in 2003 known as 25I-NBOMe. The difference in N-bomb vs. Smiles is the substitution of one iodine atom for a chlorine one. An interesting distinction for chemistry buffs, maybe, but users get a similar experience from the two drugs, with sometimes deadly results; at least five deaths in the U.S. had been linked to 25I-NBOMe (Smiles) as of mid-2013. Available in pill, liquid, or powder form, Smiles can cause hallucinations, seizures and panic attacks. And while you might think the street name for this drug comes because it makes users smile, the reality is more technical: “Smiles” is a play on the abbreviation for a common chemical term, “Simplified molecular-input line-entry system.”


2. Molly

One person died and another 125 were hospitalized after taking Molly at a 2013 music festival.

One person died and another 125 were hospitalized after taking Molly at a 2013 music festival.

A new and refined variant of Ecstasy (3/4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine) or MDMA, users frequently believe Molly is safer than that popular drug. The Drug Enforcement Agency, however, has listed it as a dangerous Schedule I controlled substance and use of Molly can — like Ecstasy — cause users to become confused and unable to regulate their body temperature, heart rate or breathing. At a Washington State music festival in 2013, the DEA reports one person died and 125 were hospitalized, some in intensive care, after taking Molly. The drug is extremely popular in many college towns, largely the result of its relatively low cost. The name Molly is short for “molecule.”


1. Acetyl Fentanyl

Acetyl fentanyl has been implicated in dozens of deaths in the U.S. since 2013.

Acetyl fentanyl has been implicated in dozens of deaths in the U.S. since 2013.

A new synthetic opioid drug five times more potent than heroin, acetyl fentanyl was never marketed for medical use. This drug first surfaced on the radar of law enforcement in 2013, after a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advisory attributed 14 overdose deaths in Rhode Island to acetyl fentanyl use. Dozens of additional deaths have since been reported in Pennsylvania, Louisiana and North Carolina. The CDC advisory recommended that emergency rooms stock naloxone, an antidote to acetyl fentanyl and other opioid overdoses. An analog of fentanyl, new street drugs such as acetyl fentanyl are often missed by coroners and crime labs, simply because they aren’t looking for them.


One More: Krokodil

Many horrific krokodil stories surfaced in 2013, involving people who supposedly became addicted to this drug, even as the drug caused the flesh to literally rot off their body. Many critics wondered why anyone would take a drug, allegedly made with a mixture of codeine, gasoline and hydrochloric acid, that caused their skin to rot off in zombie-like fashion. As it turns out, there is hope for the human race after all; Krokodil is apparently an urban legend of drug use, unintentionally spread by even major national news outlets. Forbes.com did a great job debunking this urban legend.


Written by

David Dickinson is a backyard astronomer, science educator and retired military veteran. He lives in Hudson, Fla., with his wife, Myscha, and their dog, Maggie. He blogs about astronomy, science and science fiction at www.astroguyz.com.