What to Know About Fake Cocaine Use

Cocaine that has been cooked into Crack Cocaine Rocks

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In Europe, Australia, and the United States, healthcare officials and law enforcement agencies have reported increased misuse of a white-powder substance marketed as fake cocaine or "bath salts." This designer drug may contain substances such as methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV) and is sold in convenience stores, specialty shops, and online.

Users typically snort the powder to get high. As a result, it has been nicknamed "fake cocaine."

In 2012, Congress passed the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act which permanently placed 26 types of synthetic cannabinoids and cathinones into Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA).

The DEA says that because MDPV and other synthetic drugs are analogs of a drug that is on Schedule I of the CSA, "law enforcement cases involving them can be prosecuted under the Federal Analogue Act of the CSA."

Also Known As: Some of the bath salts products that are used as fake cocaine are called Ivory Wave, Bliss, Blue Silk, Charge Plus, White Lightning (not to be confused with moonshine), Cloud 9, and Energy 1. There are a number of other product names, and they continually change.

Most often, however, these products are marketed as "bath salts." In attempts to thwart the law, they've also been labeled as "plant food," "glass cleaner," and "research chemicals."

Drug Class: Fake cocaine is classified as a stimulant, which means that it causes increased activity in the body, often leading to feelings of increased energy and alertness.

Common Side Effects: Some of the side effects of bath salts include chest pain, rapid pulse, high blood pressure, hallucinations, and paranoia.

How to Recognize Fake Cocaine

Synthetic cathinone usually appears as a white or light tan powder. It is sold in 500-milligram bottles or plastic bags labeled "bath salts." The packages may also include labels like "for novelty use only" or "not for human consumption."

What Does Fake Cocaine Do?

The active ingredient in bath salts products is the designer drug methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV). It's structurally related to cathinone, an active alkaloid found in the khat plant. It is a central nervous system stimulant.

MDPV is a class of drug known as a synthetic cathinone, variants of which have been used as ingredients in various bath salts products. Synthetic variants of cathinone can be much more potent than the natural khat product and sometimes very dangerous.

MDPV is also similar to pyrovalerone, a stimulant first synthesized in 1964. Sold under the trade names Centroton and Thymergix, pyrovalerone is used as an appetite suppressant or for the treatment of chronic fatigue.

Like other "uppers," fake cocaine causes people to experience feelings of euphoria and alertness. Health officials have noted that users of the drug report feelings of empathy, stimulation, alertness, and awareness of senses. The effects are likened to those of methamphetamine, MDMA, and cocaine. Fake cocaine can also lead to feelings of anxiety and agitation. Aggression and suicidal thoughts can also occur.

What the Experts Say

Research on fake cocaine remains limited. One problem is that the ingredients and formulations used to make these synthetic drugs are not consistent. The existing information suggests that fake cocaine is highly addictive, with effects similar to cocaine and amphetamines. 

More research is needed to examine the extent and consequences of fake cocaine use.

Off-Label Uses

MDPV is not approved for medical use in the United States. MDPV is the most common synthetic cathinone found in the systems of patients admitted to emergency rooms after taking bath salts.

How It's Taken

Users typically snort the white powder to get high, but it can also be smoked or taken orally. Typically, synthetic cathinone loses its potency when mixed with a solution, so it's not commonly injected. However, more recent DEA reports do include this method.

Common Side Effects

Scientific studies on the effects of MDPV on humans or on proper dosing are not complete. The DEA's Drug and Chemical Evaluation Section, however, reports that at higher dosages, bath salts have been known to cause:

In addition, there are reports of death due to the abuse of this class of drugs.

Psychological Effects

MDPV has been in circulation since at least 2007 in Germany. European healthcare officials report that users are "losing touch with reality" and are being treated in mental institutions.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, some of the reported psychological effects of MDPV and other synthetic cathinones include:

  • Paranoia 
  • Hallucinations
  • Increased sociability
  • Increased sex drive
  • Panic attacks
  • Excited delirium

Signs of Use

The use of fake cocaine can lead to erratic and unpredictable behavior. Many of the signs that someone is using fake cocaine are similar to cocaine itself.

Some of the common signs of use include:

  • Changes in mood
  • Dilated pupils
  • Restlessness
  • Hallucinations
  • Anger or agitation
  • Delusions
  • Paranoia
  • Violent behavior
  • Presence of drug paraphernalia
  • Neglecting responsibilities at home, school, or work
  • Financial problems

Due to the inconsistencies in the formulation, the effects of bath salts can be unpredictable, which increases the risk of accidental overdose. There is no way for people to determine the dose and purity of the substance, so the use of any amount has the potential for overdose.

Signs of overdose include seizures, heart palpitations, difficulty breathing, psychosis including paranoia and hallucinations, and severe agitation.

If you suspect that someone has overdosed on fake cocaine, bath salts, or some other substance, contact emergency services immediately.

Myths and Common Questions

One of the most common myths about fake cocaine and bath salts is that these substances lead to a "zombie-like" state in which people become homicidal. One 2012 attack in Miami was widely reported and linked to the use of bath salts. However, the ultimate cause of the attacker's behavior remains unknown.

Experts suggest that while these substances may be anecdotally linked to violent behavior, not enough is yet know about their precise effects to suggest that the use of fake cocaine results in homicidal behavior.

Tolerance, Dependence, and Withdrawal

Fake cocaine can result in tolerance and dependence. Tolerance is characterized by needing increasingly larger or more frequent amounts of a substance in order to achieve the same effects. Dependence refers to the need to keep taking the drug in order to avoid experiencing symptoms of withdrawal.

The DEA's Drug and Chemical Evaluation Section reports that higher-dose users of the drug have reported cravings for more MDPV. This is one sign of developing a dependence or addiction to the substance.

How Long Does Fake Cocaine Stay In Your System?

Fake cocaine acts quickly with peak effects occurring about one and a half hours after use and lasting approximately three to four hours. The effects of taking the substance can last up to eight or more hours.

The exact half-life of these synthetic drugs have not been determined and may depend upon the ingredients, formulation, the amount used, and method of administration.

Addiction

The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that synthetic cathinones can be addictive. Animal studies have revealed that subjects will self-administer these substances, and human users report intense urges to continue taking the drug.

One 2013 study published in the journal Neuropharmacology found that MDPV, one of the key ingredients found in fake cocaine, was highly addictive. The study indicated that it may be more addictive than methamphetamine.

Withdrawal

Because these substances are so addictive and withdrawal can have potentially dangerous effects, detox should be performed with the assistance of trained professionals.

The severity of withdrawal symptoms can vary and may include:

  • Sleep disturbances
  • Stomach problems
  • Irritability
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Mood changes
  • Paranoia
  • Delirium
  • Suicidal thoughts

How to Get Help

Dependence on fake cocaine can be treated successfully with a comprehensive approach. This can include inpatient or outpatient programs, many of which emphasize behavioral treatments to address various aspects of the patient's behavior and life.

Treatments often utilize cognitive-behavioral therapy that can be performed in individual sessions, through group therapy, or both. Other types of support can also be helpful including peer mentoring and support groups.

There are no currently approved medications to treat addictions to addiction to fake cocaine or bath salts. Other medications, such as antidepressants, may be used to treat symptoms of co-occurring anxiety and depression.

If you feel like you need assistance, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Helpline at 800-662-4357 or use their online treatment locator.

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