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What Happened with the ‘Big Drug Scares’ of Yesteryear?

From Toad Smoking to Krokodil, most of those “scary new drugs” the media lost its mind over never quite went big time

As we’ve mentioned before, people are currently losing their shit over Kratom, a substance derived from the leaves of a tropical plant in the coffee family. Several states have outlawed Kratom, and the FDA has targeted it for banning in the near future, even though the evidence of its dangers is still highly questionable.

This, of course, is far from new: The feds or the media regularly hype some little-known drug as the “Next Big Epidemic” that will immediately ruin society. And while some of these illicit substances have found their way into the mainstream by becoming actual drug problems — most notably the current opioid epidemic — most have gone by the wayside, riding their 15 minutes of fame into the annals of obscurity.

For a little context vis a vis the kratom panic, here are just 12 of the so-called next big drugs — a mix of powders, plants, pills, and, er, cake — that never ended up enjoying mainstream success over the last 25 years.

Enjoy your “trip” down memory lane.

Methcathinone (1993)

Methcathinone is an ecstasy-like drug that’s derived from the Middle Eastern drug Khat. “Khat is a widely used stimulant, a leaf chewed in East Africa,” says Paul Ghalinger, an author for the British Medical Journal on substance abuse. “Methcathinone is a synthetic drug that’s easily made, and a huge problem in drug abuse in Russia.”

In America, there was some concern in the 1980s and early 1990s that the senses-heightening drug would become a scourge, but it really only popped up significantly in Wisconsin and a few surrounding Midwestern states — and even then, only for a brief time. Legal action in Wisconsin in 1994, which restricted the key ingredient of ephedrine, significantly helped suppress its trade. Additionally, Gahlinger notes that the the leafy plant Khat “doesn’t travel well,” making it hard to import to the U.S.

End result? Almost no one remembers it.

Toad Smoking (1994)

You’ve probably heard of toad licking, or toad sucking, a drug fad that emerged back in the 1960s that supposedly offered psychedelic effects. But in 1994, everyone was freaking out about toad smoking, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. An L.A. Times article from April 19, 1994, describes the method of getting high: “You grab a Sonoran Desert toad… and squeeze the glands near its eyes. Pretty soon, the glands pop and out oozes a milky substance [with] a chemical makeup similar to LSD. You let this blob dry on glass, cut off a piece, stuff it into a pipe and fire it up.”

When checking out the subscription archival site, it becomes clear that this hysteria peaked in 1994, with thousands of stories on the topic. But within a couple of years, the hype had all but disappeared. There’s not much evidence as to why it faded away, but we’re guessing that it never really became a big thing because, well… you’re licking a toad.

Herbal Ecstacy (1996)

In 1995, Newsweek ran a piece entitled “Highs and Lows of Herbal Ecstasy,” which recounted one girl’s story of experimenting with the new, perfectly legal drug found in most head shops in the mid-1990s. The stimulant grew widely in popularity until it caught the attention of the feds in 1996. By 2004, the key ingredient in Herbal Ecstasy, ephedra, was banned due to several deaths allegedly related to the substance, and so, Herbal Ecstasy itself soon disappeared from shelves, too.

Cake (1997)

When the media or politicians pick up a drug story and blow it out of proportion, there’s usually an actual drug involved, at least. This wasn’t the case with “Cake.” In 1997, British Member of Parliament David Amess railed against this scary new drug, with its deadly side effects: The only problem was that Cake was simply a practical joke by the satirical British comedy show Brass Eye, whose mission was to poke fun at exactly this level of ignorance.

You’d think that the size of the supposed Cake pill — which was about the size of a birthday cake — would’ve been a giveaway. But then again, this should give you some idea of the level of knowledge of those whose job it is to make drug policy.

But wait, it gets worse: In 2015, Amess was appointed as chair of Parliament’s Psychoactive Substances Bill Committee, which should reassure Americans that their government isn’t the only one filled with powerful morons.

Jenkem (1997 and again in 2007)

A drug brought to our attention by writer and conspiracy theory expert Mike Rothschild. It’s allegedly derived from inhaling the fumes of raw sewage or human feces, which supposedly causes you to hallucinate. Stories about this drug began popping up in a big way in 1997: One article from the June 18, 1997 edition of the L.A. Times entitled “Inhaling Garbage Fumes” warns, “In Zambia, the latest fad, called Jenkem, is inhaling gases of raw garbage after it has been in containers for several days.”

These stories faded away within the same year, but they made a roaring comeback in 2007 when, according to Snopes, one lone child in Collier County, Florida, mentioned the drug to his mother. From there, the mother informed the principal and the principal told the police. In short order, the police widely distributed a bulletin email warning that the drug was now “a popular drug in American schools,” which it never actually was. Additionally, there’s not even sufficient proof that it was a big deal anywhere else in the world.

Ya Ba (2002)

“New Drug from Thailand seeping into West Coast Clubs” alerts the headline from Port Huron’s The Times Herald on October 21, 2002. “The drug to hit California’s underground club scene is sweet, colorful — and deadly,” began the piece, which was one of hundreds of similar stories in 2002. A mix of methamphetamine and caffeine, the “madness drug,” as it’s translated, remains popular to this day in Southeast Asia, primarily through markets in Myanmar. Despite being banned in Thailand in 1970, the drug remained popular there until 2003, when the government declared war on it, executing 2,500 users and dealers without trial.

As for the U.S., we began seeing stories as early as the mid-1990s which reported on ya ba as a looming threat, reaching a peak in 2002. That year also saw the first significant American bust of the drug. While it would remain in use in some Asian communities in the U.S., it never quite became a major thing — though the Justice Department believes it may be more popular than people realize, as it’s often not distinguished from other club drugs like ecstasy.

Robotripping (2006)

While it sounds like R2-D2 smoking a joint, this drug “craze” was actually about something pretty mundane: Robitussin. If taken in high enough doses, this cough medicine can have some hallucinogenic side effects, so Robotripping scares have popped up a few times over the years — this 2002 story from ABC news, for example, warns that kids are “overdosing on cough medicine to get high.”

Abuse of this drug peaked in 2006, then significantly declined after that, in part due to public awareness of its dangers and the fact that many retail chains began keeping it behind the counter, or even requiring I.D. to buy it.

Salvia Divinorum (2007)

The native Mexican population, known as Mazatec, have long been aware of the psychoactive properties of the plant Salvia Divinorum, as it was often used by shamans during healing sessions. But awareness in the U.S. didn’t really permeate until the early 2000s: One 2008 story from Slate remembers, “2001 proved to be Salvia’s breakout year in the press, with 35 mentions. By 2005, it recorded 67 and has steadily increased. In 2007, it earned 271 mentions.”

In the years following this story, though, the once-popular legal item at head shops began to decline as state after state passed laws to either ban or restrict its use: Delaware, for example, banned it after it played a role in a teen suicide, then other states followed suit as a means to prevent the hallucinogen from becoming a more widespread problem. As of now, there are only 15 states where Salvia Divinorum is completely legal.

Four Loko (2008 to 2011)

From Irish coffee to rum and Coke to coffee stouts, caffeine and alcohol have long been familiar with one another. But for two short years, the alcoholic energy drink Four Loko drove politicians, well, loco. Introduced in 2008, the product was banned by November 2011, despite the FDA admitting that it really had nothing to do with the drink’s content. Instead, “The agency complained that ‘the marketing of the caffeinated versions of this class of alcoholic beverage appears to be specifically directed to young adults,’” says So, thanks primarily to its brightly-colored cans, Four Loko quickly bid us “adios.”

i-Dosing (2010)

Another drug shared with us by Mike Rothschild, i-Dosing is the practice of users “[putting] on their headphones, [draping] a hood over their head and [drifting] off into the world of ‘digital highs,’” as the ever-reliable Daily Mail reported in 2010. As preposterous as this sounds, it was a widespread scare in 2010 before being quickly disproven. A 2010 article in Psychology Today dismissed it as nothing more than the same binaural beats you’d find on any mindfulness app, and a 2010 study at the Oregon Health & Science University found that these audio tracks have no real impact on the brain at all.

Bath Salts (2012)

Just one eye-catching headline caused the uproar. But as clickable display copy goes, it’s hard to top “Face-Eating Attack Possibly Prompted by ‘Bath Salts,’ Authorities Suspect.” The horrifying account was then inevitably covered by all the major news outlets (several were eager to capitalize off of the success of The Walking Dead while doing so).

Despite the fact that the initial reports claimed, “Police have not officially connected Eugene’s behavior to bath salts,” most people who read the story remembered only two phrases: “Miami Cannibal” and “Bath Salts.” Inevitably, bath salts — a term applying to several different drugs — then made their way to capitol hill, where two months later, Barack Obama signed a bill banning most of them, an action that many news outlets attributed to this attack.

Two years later, in 2014, the Miami New Times ran a story that disproved the whole thing, noting that bath salts were never found in the killer’s system (he was shot and killed by police on the scene), and furthermore, while bath salts are dangerous — giving a high similar to cocaine or ecstasy — nothing even remotely suggests that bath salts cause a “craving for human flesh,” despite this being widely believed.

Krokodil (2013)

When people say to you, “Don’t Google pictures of (blank),” naturally, the first thing you want to do is Google it (hi, blue waffle!) But when it comes to Krokodil, the images of flesh literally falling off the living bodies of its users is a search you really will regret.

It’s reassuring to know that Krokodil has never really become a big thing in the U.S. and likely never will. While millions in Russia are/were addicted to the flesh-eating heroin substitute, the drug has had little impact over here due to the fact that, in 2014, the Russian government took steps to restrict access to codeine-containing medications (a key ingredient), thus rapidly declining the use of Krokodil.