Drug Fads


Meth Ado About Nothing? Flavored Meth and Cheese Heroin Stories Smack of Fearmongering

It sounds like a recipe for a bellyache: 'strawberry quik' and 'cheese.' Sure enough, these purported new drug fads have been giving prevention experts indigestion, but the agita is mostly over fears that overreacting officials and media could inadvertently cause a trend where none exists -- and that attention on these "flavor of the month" drugs could distract from larger alcohol and other drug problems confronting youth.

In February, the Carson County (Nev.) Sheriff's Department eported seizing a quantity of what was described as strawberry-flavored methamphetamine, quickly dubbed "strawberry quick" after a container of Strawberry Quik drink mix was reportedly found at a meth lab. "Strawberry Quick is popular among new users who snort it because the flavoring can cut down on the taste. Teenagers who have been taught meth is bad may see this flavored version as less harmful," the Nevada Department of Public Safety warned.

In March, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) echoed the warning, and reports spread about meth being flavored with chocolate, cola, and other flavors. In a widely circulated story in USA Today, a DEA spokesperson said the informants told drug agents that flavored meth could be found in at least nine states.

Meanwhile, around the same time the national media began picking up on the story of so-called "cheese" heroin, a mix of black-tar heroin and Tylenol PM that has become popular in the Dallas area and is linked to a number of overdose deaths among adolescents. Although local newspapers had been reporting on the mix since at least last spring, a story on "cheese" recently appeared as front-page news on CNN.com , along with warnings about the potential for the drug to spread to other communities.

"Cheese and strawberry quick are classic examples of how drug traffickers take their poisons and change the appearance, color, taste or name" to market to teens and younger children, DEA special agent Steven Robertson told the Dallas Morning News on June 15.

Reacting to these stories, lawmakers in the U.S. Senate introduced legislation that would increase penalties for people who sell flavored methamphetamine, and called for "cheese" heroin to be included in the national anti-drug media campaign.

Just one small problem: nobody is quite sure that flavored meth actually exists, and even concerned officials in Texas say there's precious little evidence that "cheese" heroin is anything but a local problem.

A Sea of Secondhand Reports

Flavored meth is somewhat akin to the Loch Ness Monster: everyone has heard of it, but firsthand sightings are hard to track down and verify. Various media reports around the U.S. have raised the alarm about the dangers of this new drug, but invariably concede that no cases have been reported locally.

A breathless report from WAVE-TV in Louisville, Ky., is illustrative: "A dangerous new form of meth is headed to the area and it's aimed at kids. It's called Strawberry Quick, but unlike the popular breakfast drink, this drug can kill," according to reporter Shayla Reaves. "Strawberry meth looks and tastes a lot like the candy known as 'pop rocks.' It's got a strawberry flavor and scent, and it even pops in your mouth, just like the candy. While no cases have been reported in Kentucky, police say its not a matter of if it arrives, but when."

Meanwhile, in Evansville, Ind., Kim Dacey of WFIE-TV reported, "Across the country, law enforcement are tracking a new type of methamphetamine designed for young users, and its headed for the Tri-State. The taste of this new meth is changing. Police across the country are noticing a new type of meth, made with different colors, and flavors, like strawberry. Police say its made using products you can find in any grocery store."

The WFIE story quotes Gibson County Sheriff Allen Harmon saying, "One of the things they're using is the powdered strawberry quick mix, chocolate mix that's a powder they put in milk to make it flavored. We've been told they're using that, and melted Lifesavers." In the next breath, however, Harmon adds that the flavored version of the drug hasn't shown up locally.

Attempts by Join Together to trace the one seemingly solid report on flavored meth back to its source have not, as of this writing, produced any clarity. Reached on Friday, the Carson County (Nev.) Sherrif's Department could not confirm whether the meth it seized was flavored or just colored.

However, both the DEA and the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy told Join Together that they have not been able to identify a single confirmed seizure of flavored meth.

"There are a lot of people in prevention and law enforcement talking about it, but in terms of actual seizures we haven't seen much," said Tom Riley, a spokesperson for ONDCP. Rojean White, a spokesperson for the DEA, told Join Together that while local DEA agents have heard stories about flavored meth from local law-enforcement colleagues, they "haven't had any" seizures themselves.

Experts say that there's a real possibility that local police are confusing colored meth -- which is relatively common -- with flavored meth. Tom McNamara, a meth trainer and special-projects coordinator for the Southern Illinois Drug Task Force Group, told Join Together that meth made from Sudafed or some generic versions of the drug will have a light-pink color because of the dye used in the pills. Moreover, he said, meth made from anhydrous ammonia treated with GloTell -- a chemical marker designed to discourage thefts -- will be bright pink. The drug also can appear greenish or blue.

"We've had that forever," said McNamara of colored meth, whereas his inquiries about flavored meth have yielded nothing.

"The warnings are well-intended, but they have no substance," he said.

Jeanne Cox, executive director of the Meth Project Foundation , says that while she has seen and heard the news reports about flavored meth, no firsthand accounts of the drug have come in. An inquiry on a prevention listserv run by ONDCP yielded similar results.

"We are all still trying to figure out what's going on with strawberry meth and if it really exists," said Cox.

The lingering uncertainty didn't stop Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) from introducing the "Saving Kids from Dangerous Drugs Act ," which doubles mandatory prison terms for anyone who "manufactures, creates, distributes, or possesses with intent to distribute a controlled substance that is flavored, colored, packaged or otherwise altered in a way that is designed to make it more appealing to a person under 21 years of age, or who attempts or conspires to do so."

"This bill will send a strong and clear message to drug dealers -- if you target our children by peddling candy-flavored drugs, there will be a heavy price to pay," said Feinstein. "Flavored meth -- with child-friendly names like Strawberry Quick -- is designed to get people to try it a few times. It's all about hooking young people, and we have to stop this practice before it grows any further. So, this legislation will increase the criminal penalties for anyone who markets candy-flavored drugs to our youth -- by imposing on them the same enhanced penalties applied to dealers who distribute drugs to minors."

Contacted by Join Together, a spokesperson for Feinstein said that the legislation was in response to reports from DEA and ONDCP, including a letter from drug czar John Walters that -- again -- alludes to flavored meth without confirming its existence. "In the case of flavored/colored methamphetamine, local law enforcement, local and national media, communities and schools should be commended on bringing attention to this problem," Walters wrote to Feinstein on June 4. "ONDCP will closely monitor all available information about this issue to determine appropriate steps with regard to emerging trends and patterns of use."

Worries that Bill, Stories Could Spread 'Cheese'

Unlike strawberry meth, there is no doubt that so-called "cheese heroin" exists. Drug dealers have long cut black-tar heroin with diphenhydramine to sell it in powdered form, according to Jane C. Maxwell, Ph.D., a senior researcher at the Gulf Coast Addiction Technology Transfer Center in Austin. In the Dallas area, however, dealers have been cutting heroin with Tylenol PM (which contains diphenhydramine and acetaminophen) to make "cheese," a cheap, snortable version of the drug that has become especially popular among young Hispanics, according to Maxwell and other experts.

However, Maxwell said that the recent national media coverage on "cheese" could actually make the problem worse. "While we have not seen adolescents starting use of cheese heroin other than in Dallas, my Community Epidemiology Work Group colleagues report that young adults who are already in heroin use are now mixing their heroin with Tylenol PM and calling it "cheese," which shows the unintended results of all the media publicity," Maxwell told Join Together.

Suzanne Wills of the Drug Policy Forum of Texas expressed similar alarm about a bill by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) that would add "cheese" heroin to the list of drugs covered by ONDCP's National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign.

"We must work now to crack down on this lethal drug before it spreads further and destroys the lives of more young people," Cornyn said. "Raising awareness of the dangers of 'cheese' heroin is critical in the effort to stamp it out ... News reports indicate that young people begin using 'cheese' because they wrongly believe the drug is not 'really' heroin and is, therefore, not as dangerous. A public awareness campaign is key to correcting this misconception and reversing the tide of this dangerous new drug."

Wills said that Cornyn's bill, like the media hype, has the potential to turn a purely local problem into a national one. "DEA agent Steve Robertson says cheese heroin is confined to the Dallas region but, 'it wouldn't take long to spread,' she recently wrote to Cornyn. "It won't take long at all if the drug czar's National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign gets hold of it."

ONDCP also is wary of Cornyn's proposal. "Cheese is a significant threat in Dallas and one that needs to be dealt with aggressively," agency spokesperson Jennifer de Vallance told the Dallas Morning News on June 15. "But there are probably more cost-effective ways to deal with it than one of a national scope like the media campaign."

Driven to Distraction

Addiction experts also worry that national concern about a phantom "flavored meth" epidemic distracts from well-established problems with youth alcohol and other drug use -- and overlooks the very real marketing of flavored alcohol and tobacco products to kids.

"Alcohol and tobacco manufacturers have used sweeteners to trap young people into using their products, so it's no surprise there may be stories about illicit drug makers trying the same technique," said David Rosenbloom director of Join Together. "We need to be vigilant, but the real and present danger that parents and policymakers must act on are the alcohol and tobacco companies peddling sweetened drinks and cigarettes to our children."

"We just don't want this to distract from the real problems out there," said the Meth Foundation Project's Cox. McNamara, the Illinois meth law-enforcement trainer, added, "The concern I have is that there will be a situation where people get all excited about something that didn't happen, and won't get involved when something serious does happen."

ONDCP's Riley told Join Together that he recently got a strawberry-meth alert from a Washington, D.C., area school. "I've never gotten anything from them about alcohol or marijuana," he said. "Those are the substances that have, by far, the largest impact on teens."

Source: GloTell photograph courtesy of The Center for Environmental Health and Safety. www.jointogether.org/news/features/2007/meth-ado-about-nothing.html

©2007, www.TheCitizensWhoCare.org/brookings/drugfads.html