Last summer, I plunged into Berlin’s nightlife circuit for a few months in an attempt to decipher the city’s latest drug trends. Along the way, I was searching for a particular pleasure found in the clubbing capital’s combination of chaos and catharsis, but instead, I found myself on the phone one night, complaining to a friend back home about what a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad time I was having: “Berghain is a soulless simulacra…the aesthetics are giving abjection…all my friends are low-key k-junkies… and everyone is doing this weird new drug called 3-MMC!”
“Wait, what’s 3-MMC?” she said. “You should write about that.”
And so…here we are.
I first heard of 3-MMC in one of the Telegram groups that drive Berlin’s blackmarket drug economy. Sidenote, these groups are…hilarious. Hosted by various delivery services, they feature elaborate menus of drugs branded by country-of-origin (Bolivian coke, Indian ketamine, Cali weed…), divided into subcategories like “Pharma” vs “Nature,” and ornamented with random flashing GIFs. According to protocol, you’re supposed to privately DM the account to place orders, but clueless customers constantly spam the chat asking for specific substances—inadvertently revealing, in an ad hoc fashion, what drugs are in vogue. This is how I noticed something called “3-MMC” is in high demand.
Berlin’s dancefloors are like putrid petri dishes where experimental drugs get tested for mass market adoption, and 3-MMC was everywhere this summer: DJs squatted under the booth to rail lines of the rocky white powder during their sets (lol classic move), KitKat club chemsex fiends debated if it would be good for their erections, and at an extremely fashion afterparty for Michelle Lamy and Arca one night, the Balenci-gays scuttled outside to pick up “some 3-MMC and cocaine, dahling.”
So wtf is 3-MMC, and why is it trending?
To understand the rise of 3-MMC, we must first unravel a long chain of events in the drug market that precipitated its popularity. More than just another synthetic substance that sounds like Grimes’ baby, 3-MMC encapsulates how the party drug landscape of the 2000s has been evolving in response to factors like: the development of online distribution networks, industrialization of designer drugs, War on Drugs Synthetic Analogues, and fears of fentanyl contamination. In other words, this “weird new drug” is a sign of our fucked-up times.
Read: MDMA: What is Molly?
THE GREAT MDMA DROUGHT
Let’s wind back to the Great MDMA Drought of 2009/2010, a bleak time when pills were getting pressed with weird knockoff shit and real ecstasy was basically wiped from the market. This drought was caused by several large sting operations in Southeast Asia’s jungles starting in 2008, when Cambodian and Australian authorities teamed up with environmental activist groups to conduct raids on remote facilities in Cambodia that were producing sassafras oil—the precursor to MDMA that derives from a rare tree in the region. Police seized and burned 5.7 tons of sassafras oil—enough to make 245 million ecstasy tablets, or half the world’s supply—effectively choking off the global pinger trade.
In response, underground chemists started using a cheap and less closely-monitored precursor derived from anise oil to make new amphetamine analogues called PMA and PMMA—designer drugs that were often passed off as ecstasy pills, even though they barely feel like the real thing. PMA and PMMA are also more toxic at lower doses, and resulted in a string of fatalities that earned them the ominous nickname Dr. Death. Sick of the bunk shit, ravers started searching for alternatives.
THE DADDY OF LEGAL HIGHS
Enter: mephedrone, AKA “meow meow” or “mcat.” If you were partying in the mid-2000s, you might remember meow meow by its distinctive cat-piss smell, which wafted through nightclubs like a noxious B.O. The designer drug was first synthesized in 1929, then rediscovered in 2004 by Dr. Zee—a wacky Amsterdam-based chemist who’s claimed credit for inventing hundreds of research chemicals…including 3-MMC. By 2009, mephedrone quickly became the fourth-most popular drug in UK nightlife (after weed, MDMA, and cocaine), according to a Mixmag/Guardian survey from that year. My British friend who partied through this wild time told me, “It was insane…you could order shitloads of it online and deliver it to your mum’s house…my mates were just sitting on bags and bags of it.”
Mephedrone’s popularity was amplified by the fact that it was as easy to buy as a banana—the drug was sold at tobacco shops, gas stations, headshops, and convenience stores. The cheapest way to score it was via easily searchable websites (i.e. not on the dark web) that imported mephedrone directly from Chinese labs, where it was manufactured for as little as £1 a gram. This easy access was because—until the authorities caught up in 2010/2011 and banned it—mephedrone was technically legal.
In fact, mephedrone pioneered a new breed of designer drugs designed to evade existing regulations; you could call it the daddy of legal highs. In an almost comical act of subterfuge, shops would often advertise mephedrone as “plant food,” or brand them with stripper-like names like Ivory Wave, Vanilla Sky, and Bliss. But the most notorious label mephedrone got stuck with was “bath salts.”
THE EXTREMELY INANE BATH SALTS MEDIA HYSTERIA
Here is the thing about “bath salts.” The term is more of a marketing trick used by sellers to skirt laws like the UK’s Misuse of Drugs Act and the US’ Federal Analog Act—the latter of which bans any chemical that is “substantially similar” to a controlled substance, but only if intended for human consumption. NO ONE was actually putting mephedrone into their bubble baths or using it to feed their plants, but the terms fueled the widespread misconception that these drugs were household products not safe for human consumption—a myth that exploded once the media caught wind of what was going on.
If you lived through this era, you’ll remember that the media’s coverage of bath salts in ~2009/2010 was, quite literally, insane—wildly sensationalist stories linked mephedrone to cannibalism, dick mutilation, the killing of a pygmy goat, stabbing of a priest, and so on. This hysterical media frenzy turned out to be mostly speculative or inaccurate—several high-profile mephedrone deaths turned out to be misattributed or false alarms—and frankly, it’s embarrassing to look back at.
So wait, why am I rambling on about bath salts, when I’m supposed to be telling you about 3-MMC?
Well, bath salts are really just a catch-all term for synthetic cathinones—the class of designer drugs that includes 3-MMC. Synthetic cathinones mimic the molecular structure of cathinone—the active compound in a plant called khat that grows in East Africa and the Arabian peninsula, and has been chewed for thousands of years for their euphoric and energizing effects. In an interview, Dr. Zee explains how he started formulating synthetic cathinones while working for an Israel-based drug company:
“In Israel, cathinone was legal because we have a large Yemenite community that chews khat leaves and we didn’t want to spoil that cultural heritage. I made some on my own, and found it to be a better alternative to the cocaine circulating in Tel Aviv at the time, so I thought it should be available to everyone. Then the authorities made it illegal, so I took the cathinone skeleton and started imagining substitutions.”
THE SYNTHETIC SHIFT
We all know how this game of whack-a-mole goes: the decline of one designer drug always means the rise of another, and when mephedrone and its chemical cousins methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV) and methylone were banned in the 2010s, 3-MMC began to be sold as a legal substitute—popping up first in Sweden in 2012, then resurfacing across Europe in 2020, according to a report from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA).
3-MMC has stronger amphetamine-like stimulant properties compared to mephedrone, but the two have very similar chemical structures—they increase synaptic concentrations of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin, and thus can also be very “more-ish,” encouraging binge-and-crash patterns. Both drugs also hurt like a bitch when going up your nose, but by the grace of god, 3-MMC doesn’t have the same stomach-churning smell as mephedrone. Forced into the black market, mephedrone doubled in price and dropped in purity, going from 98 percent to 37 percent on average in just a few years, and is today mostly relegated to the chemsex scene where it is injected and/or used in combination with GBL and meth. 3-MMC, on the other hand, is booming: the drug is churned out of labs in India and China, and imported into Europe on an industrial scale. (In 2021, 1500 kgs of 3-MMC was reported to the EMCDDA.)
It’s pretty rare that a novel psychoactive substance infiltrates the party drug canon; most clubbers like sticking to the classics (ecstasy, coke, ketamine, LSD, and uh… poppers?) out of ease and reliability. But the party drug landscape of the 2020s has been shifting towards synthetics: 2C-B, a phenethylamine first synthesized by Alexander Shulgin in 1974, was known on the streets as “off-brand Molly” a few years ago, but now is often more coveted (and costly!) than MDMA. Other novel psychoactive substances like synthetic cannabinoids (K2/Spice), synthetic shrooms (4-AcO-DMT), and the MDMA-like “BenzoFury” (6-APB) are also catching on in clubland, especially among more seasoned ravers.
Partly this is because, under widespread fears of fentanyl contaminating the US drug supply, research chemicals are often perceived as more pure/safe than traditional white powders like cocaine and ketamine. “I think general users of research chemicals love it,” said the owner of a head shop that sells these substances. “[It] cuts out the cheap very poor standard illegal drugs out there that they would normally take on the weekend.”
3-MMC can also be sourced online and sent by mail—no need for traditional smugglers to carry it across international borders. (A friend in Warsaw told me that Polish ravers have been doing 3-MMC for the last decade because it’s easier to find than speed.) “A market shift towards synthetics will tend to drive drug prices down,” noted a Brookings report. “In addition to requiring only a small labor force and minimal territorial control, producing synthetic drugs is more discreet. Finding drug labs hidden inside or alongside legal drug factories, such as in China and India, is much tougher than locating poppy fields.”
It seems significant that there has not been a media frenzy over 3-MMC—perhaps it hasn’t quite hit the mainstream yet, but I think post-pandemic social attitudes towards drugs (especially psychedelics) have also dramatically shifted from anxious pearl-clutching to viewing them as potential therapeutic substances. Like with MDMA, ravers are now the guinea pigs for novel research chemicals that will soon be co-opted and sold by Big Psychedelia. 3-MMC is currently being developed for psychotherapy by Mindmed—the same company that patented candy flipping (combining LSD and MDMA). Other synthetic cathinones such as methylone have also been patented as antidepressant and antiparkinsonian agents. Who knows how long 3-MMC is going to be popping off in the club scene—but for now, if you’ve had interesting experiences with it, or hot tips on other emerging drug trends, let me know!
This column was originally published in Rave New World, a newsletter by journalist Michelle Lhooq investigating how counterculture is evolving in the age of platform capitalism, algorithmic oppression, and drug legalization. Subscribe here.