First, it was jenkem. Then it was bath salts. Now, the latest drug that parents are freaking out about is a mood enhancer for cats and dogs.
Last week, the Fairfield Police Department in northern New Jersey issued a statement on Facebook warning people to avoid recreational use of Catnip Cocktail, a product that is intended to be used as an anti-anxiety supplement for pets. The post was prompted by a raid on Nutrition Zone, a vitamin and supplement store, earlier this month, during which the FPD seized 61 bottles of Catnip Cocktail (which were not displayed in the open or advertised by the store), as well as 28 bottles of human growth hormone (HGH) and seven hand gun and rifle magazines.
The owner of the store, John Sicico, 48, was arrested and slapped with numerous charges, including three counts of third-degree possession of a Schedule I drug. According to Lt. Det. Charles Zampino of the FPD, he was transported to Essex County Jail to await his appearance in court.
According to a post on the Fairfield Police Department’s Facebook page, the police first became aware that Catnip Cocktail was being abused when officers were called to a local strip mall in July 2018 “to investigate an individual who was dancing, yelling and generally acting abnormally in front of a hair salon.” The man was arrested and found with six bottles of Catnip Cocktail on his person. Receipts indicated that the Catnip Cocktails had been purchased from Nutrition Zone, a health-food store in the strip mall where he was arrested.
To hear the FPD tell it, this was not the only encounter the police force had with Catnip Cocktail. In November 2018, officers charged a man with driving under the influence following reports that he was “acting irrationally, was extremely confused and unaware of his surroundings,” per the post; bottles of Catnip Cocktail were found in his car. And in February 2019, officers responded to reports of an unconscious man lying outside a fitness center, who was also found carrying a bottle of Catnip Cocktail. The police administered Narcan, and the man regained consciousness and was sent to the hospital.
According to FPD Chief Anthony Manna, the bust was intended as a warning sign to Catnip Cocktail distributors to prevent the drug from becoming a full-blown trend: “in executing today’s search warrant, the Fairfield Police Department has sent a clear message that we will do whatever we can to assure that Catnip Cocktail does not become the next drug fad.” And media outlets have responded in kind, referring to Catnip Cocktail as a substance that is “getting [people] dangerously high” and “making people crazy”.
Which begs the question: exactly how many people are actually abusing Catnip Cocktail to begin with?
To be clear, Catnip Cocktail does not appear to be totally harmless. Although the product is labeled “not for human consumption,” it is primarily sold at smoke shops, not actual pet stores. (A request for comment to the Catnip Cocktail website was not returned, and it appears the website is no longer active.) That’s likely because it contains 1-4 BDO, or 1-4 butanediol, which is most often used in commercial cleaning products like fish tank cleaners.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 1-4 BDO converts to the “date rape drug” GHB upon ingestion, which means it produces similar effects to GHB, such as euphoria and a sense of relaxation. But when misused in conjunction with other substances, “it can result in serious consequences,” such as “reduced inhibition and sedation, vomiting, incontinence, agitation, convulsions, respiratory depression, coma and death,” says Linda Richter, Ph.D, director of Policy Research and Analysis at the Center on Addiction, citing a 2014 report by the World Health Organization (WHO).
Much like bath salts were before the passage of the 2012 Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act, 1-4 BDO is not illegal on a federal level. But it does have demonstrated risks: in 1999, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a public warning declaring 1-4 BDO a Class I Health Hazard, meaning that it carries a risk of fatality, which has prompted many states, including New Jersey, to classify it as a Schedule I controlled substance.
That said, it’s unclear exactly how widespread the recreational use of Catnip Cocktail is. According to the DEA’s National Forensic Laboratory Information System, while there have been reports of seizures of 1-4 BDO intended for recreational use, it is not among the top 25 most-seized drugs; and it appears that most of the recent reports about its misuse “primarily surround the incidents in New Jersey tied to one store that was selling it along with other illicit substances and products,” says Richter.
Niamh Eastwood, the executive director of Release, the U.K.’s center of expertise on drugs and drug law, agrees. “There have only been a few instances of people caught with the drug, and the quantities involved in the story are low.”
In an interview with Rolling Stone, Zampino confirmed that the FPD has “only had three cases since July of last year”; though he has heard other reports of Catnip Cocktail being abused in neighboring counties like Morris County, the July 2018 incident “was the very first time we had anything to do with it.”
There also doesn’t seem to be a ton of evidence that Catnip Cocktail was the only drug that these three men had taken, or even that it was directly responsible for these reported side effects. “[Here you have] a handful of people who were found to be acting strangely, allegedly while in possession of vials of the animal sedative,” says Benjamin Radford, an author and research fellow with the nonprofit educational organization the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. “But there’s little or no evidence — in the form of toxicology reports, for example — that they were under the influence.” (In an email to Rolling Stone, Zampino said that a toxicology report only resulted from the first arrest in July. He did not confirm or deny that the individual in that case had consumed Catnip Cocktail, instead referring us to the Office of Public Records to access the report.)
It’s important to note, according to Radford, that “many drug users mix substances, making it difficult or impossible to scientifically determine what drug caused what effect.” That’s probably especially true in the case of the man arrested in February who was given Narcan: Because Narcan only counteracts the effects of opioid overdose, it’s likely the man overdosed on an opioid of some sort in addition to taking Catnip Cocktail, if he even took it at all, which Zampino could not confirm. “I don’t know if he was using it that night, but we know he had it on his person when officers located it on his person at the bus stop,” he said. That said, “depending on the type of drug you’re taking and you can add this, it can cause dangerous interactions with the body.”
Overall, reports of Catnip Cocktail sweeping the nation and causing people to go “crazy” seem to stem from the same type of moral panic that fueled the uproar over jenkem (the use of which was later roundly debunked) and bath salts (Rudy Eugene, the so-called bath salts “cannibal” who was charged in 2012 with chewing off the face of a homeless man, was later found not to have any bath salts in his system.)
“Press coverage of so-called ‘Catnip Cocktail’ is alarmist, inaccurate, and dangerous — and sadly typical of how the media covers alleged new drug use trends,” Eastwood says. “Coverage of this alleged new trend is reminiscent of how many media sources have previously concocted a threat of ‘cannibals’ using ‘bath salts,’ or worsened the stigmatization of vulnerable people by describing them as ‘addicts’ spreading an ‘epidemic.'”
That’s not to say, however, that no one is using Catnip Cocktail to get high, or that you shouldn’t be alarmed if you suddenly see bottles of it being stockpiled under someone’s bed. “It’s entirely possible that some people are using the drug to get high—or to try to get high, based on its reputed effects [currently being hyped in news stories],” says Radford. “In other words, even if the drug has little or no real pharmacological effects in humans, there are some people who will try it anyway, looking for a cheap or new high.”
But it’s far more likely that media coverage of the Catnip Cocktail “phenomenon” will fuel people seeking it out — not an inherent demand for the product itself. “I wouldn’t be surprised,” Zampino said when asked if people would start seeking Catnip Cocktail as a result of the FPD’s statement and subsequent media coverage. “But it’s also information that needs to get out there. There are serious effects that need to happen to somebody.”