On Russian YouTube, there are videos of alpha-PVP users, acting in bizarre and uncontrollable ways. It’s just one small sign of a vast, hidden epidemic. Read this report from Sam Iravani!
In some parts of the world, alpha-PVP is old news. Commonly known as ‘flakka,’ the powerful stimulant drug was popular in Poland between 2013 and 2015, as well as in Serbia and other European countries. Around the same time, flakka became infamous for being tied to outbreaks of bizarre behaviour in Florida, and more recently in Australia, fuelled in large part by sensationalised media reports.
The popularity of alpha-PVP was tightly linked to its legality, wide availability, and cheap cost. Since the introduction of relevant legislation and hard crackdowns on supply networks, the drug was swiftly taken out of circulation in these countries.
But alpha-PVP is far from dead. Along with mephedrone, it belongs to a class of drugs known as synthetic cathinones, which have been making waves along Europe’s eastern fringes. Mephedrone has become Russia’s favourite drug in recent years, attracting media attention and spawning something of a subculture. But less attention has been paid to alpha-PVP, even though it’s a major player within Russia’s drug scene. And it’s much more dangerous.
Originally synthesised in the 1960s, alpha-PVP usually comes in a crystal form that can be swallowed, snorted, injected, or vaporised. It first appeared on the Russian drug market around 2012, but it wasn’t until 2017 that it started taking over on Hydra, Russia’s darknet market.
In 2019, DrugStat – a research project dedicated to the study of world drug trafficking and darknet markets – analysed the annual sales on Hydra in 21 Russian cities. In 19 cities, alpha-PVP was a top 5 drug. In 8 cities, top 3. In 2 cities, including St. Petersburg, it was the top drug.
“Hydra became a monopolist in the Russian drug market since 2018,” DrugStat told Drugreporter. “We can see how popular alpha is in the big cities; just imagine how popular it is in the small cities, where it’s the only synthetic drug you can get.”
Part of the appeal is obvious. According to user reports, alpha-PVP is more intense and longer-lasting than methamphetamine, and more affordable. With prices ranging from $20-30 per gram, its cost effectiveness is a big selling point in Russia, where many people are working for low salaries.
“I’ve been injecting alpha for about 3 years now,” says Danny, a supermarket cashier from St. Petersburg. “Alpha is almost always on my mind; you just can’t forget it. I love the rush in those first minutes.”
But alpha-PVP isn’t just a cheap knockoff stimulant being used by the lower classes. Andrey Egorov is an award-winning Russian poet and translator based in Moscow. Currently serving a suspended sentence for possession of 1.07g of alpha-PVP, he is reflective of the diverse range of Russian people who have been drawn to the drug.
“I can afford amphetamine, and though there were some, say, issues with amphetamine sold on Hydra, it isn’t a big deal to get quality amph,” says Egorov. “I chose alpha-PVP because it raises my motivation to do something, while amphetamine just, well, wakes me up, like strong coffee.”
That said, cocaine is too expensive for Russians like Egorov. Methamphetamine, or at least real methamphetamine, is also expensive on Hydra; and while mephedrone is much cheaper, being MDMA-lite, it is mostly used by the younger hedonistic crowd. On the Russian drug market, there was a gap for a stronger and more affordable stimulant. And with alpha-PVP, Russian drug suppliers found their solution.
Indeed, the evidence indicates that alpha-PVP is a homegrown problem. Generally speaking, the longer a drug travels, the more it costs. On Hydra, prices of alpha don’t differ that much around Russia, while imported drugs become more expensive with more distance from the borders. While alpha-PVP has been a controlled substance in Russia since 2010, the precursors are readily available and are not controlled. Underground laboratories related to the production of alpha-PVP have been found in St. Petersburg, as well as in neighbouring countries Georgia and Belarus, where the drug has taken hold.
Studies have shown that alpha-PVP is as addictive as its predecessor, the synthetic cathinone MDPV. Contrary to media reports, it does not produce superhuman strength, and in many ways acts like a normal stimulant.
But alpha-PVP is not well studied, and the extent of its danger is unclear. In the United States and Europe, the drug is linked to over 100 deaths and hundreds of intoxications – but little is known about the amounts used. In addition, most cases in Europe involved multiple drugs, which increases the risk of serious side effects.
Russia has no official data on alpha-PVP use. However, Hydra has a bot which is used to help drug users in emergency cases. People who have real problems like overdoses (or just questions) can write to this bot as it has online doctors 24/7.
In 2019, DrugStat spoke to these online doctors and got statistics from their emergency cases. From those statistics, they found out which substance users had written to Hydra’s bot about the most – it was alpha-PVP. The number of emergency cases for each substance was then compared to the amount of comments left on Hydra after purchasing these drugs, to determine which substance was most dangerous. Alpha-PVP ranked fourth place behind methadone, spice, and methamphetamine in terms of danger.
“So with the comparison, methamphetamine is really more dangerous,” DrugStat said. “However, such comparisons should be made with caution as many people just don’t know about Hydra’s bot. It’s a small database. So the numbers are very low.”
Of course, overdose is not the only risk associated with drug abuse. According to Nikolay Tumanov, a psychiatrist-narcologist based in Moscow, the effects of alpha-PVP abuse include depressive disorders, tremors, cerebral edema (brain swelling), parkinsonism, and stroke. “Everything said about synthetic cathinones is generally true for alpha-PVP except that the level of activity of this substance is higher, as is the likelihood of undesirable effects,” Tumanov said.
Yet while he is highly regarded in his field, Tumanov hasn’t seen many patients who are using alpha-PVP. Such users are less likely to seek help for their addictions than other drug users. The Red Gate Project, one of the few social services for drug users in Russia, said they do not have many alpha users as clients because so-called “saltheads” are very paranoid and suspicious, and usually anti-social. Therefore, in Russia, problems related to alpha-PVP abuse are mostly hidden or unrecognised.
Drugreporter reached out to Russian-speaking alpha-PVP users on the encrypted messenger app Telegram, encouraging them to talk openly and anonymously about the situation. Although the drug is famous for its paranoia, many users came forward to share their story. Most were in Russia, although some were in neighbouring Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, where they said it is a popular drug.
“Based on my experience, I can say that alpha-PVP much more seriously affects your behaviour, makes you inadequate and not being able to understand the situation around you clearly. This effect strongly increases when you are doing this drug hours in a row. You can be almost normal after doing meth all day long, but do alpha-PVP just for 8 or 10 hours and you’ll feel like you are going mad.” – Male, 17, Moscow
“I saw the destructive effect of alpha-PVP on people, and it changed their personality in the shortest possible time almost beyond recognition. I myself during the time of using all other drugs (about 7 years) lost much less (social life, economic losses) than in half a year of using alpha.” – Male, 28, St. Petersburg
“I used alpha-PVP intravenously but I did not have problems with overdoses or different physical health problems. It is only dangerous for mental health in my view. Very dangerous.” – Female, 17, Nizhny Novgorod
These quotes are representative of the responses we received. Based on their experience, most users thought alpha wasn’t life-threatening unless several times the standard “strong” dose was used. However, most thought alpha’s addictiveness was stronger than other drugs (mephedrone, amphetamine, and more).
Methamphetamine is considered one of the most powerful and dangerous stimulants in the world, and was used as a point of reference. For those who had used both drugs, most said alpha’s influence on the psyche was much stronger; not just in its ability to cause anxiety and depression, but also acute psychosis and strange compulsive behaviour, which leads to crimes and other problems.
For a subclass of users, alpha’s ability to easily induce psychosis is actually one of the draws. There is a practice in Russia called ‘Psychedelia,’ where alpha is injected in large doses to cause very strong visual and auditory hallucinations, similar to LSD. One user described the experience as “insanely beautiful” and said the hallucinations are even tactile. But even those who spoke fondly of the drug admitted they were destroying their mental capabilities, but couldn’t stop taking it. The consequences of long-term use are dire.
“I used alpha every day from 2013 on. I’m dead inside. No emotion. No work. No family. No one close to me for a lot of years. It’s every day inside hell,” one user said.
“A lot of my friends have been using flakka for several years. They are usually aggressive (flakka’s impact). Their short-term memory is dead. They can’t function like normal people,” another said.
A grim picture was painted of what’s going on under the surface of Russian society and other post-Soviet states. Users from different age groups and backgrounds spoke of losing their minds, turning into “animals” who would do unspeakable things just to find their next hit. With opiates now largely problems of the past in Russia, alpha-PVP is arguably the greatest drug threat the country has faced in many years.
It’s another blow to Russia’s controversial war on drugs. In such a situation, the logical course of action is to try something new: counteract potential drives to drug abuse as well as youthful ignorance about their effects, avoiding the exaggeration, distortion, and sensationalism that nullifies educational efforts; and increase the availability of effective drug treatment programs. But in Russia and other post-Soviet states, harsh anti-drug laws are still firmly in place.
So it’s business as usual. Alpha-PVP will likely take over other drug markets in the region, while continuing to enslave the majority of its users, at least for the foreseeable future. A new stimulant drug could, maybe, offer up some competition. But to usurp alpha’s position won’t be an easy task. With its aggressive, dominating behaviour, alpha is a drug that has lived up to its name.
Thanks to DrugStat for their assistance with this article.