Have you heard about wacko? Wacko is a highly addictive drug that is sweeping the country, leaving broken lives and dead bodies in its wake. People under the influence of wacko experience delusions and hallucinations that drive them to hurt themselves or commit bizarre crimes. They are irrationally violent and exhibit superhuman strength; it takes several men to restrain them. Wacko is different from every drug you have heard of but also strangely familiar.

Wacko, of course, does not really exist. But neither do the drugs described in breathless reports about the latest chemical menace. To be more precise, the substances may exist, but they do not have the terrifying characteristics ascribed to them by drug warriors and their accomplices in the press. Here are some clues that can help you distinguish between careful reporting and anti-drug hysteria:

Everyone knows that heroin is the most addictive drug ever invented – unless you believe research indicating that nicotine is “harder to kick than heroin,” or the psychopharmacologist who told Newsweek that “crack is the most addictive drug known to man,” or the doctor who told The New York Times that methamphetamine is “the most malignant, addictive drug known to mankind.”

Can’t decide? An epidemiologist recently told CBS Miami that flakka, usually identified as the synthetic cathinone alpha-PVP, sometimes turns out to be “combinations of cocaine plus methamphetamine plus heroin, which is addiction on steroids.” According to a cop quoted by the CBS station in Tampa Bay, “On a scale of one to 10, flakka is a 12.”

Over the years various drugs have been linked to irrational violence, including marijuana in the 1920s and 30s, PCP in the 70s, crack in the 80s, methamphetamine in the 90s and “bath salts” (synthetic cathinones, which include flakka) more recently.

A few years ago bath salts were blamed for a vicious attack on Miami’s MacArthur Causeway in which one man chewed another’s face, leading to headlines such as “New ‘Bath Salts’ Zombie-Drug Makes Americans Eat Each Other.”

Although toxicological tests found no trace of cathinones in the attacker’s blood, leading news organizations still report this myth as fact. In other cases, people who commit violent crimes really have taken a demonized drug, but that does not mean the chemical made them do it. The fact that people who take the drug do not typically act that way shows there is a lot more to the story.

In a 1914 New York Times article headlined “Negro ‘Cocaine’ Fiends Are a New Southern Menace,” the pathologist Edward Huntington Williams claimed that police officers had switched to larger-caliber guns because cocaine provides “a resistance to the ‘knock down’ effects of fatal wounds.” A few years later, a U.S. Department of Agriculture report quoted a police captain who said marijuana users display “enormous strength,” so that “it will take several men to handle one man.”

Photo via New York Times

Photo via New York Times

Similar properties have been ascribed to PCP (which supposedly gave Rodney King “Hulk-like strength,” even though he had not taken it) and cathinones, whose users are so powerful that restraining them requires anywhere from four to nine men. Yahoo News says flakka “gives users super-human strength,” and Jon LaPook, chief medical correspondent at CBS News, agrees, likening it to PCP.

“The notion that drugs produce superhuman strength is simply not true,” says Columbia University neuropsychopharmacologist Carl Hart. “It should raise red flags for people if they see ‘superhuman strength.’”

After LSD escaped from the lab in the 1960s its reputation as an “insanity chemical” inspired fear that it would drive people crazy, maybe for good. That fear, in turn, inspired scare stories about acid droppers who fell to their deaths after trying to fly, tore out their own eyeballs or stared at the sun until they went blind.

Yet studies of actual LSD users found they were no crazier than abstainers, and maybe a little saner.

Judging from recent press coverage, flakka turns you into a raving lunatic running naked through the streets, so desperate to escape imaginary pursuers that you break into a police station (or try). Without toxicological tests, it is impossible to say for sure what people who behave that way actually took. But even if it was alpha-PVP, such reactions clearly are not typical.

“The fact that the vast majority of the people who use these substances don’t exhibit that behavior tells you that it’s not the drug,” Columbia neuropsychopharmacologist Hart observes.

A good rule of thumb: If a drug user ends up on the news, he probably did something unusual.

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Drug scare stories generally feature two contradictory themes: Although this drug is so dangerous that you should never touch it, it is catching on like wildfire. That is a real puzzle, because people, by and large, are not interested in consuming drugs that will send them to jail, the hospital or the morgue.

How can flakka be “the hot new drug of choice” if it has such unpleasant effects? Last fall reports on Cloud 9, a synthetic marijuana substitute that supposedly was all the rage in Michigan, called it “absolutely deadly” and warned that it causes “hallucinations, agitation and severe vomiting,” as well as “seizures, strokes and heart attacks.” Far out! Count me in.

Jacob Sullum is a drug policy expert and the author of Saying Yes: In Defense of Drug Use (Tarcher/Penguin).