The True Horror Behind Britain’s ‘Monkey Dust’ Drug Scare Story


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May 27, 2023

The True Horror Behind Britain’s ‘Monkey Dust’ Drug Scare Story

STOKE-ON-TRENT, England – A strange affliction has fallen upon this proud city.

STOKE-ON-TRENT, England – A strange affliction has fallen upon this proud city. Famous for being the historic heartland of Britain's once world-leading pottery industry, and for much more recently spawning singer Robbie Williams, Stoke-on-Trent has fallen on harder times. And, seemingly inexplicably, it's become the global capital of a potent drug known as "monkey dust".

According to some politicians and media outlets, monkey dust turns users into super-strength "zombies" with the power to chew through plate glass windows and jump from tall buildings unscathed.

The cheap off-white powder, containing lab-made stimulants called cathinones, achieved new prominence in May when Jack Brereton, Conservative MP for Stoke-on-Trent South, managed to get the government to order an investigation into whether synthetic cathinones including monkey dust should be upgraded from a Class B drug to a Class A drug. This would put it alongside heroin and cocaine in Britain's drug harm classification system.

It followed what was a colourful speech to the House of Commons last year, where Brereton had called for life prison sentences for people supplying the drug and said making it Class A was crucial to stemming its use and supply in Stoke. He informed fellow MPs that monkey dust was linked to "reports of face-eating in America", where he claimed it was known as "cannibal dust".

In Stoke, he said, one monkey dust user "actively ate through a glass window of a local shop", a story that has been endlessly repeated in the media, and a police officer had compared users to the Incredible Hulk. He recounted one local resident telling him: "As a hard-working, law-abiding citizen, I don't feel I should have to walk among zombies."

A lot of this stuff is blatant nonsense. Staffordshire Police told VICE News they know nothing of a glass window eating incident. Cathinones do not give users super strength. A much cited viral video of a monkey dust user before and after he allegedly jumped off a roof, is from 2014, and police aren't sure which, if any, illegal drugs he had taken. The story about cathinones causing flesh-eating is an urban myth from an American case in 2012, involving a man who hadn't used "bath salts", but synthetic cannabinoids. Monkey dust is not from the US and not called zombie dust or cannibal dust in any other country, as far as anyone can tell. Brereton has ignored several attempts by VICE News over email and phone to discuss his claims.

Nevertheless, Brereton's campaign led to a slew of headlines from news outlets such as newspapers the Daily Mail and the Sun, as well as the BBC and local Stoke media, including an array of clickbait mugshots of "zombies," complete with comments from the public calling "dust heads" vermin who should be exterminated. Chris Philp, government minister for Crime, Policing, and Fire, congratulated Brereton on "his tireless campaigning on this issue."

This isn't even the first time this drug scare story has been told. In the summer of 2018 Sky News interviewed police and paramedics in the city about monkey dust, sparking scores of stories in national and local newspapers that likened users of the "demon-like" drug to cannibals and zombies, alongside pictures of the Incredible Hulk and Hannibal Lecter. Stoke was "like a scene from Night of the Living Dead". Papers knew this was great drug scare clickbait. One year further back, the media had gone to town on a similar zombie apocalypse drug story, showing images and footage of people off their heads on the synthetic cannabinoid Spice in the streets of places such as Manchester, Blackpool and Wrexham in Wales.

But VICE News has found that behind the lurid headlines and political PR, the reality of monkey dust in Stoke tells a very different story, and that the reason the drug has stuck like glue to this city is less about cannibals and zombies, and more about the way many parts of Britain are being slowly ground down by over a decade of stark economic neglect.

Stoke's experience with monkey dust isn't simply a story about the swivel-eyed way the media, politicians and the public often react to drugs. It's a story about what happens when the government cuts off the most basic resources for communities, only to use the aftermath as fodder for its own ends. Perhaps worse, it's also a story about how society seems happy to treat its most vulnerable citizens as subhuman punch bags, kicking them when they are down, rather than actually doing something to help them.

Monkey dust, which is either snorted, smoked using a pipe or injected, is not a new drug. Tests carried out on products sold as monkey dust most often identify a synthetic cathinone called MDPHP. Previously, samples contained another synthetic cathinone, MDPV. Both drugs were developed in the 1960s. Synthetic cathinones, such as mephedrone in the UK and MDPV (known as "bath salts") in the US, became popular in the late 2000s, alongside synthetic cannabinoids, due to their legality and low cost.

But since then, due to blanket bans and chemical tweaks which made them more potent but less palatable, mainstream drug users have discarded these former "legal highs" in preference for drugs such as cocaine, weed and ketamine. Instead, synthetic cathinones, still cheaper than traditional highs, have grown in popularity among young people living in Russia and other countries in Eastern Europe. But they are also massive in Stoke.

Kevin Flemen, an independent drug field consultant who has worked with drug services in Stoke for two decades, says he remembers monkey dust being sold in the city as early as 2008.

What has made its use increasingly noticeable in Stoke is that monkey dust has become a drug of choice for some of the city's rising number of socially excluded and vulnerable people who spend most of their time out on the streets. Many have a mix of issues such as homelessness and bad mental and physical health, with a record of being addicted to other drugs such as alcohol, crack, benzos and heroin.

A street in Stoke-on-Trent. Photo: Ute Dickerscheid/picture alliance via Getty Images.

Part of the reason Stoke's monkey dust users are so vilified is that their acute intoxication episodes and mental health meltdowns often occur in the daytime, when people are taking their kids to school, having lunch or coming home from work. It's undeniably shocking for city residents to see people in such a bad way: gaunt, going through rubbish bins, stumbling around, shouting and collapsing on the ground, as opposed to the more socially acceptable drinking, fighting and vomiting outside pubs on a Saturday night.

Guy Jones, a senior scientist at drug charity The Loop, says although MDPHP is a distant relative of amphetamine, it has a much bigger impact on its users than other cathinones such as mephedrone and stimulants such as cocaine and speed.

"MDPHP is not easily excreted by the body which means that it prevents sleep for a long time after the desirable effects have worn off. Sleep deprivation alone is harmful, but alongside a strong stimulant this results in paranoid effects and other instabilities in a person's mental condition," says Jones.

"After days without sleep, the ‘high’ may have completely worn off but the paranoid effects remain as the brain starts to confuse its own thoughts with external stimuli, leading to a positive feedback loop that can manifest as full blown hallucinations, hearing voices and other uncharacteristic behaviour. Once the effects truly wear off, the exhaustion becomes apparent and people can end up near-unconscious as their body desperately tries to get the rest it needs." Jones said a binge of amphetamine, mephedrone or cocaine usually leads to exhaustion much sooner, meaning people have a better chance of getting some rest, and therefore less likely to experience the extreme side effects associated with monkey dust.

"I remember when I was sharing a house with some monkey dust users they were convinced, after a couple of days of having a blast on their pipes, that people were inside the walls of that property," says Darren Murinas, chief executive of Expert Citizens. "They were convinced the government was tracking them. So anything with wires, stuff like mobile phones, they’d pull apart. I've seen a young lady in distress pulling her shoes apart because she thought there was a tracker in them."

The one thing about monkey dust that is stranger than its name – also the title of a UK satirical cartoon show in the early 2000s – is why it's so concentrated in north Staffordshire, and more specifically, the Stoke area. There are rare cases of monkey dust popping up around the UK, but it is a drug, as research by Staffordshire Police has confirmed to VICE News, that is predominantly being bought and sold in Stoke.

A busker in Stoke-on-Trent. Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images.

When I ask a group of men drinking outside a pub in one of Stoke's main streets why monkey dust is so big in their city, the answer is: it's cheap. "Why Stoke? It's the price," one of them said. "Stoke is one of the cheapest cities to have a beer. The average price of a pint is £3.50. Stoke is a depressed area. Dust is a cheap drug.

"I’ve seen people walking barefoot, a woman walking around naked apart from a duvet," one of them says. "When I was working at pizza place down the road I would always see them lying on the benches, but the council told us to leave them alone as you can't tell how they will react, they could be dangerous. I’ve not seen them attacking anyone, just seen them attacking each other. I’ve been desensitised to it. I don't notice it now. It was shocking five years ago, when it was at its peak, but it's not shocking anymore."

In a city that is feeling the economic squeeze more than most in the UK, a key reason monkey dust has become such a big part of Stoke's drug world is due its affordability. Mostly made in labs in China and bought in bulk on the dark web by local suppliers in Stoke, monkey dust is sold in bags for around £20 a gram, and works out around two or three times cheaper than the equivalent weight of crack or powder cocaine with a much longer lasting high.

"Stoke is in the unfortunate situation where we've got really high levels of deprivation," says Sophia Fedorowicz, Research and Evaluations Lead at Expert Citizens, an independent network of people with lived experience of issues such as drugs, homelessness and mental health, and who work with the city's drug users on a daily basis.

"People have no money. Some people have no house. They can't feed their kids. Our infant nutrition rates are starting to go backwards. Some people are in such a sense of despair they're more than happy to use another tool to help them to get through the day."

In March a report raised the alarm about the impact of austerity cuts and the cost of living crisis on people in Stoke. It said thousands of families in the city were being pushed to the brink, and that austerity in the form of cuts to health, welfare and social services are driving increasing poverty, destitution and homelessness in the city.

The infrastructure that's supposed to support people out of addiction and homelessness is weakened. This creates a perfect storm for drugs such as monkey dust. The government last year pledged to pump £5.3 million into Stoke to improve its drug services. But this cannot mend the damage to drug services which have been slashed in the last decade. The national public health grant, which funds most drug and alcohol support in Britain, has been cut by a quarter since 2015.

Yet there are poorer areas in Britain than Stoke, such as Blackpool in the north-west, and swathes of the north-east. So why hasn't this bargain basement powder taken off there too? This could be down to a fluke of supply, suggest staff at Expert Citizens. It is likely that someone in the late 2000s started ordering monkey dust over the internet and selling it in Stoke. As demand for monkey dust increased, perhaps due to increasing austerity, the market for the drug solidified. Once people were used to the drug, it's what they wanted and expected of their dealer.

In the last two months, police in Staffordshire have intercepted 10 kilos of monkey dust in packages due to be delivered to addresses in Stoke. In 2019 monkey dust importer Michael McGraw was jailed for 27 months after he was caught buying the drug over the dark web for delivery to his home in Stoke.

A similar thing happened with PCP, a hallucinogenic anaesthetic drug largely restricted globally to a patchwork of areas in the US. PCP is a big drug in Washington DC, but almost unheard of 30 miles down the motorway in Baltimore, and this was down to the influence of long established traffickers in DC and a matter of learned taste from drug buyers.

Geographical drug quirks are not unprecedented. There are cases where particular drugs gain traction in certain areas, or are mysteriously absent. Until it went nationwide, ketamine was far more popular in Bristol and Bath in south west England than anywhere else in the UK. Czechia is a hub of meth use in Europe, despite the drug having a low prevalence across the continent. Etizolam, known as street valium, is a massive drug in Scotland but relatively rare in the rest of the UK, while until recently, crack cocaine was almost non-existent in Glasgow.

"Monkey dust is like the AI of drug stories," says Flemen, the independent drug consultant. "Zombies, superhuman strength, subhumans, psychopaths, eating people's faces, rotting skin, cannibals, an epidemic, a ‘new drug’. All the buzzwords and phrases are there. The media has a prurient interest in drug horror stories, but it's never been interested in understanding these stories." Stories about "dust heads", reminiscent of the inhumane "faces of meth" mugshots used in the US, might be great clickbait and fun target practice for cruel online commentators, but experts say they have a serious impact not just on monkey dust users and people's attitudes towards them, but on a whole raft of vulnerable people in Stoke.

Ironically, Stoke's monkey dust problem has been made worse by all the media hype and political campaigning. Behind the lurid headlines and the gesture politics, according to those who work closest to people using this drug in Stoke, the reporting in the media, fanned by politicians, has not only been counterproductive, but dangerous.

Talking about the conversations she has had with scores of monkey dust users in Stoke, Fedorowicz, the university researcher who works at Expert Citizens, said the main thing that really stuck out to her was just how "profoundly affected by the stigma people were".

"People are afraid of this mythical monster that has been created by rumour and the media. It's a witch hunt against the most vulnerable people in our society," said Fedorowicz.

A wind torn Union flag flies over Longton Town Hall in Stoke-on-Trent in 2022. Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images.

Staff at Expert Citizens said the deluge of sensationalist stories about monkey dust have resulted in people being refused housing, too scared to admit to health workers they use the drug, and being abused and attacked by members of the public.

"I spoke to a young lady a few weeks ago who was pushed into a canal by a bunch of kids who were filming her on TikTok after calling her a ‘dirty dust head’," said Munas, of Expert Citizens. "People say they have been kicked and pissed on. They get abuse from people winding their windows down in cars. If somebody is lying on the ground, people will take their stuff away from them, and then think it's really fun when they're trying to get it back. There's a lot of pranking."

Murinas said the public also uses the local news website, Stoke-on-Trent Live to abuse them. "All these mugshots of dust users, this naming and shaming. It's not the best approach. It's Happy Shopper journalism."

Expert Citizens has come across examples of professionals, including housing and medical staff, who have shunned people – and even refused them emergency care – because they are known monkey dust users.

Murinas said people in the process of escaping addiction are often knocked back due to their history of monkey dust use. "As someone with experience of this, when you want to make a U-turn, to change your life, you often need housing. But there is a housing crisis and it's easy for people in the private sector, especially the way monkey dust is reported, to look at someone's record of monkey dust use and say no."

It is not just monkey dust users who are impacted by these exaggerated stories, it's anyone who could be a monkey dust user.

"People are told, ‘this is what a dust user looks like’, but it's anybody who's homeless," says Fedorowicz. "It's anybody on the street who's looking a little bit worse for wear, whether that be down to drugs and alcohol or mental health."

One man Murinas shared a house with was filmed coming down the street by a member of the public who put the footage online, superimposing a monkey face on him. "This guy was drunk, he was a dependent alcoholic, he was falling in the road," says Murinas. "But with the monkey face on him, it went viral on the internet: ‘he's a monkey dust user, look at the state of him’."

A study carried out by researchers at Liverpool John Moores University into the monkey dust media frenzy in 2018 concluded the often false reporting "dehumanised, criminalised, and stigmatised" vulnerable people. The study said there was little mention of the austerity-fuelled social conditions, such as rising poverty and cuts to local government services, that may have led to people becoming homeless and addicted to monkey dust in the first place.

Oliver Standing, director of UK drug charity Humankind, which runs a drug service in Stoke, said: "We know that stigmatising people who use drugs creates barriers to seeking support and can therefore endanger people's health and wellbeing. So any claims which characterise people who use monkey dust as in some way inhuman risks ultimately causing more harm than good."

Behind the newspaper mugshots, and YouTube and TikTok videos, who are monkey dust users?

"Well they’re not superhumans eating through shop windows, they’re not evil, and there's nothing special about them," says Fedorowicz. "They’re just people who, for some reason, have fallen on hard times. But actually, they are generally good people. And sometimes if you take them out of the environment they are in, some of them will thrive."

There is the perception that people on monkey dust are a hopeless cause. But Expert Citizens has seen numerous examples where people have managed to turn their lives around.

One man from Stoke in his 30s, who wants to remain anonymous due to the stigma around monkey dust, started using the drug when he was offered it after a friend died. He became one of the so-called "zombies", but is now in recovery and is helping others get out too.

"The first time I took dust I felt like I was on top of the world, I felt like a steam train, I felt invincible. Buzzing. The nights go dead fast. When I was on it I would go on a bender for three or four days with no sleep. I could deal with more shit in my life. When it was over you feel shitty. It takes away your energy, you’re just lying in bed all day. It highlighted my mental health issues. Reality hits ten times harder when you come down," he said."I had bad delusions and paranoia. It made me think people were after me, that my family were against me. I was having dreams about it. No matter if I was asleep, awake, or with other people, I was having these hallucinations. My relationships with my family were really bad. We were always arguing, I was outcast, isolated. Taxi drivers wouldn't let me in taxis, people treat you like scum. I felt like I was the bad one."

Eventually he said he "got sick of the game, the lifestyle and getting robbed", and with the help of an understanding key worker and Expert Citizens he's now making huge progress. "Now I feel back to my normal self and I can take on the world. I’m thinking about the future now. I want to stay with Expert Citizens and support others who have been where I have been. Helping other people helps me. My relationship with my family is good now. I go to see them almost every day. It couldn't get any better actually."

It is not just more visible homeless people and those with addictions to other drugs such as alcohol, heroin and benzos who are buying monkey dust in Stoke. While those who are more visible on the streets are more likely to be caught with drugs, the market for the drug in Stoke is bigger than that, according to Fedorowicz.

"We do know people are using it behind closed doors, some in a more functional or recreational way," she said. "We've heard anecdotally of people who've been offered it instead of cocaine in kitchens at parties. It's important to know that it's a wider group of people using this drug than is being portrayed in the media."

The first barrier to reducing the harm from drugs is to sweep away misinformation, get to the truth behind why people are using a drug such as monkey dust in such a damaging way, and then offer people a feasible way out.

It is likely the aim of Tory MP Brereton's campaign to tackle monkey dust in Stoke by making it a Class A drug will make little difference to demand or supply, and it certainly will not address the reasons people want to get so out of it on this trashy white powder. Making them Class A has certainly not vanquished cocaine and heroin.

"Once you understand that addiction is driven by experiences of isolation, trauma and poverty you will understand that for many people the legal status of a drug is unlikely to deter its use," says Standing, the director of UK drug charity Humankind. "The best way to reduce the harms associated with the use of monkey dust in Stoke is firstly effective and compassionate care to keep people safe from harm and secondly longer term support to build social connections, identify the positive activity and find a safe place to live."

Flemen, the independent drug consultant, says by trying to get monkey dust bumped up to Class A – a move also backed by Staffordshire Police – Brereton and the Tory government are prioritising election PR over real world action. "Monkey dust and the use of synthetic cathinones is not a national trend, it's a local problem. Cathinones do not have to be made a Class A drug for Staffordshire police to target their resources at monkey dust. It should be about local policing priorities, not about trying to clamp down at national level."

The pub drinkers were not convinced either. "We can see through it. He's just trying to win votes. Making it class A won't stop it at all," one of them told me.

Expert Citizens said the police, especially the local police community support officers (PCSOs) in Stoke, deal with monkey dust users as best they can. "I have a newfound bit of respect for the force over the last few years," says Murinas. "The police are becoming the drug workers, the mental health workers, the social workers. You're gonna get a couple of police who may be a bit unsympathetic towards this group of people, but I think that the majority are definitely sympathetic. I think that the police are doing the best they can."

Stoke City Council commissioned a long overdue report into monkey dust which is due to be published later this month. It aims to separate fact from fiction and look at what is the best way forward. Up till now, the lack of knowledge about this drug in Stoke has left the door wide open for conjecture.

Crime, and being seen to be "tough" on it, is set to be one of the big issues of the next UK general election, likely to be held next year. So-called "Red Wall" areas such as Stoke – historically Labour constituencies snatched by the Conservatives at the last election – will be key battlegrounds.

It makes it highly likely that the findings and recommendations of this month's report, may be brushed over, especially if politicians think turning an economic issue into a righteous fight against the local folk devils will win votes. Why tackle the root cause of the problem, exposing the disastrous effects of austerity on people in Stoke, when you can just talk tough about locking people up and clearing the streets of zombies? Whoever wins, it's likely the same mistakes will be made again. Gareth Snell, former Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central, was campaigning to make monkey dust Class A in 2018.

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