The Newest Dangerous High: Phenibut

Source Images Shutterstock, Composite Sean Culligan/OZY

Why you should care

Phenibut, a perspective-altering drug with a terrible name, is increasingly being abused off-brand in the U.S.

  • Phenibut started out as an anti-anxiety drug for Russian cosmonauts.
  • Now it is emerging as the latest drug to be widely abused in the U.S. — with significant side effects, even deaths.

Surgeon and medical theorist Dr. Steve Ballinger had a theory he once shared with me. His idea, built on a premise similar to psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, was that humans were motivated by basic instincts. Food, shelter, sex — but then a compelling zig where many had not zagged: dizziness.

Indeed, all ancient cultures had some variation of ecstatic worship that involved disorientation: fermented berries into wine, ayahuasca, mescaline, cannabis. Many of these pathways to dizziness are still used, but many more new ones are now also being abused.

The latest? The inelegantly named phenibut.

“After taking too many the first day, I was sick in bed until 9 p.m. and threw up three times the next morning.”

Keith, phenibut user

An antidepressant, phenibut was developed in St. Petersburg, Russia, and used in the 1960s — initially for Russian cosmonauts suffering from anxiety. From there, its use spread throughout Eastern Europe as a generalized medical treatment for a wide variety of ailments, from alcoholism and depression to motion sickness and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Now, it’s emerging as the latest drug being abused in America, and researchers say there’s growing evidence that it causes severe reactions in users. U.S. poison control centers recorded a total of 1,320 calls relating to phenibut between 2009 and 2019. But while they received only a handful of calls each year until 2016, they recorded more than 300 calls a year in each of 2017, 2018 and 2019.

And it’s not just the raw numbers but the effect phenibut appears to have. “Thirteen percent of the cases reported to health care facilities have patients coming in with life-threatening or disabling symptoms relating to phenibut,” says Washington State University researcher Janessa M. Graves, whose work detailing the growing threat posed by phenibut was published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently.

In many drug-related cases, patients have consumed a cocktail of multiple narcotics. With phenibut cases, it’s often the only one involved. “We’ve seen pretty severe outcomes,” Graves says — including at least three deaths.

A fact that some users attribute to its newness, ease of access — it’s not on the Food and Drug Administration’s watch list yet — and the absence of reliable-use standards for recreational usage. Some online user groups suggest phenibut is often ingested as a powder or a pill, for a purpose similar to GHB, a party drug used by clubbers to lower inhibitions. “Phenibut has the most confusing descriptions of its properties and effects of almost any drug,” says a user who identifies himself only as Keith. “Some take it with alcohol, but there are warnings that it should not be. Strong hangovers result from this combination.” (3)

A Russian box of Phenibut.

But it’s not only hangovers. The first recorded instance of a seizure attributed to phenibut intake was in Sweden in 2011, according to Marie Claire Van Hout in Performance Enhancement & Health. “Phenibut comes with its fair share of side effects,” says Ana Zdravic, a researcher who has studied phenibut. “Several case studies exist reporting this supplement as being addictive. … Some reports even tie psychosis to the withdrawal episodes experienced while weaning off of phenibut.”

Indeed, even Keith’s experience suggests effects beyond just a hangover. “After taking too many the first day, I was sick in bed until 9 p.m. and threw up three times the next morning,” said Keith.

The FDA is now cracking down on phenibut’s unlicensed sale, and it’s aware that much of the purchase of the drug happens in online marketplaces.

The internet, however, is a porous medium. So, while calls to poison control centers in response to negative phenibut interactions are up and the FDA is cracking down, interested users are still only a Google search away from the purchase of a powerful medicine that ideally, medically and recreationally, is supposed to relax you. A fact not at all relaxing.

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