Moscow, Russia - Two weeks after quitting heroin, Roman was consumed by an urge to score another drug - something harmless and inexpensive, something that would not have a throttlehold on his life.
He did not have to look very hard. The word "mix" and a mobile phone number were scrawled in big, shaky letters on a cracked concrete wall metres away from a railway station that links Moscow to its southeastern suburbs.
Roman dialled the number, overcoming his suspicion that this could be a police setup. A man picked up the phone, his voice coarse and indifferent, and said a bag with enough for "five or six joints" was available for less than $10.
"I'll text you the number of a QIWI purse," he said, referring to a popular payment system that allows instant anonymous payments. "When I get the money, I'll give you directions."
|A hand-written telephone number of a 'spice' drug pusher in Moscow written on a wall in an underground pass [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera]
After transferring the money from a nearby shopping mall, Roman was told the stash, wrapped in plastic, was hidden in the snow under an empty beer bottle near the fourth section of the wall surrounding the station.
Inside the bag was the most shape-shifting illicit drug Russia has ever seen.
Highly addictive and known as "spice" or "mix" or "bath salts", it can be smoked, snorted or injected causing an intense high - as well as panic attacks, hallucinations, epilepsy-like spasms, temporary paralysis, cardiovascular problems and lung disease, according to health officials.
"It causes psychological disorders that are difficult to treat medically," Sergey Polozov, psychologist and head of the Stopnarkotic movement that has some 4,000 volunteers working throughout Russia to counter the "spice" trade, told Al Jazeera. "Thirty percent of first-time users get addicted."
"Spice" also has carcinogenic effects and leads to an "increasing number of reports on suicides associated with preceding use of these products", said a 2013 report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
An especially strong strain of "spice" has killed more than 40 Russians since September and landed some 2,000 in hospitals. Russian officials purported that a Ukrainian regional governor is allegedly implicated in the distribution of the "killer spice" in Russia.
"Spice" has nothing to do with pepper or saffron and is named after a drug that triggered an interstellar war in The Dune, Frank Herbert's sci-fi novel series. First synthesised in 2004, it is an umbrella brand for the ever-growing family of substances whose chemical formula has been constantly changed to avoid blacklisting.
Banned in the United States and the European Union, it is widely available in Russia and several ex-Soviet republics in myriad variations.
But millions of Russians, mostly youngsters, who have tried "spice" in the past decade, believed that it was a harmless, cheap and legal substitute to marijuana. "Spice" pushers maintained the myth with online ads or business cards that can be found on trains or in nightclubs that show laughing cartoon characters, ganja-smoking musician Bob Marley, or slogans such as "100 percent harmless".
It had been openly sold in tobacco shops or tiny kiosks in underground passes, next to transportation hubs or shopping malls until 2009, when authorities started to ban one spice formula after the other. Vigilante youth groups punished "spice"pushers by beating them up, dousing them with paint, and burning their product.
I did not like the high. It's unpredictable, like a roulette - one time you are happy, next time you want to jump out of the window or hide under the bed.
But it's a hydra-headed business with a "designer" drug whose makers are no longer limited by nature and can alter the formula any way they like - turning the users into involuntary guinea pigs that try and test the alterations. "Spice" highs can now mimic the effects of amphetamine, cocaine, or psychedelic drugs.
These days, precursors or the chemical base for "spice" are mass-produced in China or Southeast Asia. They are shipped to Russia as contraband or simply mailed - several grams of the substance hidden in an envelope is enough for several ounces of the market-ready product.
"It's a tsunami of synthetic drugs," Viktor Ivanov, head of FSKN, Russia's top anti-drugs agency, said in televised remarks in early February.
After reaching a Russian middleman, the chemical is diluted in water or poisonous chemicals such as acetone or brake fluid, and sprayed on herbs such as chamomile. It is sold in small bags for between $5 and $100 depending on the drug's potency and the pushers' marketing skills.
And the effects of "spice" are sometimes worse than heroin addiction - according to a former heroin addict.
"I did not like the high," Roman, a lanky 27-year-old Muscovite recovering from almost three years of heroin addiction, told Al Jazeera describing his experience of buying and trying spice in early December.
"It's unpredictable, like a roulette - one time you are happy, next time you want to jump out of the window or hide under the bed," he said after a meeting of Addicts Anonymous held in the backyard of a church in uptown Moscow.
Fidgeting in an uncomfortable wooden chair and constantly running his hand through his messy blond hair, he added: "That's the scariest drug I've ever tried."
Yet another epidemic
Russia is home to more than eight million drug addicts, FSKN's Ivanov said - although his agency's rigorous statistics include occasional and one-time drug users as addicts.
In the late 1990s, Afghan heroin flooded Russia via ex-Soviet Central Asia. With a population of 143 million, in 2008, Russia devoured 70 tonnes of heroin - more than one-fifth of the drug consumed globally - becoming "the single largest national heroin consumer in the world", the UN said.
As authorities fought to cut down the heroin flow, Russians switched to new drugs.
One was "crocodile" - a cheap intravenous opiate made of codeine pills which was named after the scale-like, gangrenous skin lesions it causes. First concocted in Russian prisons, it ravaged Russia in the early 2010s, decimating former heroin addicts. The average life expectancy of a "crocodile" addict was about two years.
But in 2013, the health ministry made codeine pills a prescription-only drug, and "crocodile" died out - along with thousands of addicts. By that time, spice had already mutated into Russia's most dangerous drug.
Recently, Russia's war on drugs got mixed up with Kremlin's new geopolitical battle.
Blaming the Ukrainians
A triumphant FSKN statement accused Ukrainians, Moscow's new archenemies, of organising a drug cartel and channelling the proceeds to finance Kiev's war against pro-Russian rebels.
FSKN said its forces arrested some 50 mobsters, part of a "transnational criminal community" that kept its money in a bank owned by Ihor Kolomoisky, the billionaire governor of the Dniepropetrovsk region.
The cartel was allegedly active in 30 of Russia's 85 provinces selling the "killer spice", the February 6 statement claimed. An agency official told a national television network the spice trade involved organisers of last year's pro-Western revolt in Ukraine and financed Kiev's war against pro-Moscow separatists.
|Members of a pro-Kremlin youth group douse two tied-up spice pushers with red paint [AP]
Kolomoisky's press service was not available to comment on the allegations.
The authors of an "analytical" television show on NTV, a Kremlin-controlled national broadcaster, claimed in October that Ukrainian authorities were allegedly behind the import of the most dangerous spice strains to Russia.
"Somebody is deliberately trying to poison the young generation in Russia," Sergei Vaganov, head of a rehabilitation centre in the western Siberian city of Surgut, told NTV.
On February 3, President Vladimir Putin signed a long-awaited bill banning all possible variations of "spice" and punishing its production and distribution with hefty fines or jail sentences of up to eight years in cases where the drug causes a user's death.
Anti-drug campaigners criticised the law saying spice pushers should be treated like heroin dealers and face stricter punishment such as life in jail.
"This law is an indulgence," Kirill Petrov, an analyst with the City Without Drugs, Russia's most outspoken non-governmental rehabilitation centre in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg, told Al Jazeera.
But the law seems to have changed little about the spice trade. Hundreds of Russian websites and online forums still advertise and sell spice.
"A new 'super mix' has a good relaxing effect for 45-60 minutes," advertises one of the websites about a spice strain available for $6 per gram - or for $2.2 if you buy two kilograms. Another website offers a variety of "spices" that work as "legal soft hashish" and "give unreal effects" for between $70 and $140 per gram.
Most of the online dealers offer 24/7 delivery, discounts for wholesale buyers and bonuses for long-term customers.
Offline pushers also seem unaffected by the ban. A pusher's phone is still seen near the train station where Roman bought his first bag of "spice".
When this reporter called the number, a man answered and said: "I will text you the number of a QIWI purse."
Source: Al Jazeera