First came Four Loko, the alcoholic energy drink dubbed "blackout in a can."
Now meet Coco Loko, a "snortable" chocolate powder being marketed as a drug-free way to get a buzz. The product, created by Orlando-based company Legal Lean, includes cacao powder, as well as gingko biloba, taurine and guarana, which are commonly found in energy drinks.
Nick Anderson, the 29-year-old founder of Legal Lean, says he heard about a "chocolate-snorting trend" in Europe a few months ago. He ordered a sample and gave it a try.
"At first, I was like, 'Is this a hoax?,'" he recalled. "And then I tried it and it was like, OK, this is the future right here."
That led him to invest US$10,000 into creating his own "raw cacao snuff." It took about 10 tries over two months to come up with the mixture, which was created by an Orlando, Florida-based supplement company.
"Some versions, they just burned too much," Anderson said. "Other times they looked gray and dull, or didn't have enough stimulants."
The effects of the cacao-based powder, he said, last about 30 minutes to an hour, and are "almost like an energy-drink feeling, like you're euphoric but also motivated to get things done."
But doctors say they're not quite sure what to make of the brown powder, which hit US shelves last month and is not approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
"The question is, what are the risks of doing it?" said Dr Andrew Lane, director of the Johns Hopkins Sinus Center. "There's no data, and as far as I can tell, no one's studied what happens if you inhale chocolate into your nose. When I mention it to people, nobody's ever heard of it." ("Maybe," he added, "I'm not in the in-crowd.")
Lane said he wasn't particularly worried that "snortable" chocolate could become a gateway drug, as users become accustomed to getting a buzz by inhaling powders.
"If you're going to do drugs, you probably don't start with chocolate," he said. "Certainly this is better than using an illicit drug."
The medical community has long raised concerns about the health effects of energy drinks - which often rely on caffeine, taurine and guarana, and have been shown to raise blood pressure and cause heart palpitations. Lane says those effects could be magnified if a person inhales those stimulants.
"There are a few obvious concerns," he said. "First, it's not clear how much of each ingredient would be absorbed into the nasal mucous membranes. And, well, putting solid material into your nose - you could imagine it getting stuck in there, or the chocolate mixing with your mucus to create a paste that could block your sinuses."
A spokesman for the US Food and Drug Administration said it had not decided whether, or how, the agency would regulate the product.
"In reaching that decision, FDA will need to evaluate the product labelling, marketing information, and/or any other information pertaining to the product's intended use," spokesman Peter Cassell said in an email.
A representative for the Drug Enforcement Agency, meanwhile, said he was not aware of any agency concerns related to chocolate inhalants.
Tins of Coco Loko, which have about 10 servings, sell for US$24.99. Anderson, whose brother is a rapper named Bezz Believe, says the product is popular in the hip-hop community and near college campuses in Houston and Atlanta.
Anderson says he uses the chocolate powder as an alternative to drinking when he goes out. He also reaches for a tin during long car rides, music festivals and in "those types of social situations when you feel anxious."
He created his company, Legal Lean, two years ago with a US$10,000 investment. The idea, he said, was to create a drug-free version of "lean" - a cough syrup-cocktail often made with promethazine or codeine that is known in hip-hop circles as "purple drank." His grape-flavoured version, formulated over three months, is made with herbal extracts and marketed as a "dietary supplement."
It was a tough sell at first, Anderson says. People weren't sure what to make of his syrup-y concoction. But his brother soon began hawking it in YouTube music videos, and they began taking it to trade shows, where it generated interest. Today, the company sells 40,000 to 50,000 bottles of Legal Lean (which retail for US$12.50 a pop) each month.
(The reviews on online message boards, meanwhile, are mixed: "All I felt was drowsy," a user named BodyAndBeats wrote on drugs-forum.com. "Put me right to sleep. Wasn't fun at all," said another, on IGN.com, a site for video game enthusiasts.)
As for Coco Loko, smoke shops and liquor stores have buying the product cautiously, says Alex P., sales director for Atlanta-based Exclusive Distributors, which distributes the products nationwide. (He declined to give his last name, he said, because "I don't want people bugging me for all the wrong reasons.")
"There's definitely a buzz going around about this," he said, adding that customers in recent years have been looking for items that make all-natural claims.
"It's not flying off the shelves or anything, but people are definitely curious."
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