In late 2010, anti-virus software pioneer and self-described “God of computer security” John McAfee underwent a dramatic personality shift. Once avowedly sober and gregarious, forever surrounded by a cheerful entourage of yoga enthusiasts and light-aircraft pilots, he in short order became socially isolated, living alone with a shifting roster of prostitutes and armed ex-felon bodyguards at a pair of secluded compounds in Belize. Around the same time, the former teetotaler started posting to a website for recreational drug users called Bluelight in which he described his experiments with various types of bath salts. “I think it’s the finest drug ever conceived,” he wrote of one, singling out “the indescribable hypersexuality” of the “super perv powder,” but warning that “I had visual and auditory hallucinations and the worst paranoia of my life.”
Thereafter, McAfee’s life entered a dark phase. As recounted in the new Showtime documentary film Gringo: The Dangerous Life of John McAfee, which I co-executive-produced, in the years that followed he would become entangled with allegations of bribery, underage prostitution, rape, and murder. After a neighbor was found with a bullet in his head in 2012, McAfee went on the run, only to be arrested in Guatemala and deported to the United States. Since then, he has managed a remarkable revival of his image, running for president of the United States and becoming CEO of a technology company — all the while, intimates say, continuing to use drugs heavily.
McAfee tends to be rather careless in guarding the details of his activities; he pursues his enthusiasms without moderation, and charms and discards friends with an abruptness that encourages many to spill the beans to the press. Yet after years of writing about McAfee, one large issue remained mysterious to me: What drug, exactly, was McAfee on? None of his former associates knew. They said he would leave plastic baggies of white crystal lying around, and described its effects, but said he never referred to it by name.
None of the other journalists who’ve covered McAfee have managed to crack the mystery, either. When Wired writer Joshua Davis visited him in Belize in mid-2012, McAfee admitted to writing about bath salts on Bluelight, but claimed the posts were merely a prank aimed at fooling drug users — he hadn’t touched any drugs since 1983. When Davis took the question to McAfee’s girlfriends, they backed him up.
Finally, just last week, I got my answer. A former member of his inner circle forwarded me a photo of a packaging label that one of McAfee’s friends took in the course of a four-day binge earlier this month in New York City. (At the end of the binge, McAfee appeared at a shareholders’ meeting for MGT Capital Investments, the tech firm he now runs. At the meeting, MGT shareholders approved the acquisition of two companies that McAfee owns and voted to change the company’s name to “John McAfee Global Technologies”; soon after that, the New York Stock Exchange nixed the acquisitions, and the SEC launched an investigation.)
The label, from a package delivered from a Chinese chemical company, suggests why McAfee never called the drug by name: the moniker “1-phenyl-2-(1-pyrrolidinyl)-1-hexanone” hardly rolls trippingly off the tongue. The chemical compound has no street name, though among organic chemists it goes by the slightly catchier handle of alpha-PHP. This chemical belongs to a group called the cathinone class, all of which are similar in structure and function to the active ingredient in khat. “The molecular structure tends to block the reuptake of dopamine in the brain, which leads to the excited delirium,” says Jim Hall, an epidemiologist at the Center for Applied Research on Substance Use and Health Disparities at Nova Southeastern University in Florida.
Structurally, the alpha-PHP molecule is extremely close to the better-known drug alpha-PVP, or “flakka,” which is known for fueling sexual appetite, hallucinations, and paranoia in binges that can go on for days. “People will imagine they are being chased by wild animals,” Hall says. “Many users express dislike for it sharply. It’s very linked to cognitive impairment and high paranoia that lasts for days after the desired effects wear off. However, it’s extremely compulsive and addictive, so people who didn’t like it still seek the high stimulant effects and euphoric feelings they get from it.”
Based on laboratory tests of chemical reactivity, “alpha-PHP might be even more potent than alpha-PVP” in the brain, says Michael H. Baumann, a chemist with the Designer Drug Research Unit of the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
McAfee described some of his intensely vivid paranoid fantasies to Davis during his 2012 visit. McAfee told him that he’d been walking along a beach one night when the Gang Suppression Unit, an elite Belizean police squad, began pursuing him in golf carts. He hid on a balcony, but the officers followed and silently surrounded him in the darkness. “Two of them were less than three feet away,” McAfee told Davis. “They stood unmoving. No one said a word all night long. They just surround you and stand still. Think about it. It’s freaky shit, sir.” Finally, McAfee claimed, the cops backed away and melted into the night.
Three years later, Men’s Journal writer Stephen Rodrick visited McAfee at his home in Tennessee, where McAfee dragged him outside to show him proof that he was being shadowed by hit men from a Mexican cartel. “All they eat is cream cheese,” McAfee told him, scanning the leaf litter in the woods. “I find cream cheese packets everywhere. If there’s cream cheese, I know the cartel has been here.”
Drugs may have made McAfee strange, but they have not made him dumb. The weird genius of McAfee’s drug habit is that while alpha-PHP provides the same high as flakka, its legal status is completely different. Flakka is a Schedule I controlled substance. In June, a Florida man was sentenced to 21 years in jail after receiving a shipment of it from Hong Kong. But alpha-PHP does not appear on any DEA lists of illegal substances, so McAfee can order it with impunity from suppliers in China. Those close to him say that he even travels with bags of the stuff on airline flights.
(How the DEA feels about this state of affairs, I don’t know; I asked them for their take on alpha-PHP a week ago and haven’t gotten an answer despite daily pestering calls.)
McAfee’s chemical sophistication kept him out of trouble in both the United States and Belize. In April, 2012, the Belizean national police took an interest in McAfee’s compound in the interior town of Orange Walk. McAfee had built a chemistry lab there, and though he told journalists it was for researching medicinal jungle herbs, McAfee boasted in Bluelight that he used it to refine bath salts. Belizean police heard rumors and raided the compound. “Intelligence at that time suggested that McAfee was mass producing some psychotropic substance that he was offering for sale online,” former Gang Suppression Unit head Mark Flowers says in the documentary Gringo. Once inside the compound, Flowers says, they found “blocks of something that he was producing that resembled methamphetamine or cocaine … but when tested did not in fact reveal the properties that would have rendered him liable for criminal prosecution.”
McAfee’s ability to elude prosecution may not be admirable, but it undeniably involves a lot of cleverness. At a time when the average federal prison sentence for methamphetamine offenders is seven and a half years, McAfee can — and does — publicly brag about his controlled substance use without fear of consequence. That’s quite a feat — one wholly in keeping with McAfee’s obsessively tended brand as a prankster, hoaxer, and general subverter of societal expectations. The man who made his name thwarting hackers has managed to hack the war on drugs.