A new designer drug called Flakka is sweeping across the Florida landscape, leaving behind a path of destruction reminiscent of a runaway hurricane. Its list of victims is expanding daily, and substance abuse experts are deeply concerned about the rapid spread of a drug that few people — including its users — know anything about.
There is always an air of mystery surrounding the latest synthetic drug fad. That is the nature of these murky chemical concoctions, which emerge suddenly and stealthily on the underground circuit. When word about them leaks out, a media feeding frenzy of alarmist scare stories is almost always the result — informing and misleading the public at the same time.
Stories about Flakka have only recently broken into the digital info-sphere, and predictably accounts of bad trips featuring violent attacks, psychotic breaks and bizarre ramblings are dominating the coverage. Medical experts link the drug to episodes of rage called excited delirium, which can cause hyperthermia (body temperatures above 105 degrees Fahrenheit), terrifying hallucinations, psychotic fits, violent outbursts, exhibitions of adrenaline-fueled super-strength, kidney damage and possibly death.
Flakka’s side effects are familiar to those familiar with infamous underground drugs like PCPs, bath salts and crystal meth, revealing a timeless quality quite common to drugs that carry the designer label. The drug is currently illegal under a temporary U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency ban, but it is so new and obscure that few arrests are being made and estimates about the amount of Flakka in circulation are scarce to the point of non-existent.
What’s in Flakka?
These stories aren’t inaccurate or exaggerated, but they should be greeted with a degree of caution. During bad trips, little is known about the dosages being consumed, for example. This can make a significant difference in drugs derived from the chemical alpha-PVP, a synthetic substance created from a class of hallucinogenics known as cathinones. This is the root chemical used to manufacture Flakka, and users who take high doses in a short period of time are the ones at gravest risk for excited delirium.
Alpha-PVP drugs have been around for a while and haven’t generally enjoyed a reputation for potency, but when taken in large amounts they absolutely can cause the symptoms associated with extreme Flakka intoxication. Another factor is that Flakka is often cut with other powerful drugs like heroin and cocaine, and these substances could be playing a role in the outrageous and self-destructive behavior observed in some users.
But these caveats do not mean the dangers of Flakka are being exaggerated. Police officers and addiction experts make an effort to spread the horror stories because research on new designer drugs is scarce, and these terrible anecdotes are often the only evidence in existence that reveals their possible effects. Secret black market club drugs like Flakka are an almost total enigma, putting medical and law enforcement authorities on the defensive and leaving them scrambling for meaningful data wherever they can find it.
There’s Nothing “Designed” About Designer Drugs
The label “designer” drug is incredibly misleading. The name implies precise, careful manufacture by trained scientists in professional laboratories. But in reality, quality control and technical expertise is nowhere to be found in designer drug production.
In the underground drug scene, chaos, anarchy and heartless profiteering reign supreme, and the drug products that emerge from it are chemical chameleons that can change dramatically — and dangerously — from batch to batch. Flakka takers truly have no idea what they are snorting, smoking, inhaling or injecting at any given time. They may think they know, but they don’t, and that is a part of what makes so-called “designer” drugs so unsafe.
The plant that produces cathinones grows primarily in the Middle East, and most suppliers and manufacturers are located in India, Pakistan or China. The exotic nature and distant distribution networks associated with the Flakka trade has made the drug difficult to track, so if some of the warnings being issued about the drug seem a bit hysterical, that is understandable. Information about its addictive qualities and ability to cause overdose and death is scant, which means that medical experts and users alike are flying blind about a substance that might be more benign than believed or much, much worse than realized.
Flakka may or may not be the next drug craze. So far it has shown up primarily in Florida with the occasional appearance in Texas and Ohio, and it remains to be seen if it will metastasize and spread to surrounding states. But all the early indications suggest the drug is big trouble, and while more data on Flakka — and on alpha-PVP drugs in general — is desperately needed, this substance should be avoided at all costs by anyone interested in staying safe, clean and alive.
By Suzanne Kane