By Susan Donaldson James
"Flakka," a new designer drug luring some young Americans, is even more potent and more addictive than its synthetic predecessors, which long skirted the law, experts say.
On the street, it's also called "gravel" for its white, crystal chunks. In the lab, it's known as a stimulant, part of a chemical class called cathinones, with the amphetamine-like effects of Molly and Ecstasy. In the media it's been dubbed "the insanity drug."
Indeed, flakka has fueled a recent, bizarre a spate of public behavior, all occurring in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. On April 4, a man who had smoked flakka ran naked in the streets, claiming people had stolen his clothes. In March, a man on flakka impaled himself on a spiked fence outside the police station. He survived. In February, a man on flakka tried to kick in the police station door, claiming cars were chasing him.
"This is bad stuff," said epidemiologist James N. Hall, co-director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Substance Abuse at Nova Southeastern University in Florida.
"The biggest danger is these are guinea pig drugs and the users are like lab rats."
Flakka simulates the effects of the khat plant, which grows in Somalia and in the Middle East. Experts say that in high doses, it can cause an "excited delirium," during which a user's body temperature can rise to as high as 105 degrees. It can also create heart problems like tachycardia and life-threatening kidney failure.
"Some get high and some get very sick and may become addicted," Hall said. "Some go crazy and even a few die. But they don't know what they are taking or what's going to happen to them."
In 2013 alone, cathinones, created in China and sold over the Internet, caused 123 deaths in Florida, according to the United Way of Broward County Commission on Substance Abuse.
Flakka, which can be crushed and snorted, swallowed or injected, is peddled under many brand names, including the less-potent cathinone, "Molly." Flakka is often mixed with other drugs like methamphetamine.
Ecstasy or MDMA is a different class of chemical altogether, but Molly, though often touted as "pure" MDMA, is a first-generation cathinone. Because flakka is sold under so many different brand names, including "Molly," users can be fooled, not knowing the potency of this new synthetic drug.
Flakka is "very dose specific," said Hall. "Just a little (of it) delivers the high effect. It produces energy to dance and euphoria. But just a little more — and you can't tell by looking at the capsule or baggie."
Its name comes from the Spanish word "flaco" for thin. Latinos also use "la flaca" as a clubbing term for a pretty, skinny girl.
Spelled "flakka," it's "an eloquent collegial term — a beautiful, skinny woman who charms all she meets," said Hall. "They give [synthetic drugs] names that are hip and cool and making it great for sales."
Flakka emerged in South Florida last year, and has been seen in parts of Texas and Ohio, but is still not illegal in many states, according to Hall.
The abuse of synthetic drugs is a well-worn story in the United States — the largest consumer market of illicit drugs, according to Dr. Guohua Li, an epidemiologist and founding director of the Center for Injury Epidemiology and Prevention at Columbia University.
"Each generation is exposed to different drugs of choice," Li said. "The signature substances and their particular effects become a unique feature of the birth cohort."
"Designer drugs must stay ahead of the authorities and medical communities to keep their illegal business afloat," Li added.
In the 1940s, a Swiss chemist synthesized a drug from the ergot fungus and discovered the psychedelic properties of lysergic acid diethylamide or LSD. But in 1966, after Timothy Leary urged a generation to, "turn on, tune in, drop out," the drug was made illegal.
In the 1980s, the all-night rave scene gave birth to the synthetic drug MDMA or ecstasy, giving users the euphoric high of amphetamines and the psychedelic effects of hallucinogens.
By the 1990s, the scourge of lab-produced meth appeared on the West Coast and increased in popularity throughout a decade.
Synthetic marijuana dubbed K2 or Spice, emerged in 2006, and was eventually banned in 2011.
At the same time, MDMA, which is a phenethylamine, saw a resurgence, but by 2010, synthetic cathinones — "bath salts" and the drug Molly — arrived on the club scene.
But now, use of MDMA has tapered off, due to the growing popularity of flakka, which costs only about $5 a dose.
"It's emerging as the crack cocaine of 2015 with its severe effects high addiction rate for a low cost," said Hall. "People are terrified of the drug. It's because the consequences are so devastating."
By CURT ANDERSON, AP Legal Affairs Writer
Published: Apr 30, 2015 at 5:44 AM PDT Last Updated: Apr 30, 2015 at 5:44 AM PDT
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — One man ran naked through a Florida neighborhood, tried to have sex with a tree and told police he was the mythical god Thor. Another ran nude down a busy city street in broad daylight, convinced a pack of German shepherds was pursuing him.
Two others tried separately to break into the Fort Lauderdale Police Department. They said they thought people were chasing them; one wound up impaled on a fence.
The common element to these and other bizarre incidents in Florida in the last few months is flakka, an increasingly popular synthetic designer drug. Also known as gravel and readily available for $5 or less a vial, it's a growing problem for police after bursting on the scene in 2013.
It is the latest in a series of synthetic drugs that include Ecstasy and bath salts, but officials say flakka is even easier to obtain in small quantities through the mail. Flakka's active ingredient is a chemical compound called alpha-PVP, which is on the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's list of the controlled substances most likely to be abused. It is usually made overseas in countries such as China and Pakistan.
Flakka, a derivative of the Spanish word for a thin, pretty woman, is usually sold in a crystal form and is often smoked using electronic cigarettes, which are popular with young people and give off no odor. It can also be snorted, injected or swallowed.
"I've had one addict describe it as $5 insanity," said Don Maines, a drug treatment counselor with the Broward Sheriff's Office in Fort Lauderdale. "They still want to try it because it's so cheap. It gives them heightened awareness. They feel stronger and more sensitive to touch. But then the paranoia sets in."
Judging from the evidence being seized by police around Florida, flakka use is up sharply. Submissions for testing to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's crime labs have grown from 38 in 2013 to 228 in 2014. At the Broward Sheriff's Office laboratory, flakka submissions grew from fewer than 200 in 2014 to 275 already, in just the first three months of this year, according to spokeswoman Keyla Concepcion.
"It's definitely something we are watching. It's an emerging drug," said Chad Brown, an FDLE supervisory special agent.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, reports of flakka or gravel also have surfaced in Ohio, Texas and Tennessee, but Florida appears to be the nation's hot spot.
In one recent case, 22-year-old Jaime Nicole Lewis was charged in a DEA complaint with conspiracy to distribute flakka after DEA agents based in London intercepted U.S.-bound packages of the drug that were made in Hong Kong. An undercover DEA agent posing as a delivery company employee then brought the packages to Lewis' home in Palm Beach County, according to a court affidavit.
"Synthetic drugs are illegal and present a grave danger to our community, particularly our children," said Miami U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer.
Lewis is being held without bail and is due to enter a plea next week. Her attorney, Paul Lazarus, said prosecutors will have to prove she knew the packages contained illegal drugs. A man believed to be the flakka ringleader in this case also is charged, but has not been arrested.
James West, a 50-year-old homeless man, was caught on surveillance video in February trying to kick in the heavy glass front door of the Fort Lauderdale Police Department, finally cracking it with large rocks. Bleeding above one eye, West told officers that he was desperate for help from police because "he was being chased by 20-25 individuals and he didn't know why." He later told police he had smoked flakka.
In March, Shanard Neely got impaled through the buttocks on the department's 10-foot-high security fence while trying to climb over, convinced he was being pursued and that "he needed to go to jail or they would kill him," police said. Neely, 37, also told officers he had smoked flakka. It took hours for rescuers to cut him down.
And in Palm Beach County, a SWAT team had to talk Leroy Strothers, 33, off a rooftop in January. He had fired a shot from up there, claiming he was being followed by a Haitian gang that had threatened his family. Strothers, who was charged with being a convicted felon in possession of a firearm, told officers he had smoked flakka and could not remember how he got on the roof.
"I'm feeling delusional and hallucinating," Strothers said, according to a sheriff's report.
The FDLE's Brown said his agency is training police to better recognize flakka and the symptoms it can cause.
One challenge is that flakka manufacturers make subtle changes to its chemical makeup, foiling efforts to test for the drug, and it is frequently mixed with other substances, such as crack cocaine or heroin, with unknown effects, said Maines, of the Broward Sheriff's Office.
With prolonged use over as little as three days, behavioral changes can be severe.
"It actually starts to rewire the brain chemistry. They have no control over their thoughts. They can't control their actions," Maines said. "It seems to be universal that they think someone is chasing them. It's just a dangerous, dangerous drug."