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US experts fear spread of deadly new drug ‘flakka’

Joe Raedle, Getty Images/AFP | Broward County police handcuff a man suspected to be high on flakka on June 17, 2015

A new synthetic drug known as “flakka” has already caused dozens of deaths in the southern US state of Florida, with experts worried the hallucination-inducing substance is primed to spread across borders and age groups.

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Liz, a young paramedic in the south Florida city of Boynton, will never forget her first flakka case. In May 2014 a man was hauled into the hospital where she works on an ambulance stretcher. He was strapped down and completely naked, screaming and frantically struggling to free himself.

“He was jolting up and down like he was having a huge seizure, but he was just trying to get out,” Liz, who preferred not to give her family name, recalled. “There were four paramedics from the ambulance, and these are big guys, plus there were five of us from the hospital, and all together we could not control him. We sedated him but even then he was still flopping around like a fish, so we had to give him more sedatives.”

The wild behaviour described by Liz is common among users of flakka, the street name of the synthetic drug alpha-PVP. They often rip off their shirts, or strip completely. They believe they are being hunted down – one man was caught on video running naked through a busy street, another trying to break into a police station. They are temporarily endowed with what appears to be super-human strength, making it very dangerous for police and medical professionals to manage them.

The flakka storm began brewing over southern Florida around one year ago, before exploding in June. “We’ve already had 30 deaths over a 10-month period because of flakka in Broward County,” Dr. Nabil El Sanadi, the president of the Broward Health network of hospitals and one of the leading flakka experts, told FRANCE 24.

His group’s emergency rooms are currently dealing with five to 10 flakka cases each day. That is down from 20-25 per day in May and June. Today, around 90 percent of the patients who come into his hospitals for drug-related emergencies are high on the euphoric stimulant flakka, with the other 10 percent due to crystal meth, cocaine and heroin.

Dr. El Sanadi, who like many has taken to calling flakka “five-dollar insanity” because of the drug’s low price, said that while it initially hit the region’s poor communities, it has since moved to all social and economic groups. He and others fear flakka is far from being contained.

Gambling in a grey area

Joseph Moses, a spokesman with the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), said that flakka – which gets its name from the Spanish word “flaca”, or skinny woman – is largely manufactured in South East Asia, particularly in China. “Dealers or consumers often purchase the drug online. The chemical substances are packaged, mislabelled and shipped to the US,” Moses told FRANCE 24.

Made from alpha-pyrrolidinovalerophenone, the synthetic stimulant is also known by the street name “gravel” in reference to its texture and colour. Users snort it or can vaporise it via e-cigarettes.

Flakka became illegal across the United States when the DEA “emergency controlled” it in March of 2014, meaning it was temporarily put on a list of banned substances. The DEA’s Moses said he anticipated the drug would be permanently banned in the near future.

The challenge for US law enforcement is that chemists around the world are constantly tinkering with banned substances, slightly modifying their molecular structure in order to avoid potential prosecution. “Chemists attempt to work in a grey area,” Moses noted, “But we have legal tools that allow us to prosecute, for example if we show a substance produces the same physiological effects."

Running from 'the devil'

The effects of flakka are certainly being noticed in the USA. Body temperature, heart rate and blood pressure all go through the roof, spurring many – but not all – users to strip.

“It’s like they are running a marathon when they are not,” said the paramedic Liz.

The drug also induces what Dr. El Sanadi called “paranoid delusions of persecution”. He said some of his patients believe they are being chased by animals, or imagine a passerby was the devil trying to kill them. People high on flakka who have been restrained fight against it like their life depends on it. “I have seen a person pop their shoulder out of their socket and not even realize it,” the doctor remembers.

He said that just as worrying were flakka’s long-term health effects that remain unknown to doctors. “Could it cause acute psychosis, bone-marrow suppression, organ failure? We have already seen one case of kidney failure in one flakka user,” the doctor worried.

Targetting teenagers?

The flakka phenomenon has been largely centred in southern Florida until now, but Moses said the DEA was aware of recent flakka reports in the states of Ohio and Kentucky.

Asked why Florida, and in particular Broward County, had become ground zero for the new drug, Dr. El Sanadi said he believed an established network of dealers and users had simply made the distribution of a new, experimental drug easy in the area. Broward County, which includes Fort Lauderdale and is a party hub for tourists, was hit with a wave of oxycodone abuse only two years ago.

ALPHA-PVP, ALSO KNOWN AS FLAKKA, GRAVEL
ALPHA-PVP, ALSO KNOWN AS FLAKKA, GRAVEL A Fort Lauderdale police captain holds a dose of the synthetic drug flakka in June 2015

“At first we would see very poor and homeless people coming in because of flakka. We think dealers were experimenting, basically giving it out to people they knew would take it and see its effects,” he said.

His theory is that dealers will go after children and teenagers next. “If you think about it, five dollars is what a mom gives her kid as an allowance, or lunch money,” Dr. El Sanadi said, adding flakka peddlers were already colouring it bright orange and yellow and labelling doses with the inscription “tiny bubbles”.

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