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The Truth About Flakka: the Latest 'Cannibal Drug'

Last year it was bath salts, the year before that it was mephedrone – but there has always been bullshit.

Matthew Kenny, stopped by police after allegedly consuming flakka.

This article originally appeared on VICE Spain

One night, about three years ago, I was sitting by my computer when a friend started sending me pictures of some guy biting some other poor lad's face off. I was absolutely stunned by the pictures taken at the side of some motorway in the USA. This was the first report of the Miami Cannibal, who's now dead.

Even though narcotics didn't have anything to do with this incident, I knew that it was going to be used as a weapon in the mass media war on drugs and their users. Can you think of a better way for the media to explain what would drive a person to gnaw another human's face off than drugs? I can't.


Press reports quickly began to refer to the cannibal as a drug addict who was under the influence of, well, pretty much everything. Some of the initial news pieces suggested it may have been crack, but there's enough crack being smoked in the USA to prove that it doesn't turn folks into cannibals. Another report talked about the flesh eating drug called krokodil. But that eats your flesh, it doesn't make you eat other people's. In the end, they all agreed that it must be a drug that pretty much no one had heard of – namely, bath salts.

So, what was bath salts? Well, a whole array of new and semi legal drugs were been labelled and distributed under the title. They've also been sold as "plant fertiliser" and "incense", but "bath salts" seems to be the name that stuck. Within a week of the Miami attack, articles about bath salts started to pop up absolutely everywhere. Most of the time, these articles were accompanied by images of actual bath salts, which only helped fuel the hysteria within a society that isn't particularly drug-smart and is quite used to being frightened into believing things. And there you have it, that's more or less how bath salts became "real" drugs.

However, forensics and science nerds quickly began to ask themselves how it was at all even possible for the media to have managed to pinpoint bath salts as the drug that motivated this random act of cannibalism. It didn't make much sense as, at that point, nobody really had any information about the drug. So, the media decided to begin speculating as to the specific substance that could be in these bath salts. They all unanimously agreed that it was probably MDVP, also known as methylenedioxypyrovalerone.


Some weeks later, the coroners released the autopsy results of the Miami attacker: the "cannibal" had no traces of drugs in his blood. The attack had nothing to do with any sort of gear, but that didn't matter; Within a few days all manner of videos about the 'cannibal drug' began to show up on YouTube. Grim videos that showed folks, deep in psychosis, attacking and trying to eat other folks. One of the things that all these videos had in common, was that you never actually saw any drugs.

But what does all of this have to do with flakka? Well, both everything and nothing –flakka is basically this year's media drug myth.

The whole flakka thing started a few months ago after someone uploaded a video of a young woman dancing and screaming thanks to the sky for having given her rain. Okay, I'll admit, she wasn't acting particularly normal but that could be boiled down to any number of factors. She's not the first person to enjoy a good downpour. It certainly doesn't mean that the woman is on drugs.

The video, however, was posted with the title " _Flocka Is Destroying USA" [sic]_. In absolutely no time, videos of all manner of people doing oddball shit started being branded as cases of people doing the drug. It was also right around then when the name changed from "flocka" to "flakka". North American media speculated that the name came from the "latino" expression "la flaca" (which is used as a term for a pretty, slim girl).


The media started talking about people who became disorientated or hyperactive; people in a disturbed mental state, with incoherent speech and a million conflicting ideas; people who took their clothes off and ran through the streets and ended up suffering from hyperthermia, and, of course, that ever-present "superhuman strength" that police reports use to explain why a person had to be detained with bullets.

Related: Watch our documentary on hard drugs in Greece: "Sisa: Cocaine of the Poor"

Even without proof of drug use in any of these incidents, the media has now caught on to a substance that they think is linking them all together: alpha-PVP, also known as alpha-pyrrolidinovalerophenone. The drug has been around for decades and has a "big brother" commonly known as Katovit.

Katovit is a stimulant that combines an active ingredient with a bunch of vitamins. A students' drug of choice that could be obtained easily. Katovit is the prolinate and this "new drug" was rechristened by the media as flakka. It's basically a prolinate plus an atom of oxygen. In fact, alpha-PVP can chemically be called prolinate beta ketone or "oxygenated Katovit" and for those who don't understand chemistry, the process is just like changing your car's wheel – it'll do the same job, but who knows if it's better or worse.

Adding oxygen to a molecule decreases its potential. For example, the ephedrine oxygen atom, when reduced, turns into a far more powerful methamphetamine. This is how new drugs are sought after: an active is found and then all possible changes that can be made to the molecule are exploited. This is done in order to obtain other compounds that do more or less the same job but require a lower dosage or that will last for a longer period of time.


The transformation of Katovit in Flakka. Created by Raúl Martínez.

When the official form of MDPV was banned, one of the many drugs that came to replace it was this alpha-PVP. The reason being that it's from the same chemical group (methylenedioxy) but didn't get included in the initial ban, as it wasn't considered as a chemical equivalent. So, the vendors of legal highs set their sights on it and the media did the same: They replaced their previous "cannibal drug" campaign with a new one.

So, now you'll probably begin to hear a whole new wave of hysteria about drugs that give people superhuman strength and bulletproof powers.

I've taken drugs like Katovit prolinate and MDPV many times but I haven't tried alpha-PVP and I don't have any particular interest in doing so. But if I was to do it, I'd approach it exactly the same way I do other substances: I would inform myself about it, spend some time reading about how to analyse the drug and how to take the correct dosage. You know, just to avoid even the slightest chance of me munching somebody's mug off.

A boy suspected of being under the influence of flakka

Sure, the media mongers up a lot of scare campaigns when it comes to drugs, but that doesn't mean that there isn't some truth in some of them. Hypothermia (which can be fatal), paranoia and unpleasant hallucinations are all reactions that come from a high dosage of stimulants. There is hardly any difference between an MDPV overdose and an alpha-PVP overdose.

But the fact is that these substances that are much more dangerous than classic drugs, wouldn't be in the hands of the general public if it wasn't for initial bans. Nobody buys a substitute when the real thing is available. Now, anyone can get their hands on thousands of substances that otherwise wouldn't have been available and that there is next-to-no info about. New drugs like "flakka" kill more than the old school ones ever did, but it's all done legally. What a breakthrough for society.